Why you shouldn’t 404 out-of-stock product pages

Lately it seems that I only blog about Matt Cutts. I guess that’s partly because he’s the most influential voice in our space. And partly because you have to take what he says with a grain of salt. Unless you are an experienced SEO, it’s easy to give bad advice based on something “Matt Cutts said …”.

In his latest release, Mr. Cutts answers the question:

How would Google recommend handling eCommerce products that are no longer available?

Cutts describes three scenarios in his answer. View the video below.

In the first scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for small sites with “tens” of page. Cutts gives excellent advice here: don’t 404. Be helpful and provide a link to a related product.

In the second scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for medium sites with “hundreds” or “thousands”  of pages. Here’s where I think Cutts gives bad advice. He says:

I would probably think about just going ahead and doing a 404.

Why would people using a smaller website want to be treated differently than people using a medium-sized website? Is it not possible that people use both small and medium-sized websites? The answer is yes. It’s better to be helpful than not. To me, 404 pages are not helpful to users (other than for obvious reasons) and certainly not helpful when you consider time-on-site or conversions.

In the third scenario, a solution for out-of-stock products is provided for websites that post ads (such as auction or classified sites). Here Cutts recommends the unavailable_after meta tag. Good, soild advice here.

I acknowledge that Cutts is not a UX or conversion optimization expert, but as someone that lives in that world, I thought it important to comment here.

What’s your opinion? If you’re shopping for a product and it’s out-of-stock, would you prefer to see links to similar products?

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