404 Errors What do They Mean For SEO?

A 404 Not Found error can be a terrible disruption to user experience, particularly when it is not customized to reflect the brand of the website you are trying to navigate. Because visitors are forced to backtrack and reassess which page to visit next. Often, users simply leave.

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For website managers, these errors can cause panic when they appear in Webmaster Tools.

WHAT CAUSES THESE ERRORS? WILL IT HURT MY SITE’S RANKING ABILITY?

These are common questions that race through someone’s mind when they discover a portfolio of 404 errors.

Fortunately, these missing 404 pages are not as difficult to fix as they may seem, but it is important to understand what causes them and what they mean.

WHAT DO 404 ERRORS MEAN FOR SEO?

When a page URL no longer exists or is renamed, any links directing to the original URL will return a 404 Not Found error.

There are common instances that may result in a significant number of 404 errors. These include:

  • Website redesigns
  • Product pages that have been altered, removed or discontinued a which results in changing or deleting
  • Spelling errors within links a whether internal or external
  • Shifting a website or page from HTTP to https (or vice-versa)

HOW DOES ONE FIND 404 ERRORS?

  • Google Webmaster Tools

    We highly recommend this source because the errors are reported directly from Google. Locate 404 errors by logging into Webmaster Tools, clicking “Crawl,” and selecting “Crawl Errors.” The missing URLs will be listed under the “Not Found” section.

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    Click on the “Not Found” box to see the graph that shows how many total errors there have been over time and a chart with all of the current 404 error pages.

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    Download this as a .csv or click each specific URL in the chart to see more information, such as which URLs are linking to this page and when Google detected the error.

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    From this view, you can also select “Mark as Fixed” or “Fetch as Google.” Marking as fixed will suggest to Google that the link is no longer broken and will virtually send a request to re-crawl the page. Fetching as Google is an option to view the page exactly how Google did when the bots crawled it.

  • Moz.org

    Another option is using a Moz account. From the dashboard, click “Search,” then “Crawl Diagnostics.” 404 Errors are shown in the “High Priority” tab.

    How_to_identify_404_Errors_with_Moz

    Similar to Webmaster Tools, this will generate a graph and a chart listing the 404 pages, which can be exported to a .csv file.

  • Broken Link Finders/Toolbars

    There are many free websites and browser extensions designed to find broken links, including “Check My Links” and “validator.w3.org.” These are useful for quick finds or when searching an external website for broken links.

HOW DO 404 ERRORS IMPACT SEO?

Google is forgiving when it comes to 404 errors. It will not deindex a website due to these errors, and probably will not even directly decrease rankings.

404 errors are inevitable, and Google understands that. However, it’s important to remember that Google’s main priority in organic search is to deliver quality results.

As we point out in our SEO Guide for Beginners, Google bots crawl a website through its internal links. If it continually finds links to non-existant pages on a site, Google will eventually piece together that the website’s owner is not concerned with maintaining a healthy user experience.

If Google can’t crawl your website, it simply won’t. And your website will likely suffer from a lack in traffic and have a big technical SEO impact.

WHAT DO 404 ERRORS MEAN FOR USER EXPERIENCE

As a website manager, you should be more concerned with the reaction humans have to 404 errors, because it is often a much harsher response than Google’s.

The cause of a 404 error does not matter to visitors.

When a user experience is disrupted, particularly by an uncustomized 404 error, it reflects poorly on the website and brand.

As mentioned earlier, many visitors will leave the website to find another source of information, products, or services instead of 404s.

HOW TO FIX 404 ERRORS?

We highly recommend creating a custom 404 page for your website (like ours see below). Even perfectly healthy sites experience 404 errors, so it is important to facilitate visitor’s ability to get back into their flow. Here are the components that make up a fantastic custom 404 page:

1

Design matches that of the website

2

Links to a page that is similar to what someone was attempting to visit

3

Includes a header and footer with links back to important landing pages, such as product or service pages

4

Features an apology of some sort to acknowledge its waste of a user’s time

SETTING 404 REDIRECTS

  • 301 Permanent Redirects: If a product/service page has been moved due to a site move or URL change, 301 Redirects from the old URL to the new URL will quickly solve the problem. We recommend 301s specifically (as opposed to a 302) because they pass along the authority of the linking pages. Basically, this means that the transfer equity that the previous page had received from inbound links to the new page. This is a big deal if you don’t want to lose page authority.
  • Robots.txt: Sometimes a large group of pages, such as a category of products, get deleted or re-named. If all of these pages fall under a category folder, such as /watches, you can add this folder to the robots.txt file for the site. This will effectively tell Google not to crawl any of the pages that fall within that folder.
  • Correcting Misspelled Links: One of the great things about Webmaster Tools is that it tells you what pages are linking to broken pages.  By visiting that page, you can see if the link has simply been misspelled. If this is an internal page, this is an easy fix. If external, reach out to the site and request that they correctly spell out the URL.
  • Requesting Moved Links: On the same note, look to see if external pages are linking to an old 404 page that has been moved. If this is the case, reach out to them with the new URL. Generally, they are happy to change it and thankful that the mistake was pointed out to them.
  • Request Removal: Some 404s are lingering in Webmaster Tools from pages that have been deleted. If this is the case, when Google re-crawls the site it will likely notice that the page has been deleted, and the 404 will disappear. However, if it is a high priority or if the error remains lingering, you can submit a URL removal request in Webmaster Tools.

REVIEW OF 404 ERRORS

404 Errors will happen, even if they are not your fault. They can potentially be bad for SEO and even worse for user experience, but we, fortunately, have many tools out there to identify and remove 404 errors from your website. This will make it easier for Google to crawl your website, and it will help visitors navigate more smoothly.

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