Despite your best efforts, visitors to your site will sometimes encounter the infamous “404 not found” message. This error might be the first page users land on or one they encounter while exploring your site, but either way, it’s an unwelcome interruption to a digital journey.
By putting a few 404 SEO best practices into action, you can minimize the impact of these messages. Follow along as I explain what causes these errors, how to detect them, and ways to customize 404 pages to keep valuable traffic on your site.
What Is a 404 Error?
Let’s start at the beginning: What is a 404 page, anyway? We’ve all run into these dead ends while looking for information on the internet.
A 404 error is a type of HTTP status code. Servers send these response codes when browsers or bots try to reach a page on a website — the code is in the HTTP response header and not visible on the page. A 200 status code indicates a request is successful, but when a client tries to access a page that doesn’t exist, a 404 error code is sent. This means a connection has been made with the server hosting the website, but there’s no matching URL to send users to.
Unless you customize your own 404 page, the server delivers a default page with a message such as:
- 404 page not found
- 404 error
- The requested URL was not found
Why Do 404 Errors Happen?
404 errors crop up for a variety of reasons — some of which you can control and some that occur externally.
Sometimes, the requested URL doesn’t exist. That can happen when:
- The page was moved or deleted without a redirect to the new URL.
- A user typed in the wrong URL.
- Someone made a typo in the URL when creating an internal link.
- A referring domain created a backlink to your site but made a mistake in the URL.
Occasionally, the URL exists, but the server can’t retrieve the page. In this case, you’ve got a “soft” 404. These occur when:
- The page is missing files.
- Files are too large to load.
- Users don’t have file permissions.
- The database connection is broken.
- There are too many redirects, creating a redirect chain.
- There are server errors.
Do 404 Errors Hurt SEO?
And now to the burning question: Are 404 errors bad for SEO? The good news is that occasional 404s don’t affect your site’s search ranking. If Googlebot follows a link to a 404 page, the page simply isn’t crawled or indexed. Fortunately, this won’t impact other pages on your site that are performing well.
However, there are cases where you’ll want to pay attention to 404 errors.
- The page exists but is returning a soft 404 error. Search crawlers will skip the page and won’t index it. If you want the page to appear in search results, find out what’s causing the error and ensure the page loads properly.
- The page has been moved, but users aren’t redirected to the new URL. Broken links may cause visitors to abandon a site. You’ll also lose any PageRank the original page built up unless you create a redirect from the original URL to the new one.
- Your site has numerous 404 errors. When 404 errors occur frequently, it’s difficult for Google to crawl, understand, and index your site. They also make the site frustrating for users to navigate.
SEO 404 Page Best Practices
Since the goal of website optimization is to drive traffic and improve conversions, 404 page SEO is important to keep errors to a minimum and ensure content is accessible. Here are a few 404 error SEO strategies to reduce the impact on users and improve search visibility:
- If you remove a page, ensure the URL returns a 404 HTTP response code to tell Google the page no longer exists and shouldn’t be indexed. If the page was indexed previously, it will eventually disappear from search results.
- If a page is deleted or merged with a new page, and there’s similar content a user may be interested in, use a 301 redirect to keep traffic on your site.
- Sometimes a referring domain may create a backlink with a mistake in the URL. If you notice repeated attempts to access a URL with a typo, set up a 301 redirect to send users to the correct page.
Benefits of a Custom 404 Page
Your server generates an automatic 404 error page for users if it can’t locate a URL. However, customizing a unique page for visitors is recommended — it’s a critical part of 404 errors SEO.
Think of it as a welcome mat. You don’t want to close the door on visitors and risk them leaving for elsewhere. Instead, use a custom 404 page to smooth some of the friction from the error and invite them to stay a little longer. Your web designer can build a page that complements your site, or you can use a plugin like 404 page if you’re using WordPress.
Here are tips to make the most of these unwanted error pages.
1. Deliver the 404 Message
Clearly explain that users have encountered an error, whether it’s a standard “Page not found” message or a softer “Oops! We can’t find the page you requested.” Some companies take a light-hearted or humorous approach. The Moz 404 page, for example, references their mascot: “Oh, man. Roger is totally lost.”
2. Convey Your Brand
Error messages are jarring, so reassure users they’re still on your website and haven’t been thrown into an abyss. Use your brand’s colors, font, and voice to create the page to seamlessly fit into your site. Ideally, you’ll persuade visitors to continue their journey.
3. Give Users Options
A helpful 404 page prevents visitors from wandering off to look for information on a competitor’s site. Instead of delivering an error message and leaving them to fend for themselves, provide options like WooCommerce does on their 404 page.
Consider adding a search bar so visitors can instantly look for similar content or links to some of your most popular and useful pages. The homepage, blog page, or contact page are good options.
4. Keep Things Simple
A 404 page isn’t the place to promote your business or sell your latest product. The goal is to keep your hard-earned traffic interacting with your site. Be concise and helpful.
How To Find and Fix 404 Errors on Your Site
Use Tools To Find 404 Errors
Kickstart your error 404 SEO by identifying problem URLs. Here are a few handy tools:
- Google Search Console can generate a list of URLs categorized as “Not Found (404)” pages. Navigate to the Pages report and scroll to ‘Why pages aren’t indexed.’ Click on ‘Not found (404)’ to see a list of errors. Export this information into a spreadsheet to tackle them.
- The free version of Screaming Frog SEO Spider lets you check up to 500 URLs for broken links. Crawl your site and then sort by error code to find any lurking 404s.
- Semrush’s free Site Audit Tool crawls your site to identify pages with issues and errors.
Perform a Content Audit
If you really want to improve site performance, consider a content audit. This is a comprehensive, page-by-page analysis of your site. You can see which pages are ranking well and driving traffic, and which you can improve from an SEO perspective. An audit also ensures pages are accessible, which involves checking error codes and ensuring there are no robots.txt files or noindex tags blocking crawling and indexing.
Fixing 404 Errors
Once you have a list of 404 error pages, review each one to determine the source of the error and the appropriate action.
Internal Broken Links
Broken links are the easiest to fix. If you find an internal link with a typo in the URL, simply replace it with the correct URL.
Moved or Deleted Pages
If the URL was deleted and the page moved or no longer exists, use a 301 redirect to topically relevant content or to a homepage or blog page.
When a referring domain sends people to a non-existent URL on your domain, create a 301 redirect to a live page to harness some of the backlink traffic.
WordPress permalinks — which change default links into readable ones — can break when you install new plugins, update software, migrate sites, or restore backup files. You can usually fix the 404 error by resetting or updating the permalinks.
Remedy any problems preventing a page from loading, such as file size, file permissions, or database connections.
404 errors can occur when browsers retrieve cached copies of a page instead of live ones. Clearing the cache should remedy the problem.
Iron Out the Kinks To Let Your SEO Shine
Technical errors impact search visibility and how users interact with your site. Follow our handy SEO checklist to make sure search engines can easily crawl and index your web pages for users to find. Or cross technical SEO off your to-do list and let an experienced SEO partner such as Victorious handle the behind-the-scenes work for you. Reach out today for a free consultation.