Do you panic when you see a 404 error page on your site?
Oh, the dreaded 404 error page that we've all encountered at one point or another. You know that one where you're right in the middle of finding the perfect solution to all the worlds problems, and then there it is – the page not found message.
If you've never encountered a 404 page, you're a unicorn and I admire you but let me give you a formal definition according to Wikipedia.
The website hosting server will typically generate a “404 Not Found” web page when a user attempts to follow a broken or dead link; hence the 404 error is one of the most recognizable errors encountered on the World Wide Web.
What's the big deal? Are they really that bad in the eyes of Google and the other?
Common causes of 404 errors
There are a few things that cause the page not found error: site error, URL error, and human error. But a 404 is a response that indicates the server could not find the page requested.
Long story short, it's because the page was deleted or unpublished by the site owner or someone got it wrong when typing in the page URL.
The Server Error
But let's look at the common errors a little more closely.
When you see an error caused by the server it means that the search bots could not access that URL and Google were forced to abandon the request. Sometimes this is caused by a page time out which indicates that a server is taking too long to reply to a data request made.
The purpose of a server timeout is to prevent a device from endlessly waiting for a server to respond. Simply put, your shared server has other sites that need those resources too so the web host makes sure you don't hog them all up.
Another reason is the host server may have been down or doesn't exist or is configured incorrectly. While this is rare if you use a great hosting company like Siteground or Flywheel it can happen.
When you get these errors it's best to contact your host and have them work with you to find the problem.
The Soft 404
A soft 404 error isn't really an error but a label that Google adds to pages in your index.
When a visitor requests a page that no longer exists, a 404 error is returned which tells both the search engine and browser that there is a problem. But some servers are poorly configured and the missing pages load a wrong code when it should be telling Google something else.
“A soft 404 means that a URL on your site returns a page telling the user that the page does not exist and also a 200-level (success) code to the browser.”
Which is a fancy way of saying that the user sees a page doesn't exist message but the server is telling Google that it does exist.
Soft 404 pages are fairly common. Sometimes they are triggered then your site doesn't have much content. For example, you create new tags or categories for your site but haven't published any posts for both. You'll end up with empty pages on your site and soft 404 errors.
Soft 404 errors are bothersome because the search engines might spend much of their time crawling and indexing non-existent pages on your site which in turn means that real useful pages may take longer to get discovered and crawled.
The 404 Error
This type of 404 occurs because the Googlebot requested a URL that doesn't exist. There are several reasons that this happens but the most common are the user incorrectly typed something or you deleted that page and it's gone.
Let's look at those errors a little more in depth.
- The URL was incorrectly typed. Maybe the URL was misspelled or the user just tried to guess and got it wrong. There are a lot of reasons that this can happen and generally it is out of your control. You have no way to predict what people will type so stop worrying about this.
- The external link no longer works. There are several reasons for a not working including the page was linked incorrectly to your site or the page was moved but the link was not changed or the page was just to leave it altogether. This happens when someone likes to your page and you either deleted the page or changed the URL. A redirect can help out with this error.
- The internal links not working. This is bad because it happens on your site and you don't want to frustrate a user who is in your space. Having broken internal links are both bad from a usability and SEO standpoint. Generally speaking, it just makes you look sloppy. Find those links and fix them
The bottom line is it's important that you make sure all the links on your site are in working order. If you've linked to an outside source and those pages are no longer available it's time to find a new source or remove the link.
Access Denied Error
With the popularity of staging and development sites, we see this error more and more often. While access denied is essentially a not found error it's caused by the page being inaccessible.
Many staging and developments sites are password protected so you can't see what is in development. Without the credentials, you can't view the site and neither can the bots. This is done on purpose so there is no need to worry about it.
How to use a redirect to fix the error
Google doesn't expect you too not have any 404 errors and generally speaking they don't hurt your SEO. But from a user standpoint, getting a 404 error is frustrating as all get up so you need to limit the amount you have to next to nothing.
First, you need to decide if it's worth fixing. Many errors are not worth fixing so prioritize which ones need to be addressed first. It's best to start with the pages you believe are linked somewhere else.
Then you need to determine the best way to fix those errors. Many of us are familiar with the 301 redirects but that is not your only option. And the good thing is there are many plugins available to help you redirect pages on your website.
Let's take a look at your options.
This is the most common of the redirects and should be used if the page is moved or the permalink structure has changed. For example, if you remove the dates from your blog post, this is the redirect type for you.
The code tells the search bots that the page no longer exists or is available and that it should not be indexed anymore. It does, however, direct the user to the new place the content resides which is the reason you don't want to redirect everything to the home page.
- when you've deleted a page and want to forward it to the next logical page
- when you've changed the URL and you want to send the user to the right spot.
Unlike the 301, the 302 redirect is temporary and redirects the user and search engine to the page for a limited amount of time. Since 302 redirects are temporary they are mostly used by webmasters to gather feedback and assess performance like when you are A/B testing.
- when split testing a page for functionality or design
- getting feedback on a new page without affecting the site ranking
Unlike 302 redirects, 307 are more commonly used when you want to tell the search engines the page as moved but will be back soon. Use this redirect if you’re sure the move is temporary and you’ll still need the original URL later on.
Like the 302, the redirect is temporary and tells the bots that too. It also tells the bots that the redirect will change in the future or at some point.
- when you're doing maintenance and need to relocate a page temporarily
- when you're closing out a service temporarily and you need to send the user to a wait list page
410 Content Deleted
While the 410 is technically not a redirect it does tell the engines that the page is deleted and no longer available. Basically, you're telling the search engines to deindex that page as 410 means “content deleted”.
According to John Mueller (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google), he answered a should I use 410 pages with the following answer: From our point of view, in the mid-term/long term, a 404 is the same as a 410 for us. So in both of these cases, we drop those URLs from our index. The subtle difference here is that a 410 will sometimes fall out a little bit faster than a 404. But usually, we’re talking on the order of a couple days or so.
451 Unavailable For Legal Reasons
When a legal action has been issued against you, you may need the 451 unavailable code. This usually falls under the takedown request and gives the page a 451 header that tells the search engines there was a page here but for legal reasons, it's now gone.
Wikipedia shows that examples of situations where an HTTP 451 error code could be displayed include web pages deemed a danger to national security, or web pages deemed to violate copyright, privacy, blasphemy laws, or any other law or court order.
Courts can require ISPs to block access to certain websites. Showing the Error 451 message makes it clear when a website has been blocked after a court order. Hopefully, you will never have to experience this type of takedown or redirect.
Redirect Your Audience With the 404 Page
If your site has 404 errors and you are not redirecting them or sending to a custom 404 page, you are missing a golden opportunity to not lose that audience.
Don't' make the mistake of redirecting every error page to your home page. It's just not good practice and quite honestly it's the lazy way out.
You do want to use a redirect when it makes sense and is possible, but if it's not happened then it's time to use a custom 404 page to do the work for you.
Custom Error Page
If you Google 404 page examples you'll find lots of great ones. And if you're having a site designed for you, you'll want to be sure this page design is included in your package.
A good 404 page will tell your audience:
- Why they landed there in the first place. In other words, own up to the mistake and admit there was an error. While you can't address all the ways people did land here, you can give a general explanation like “the content you are looking for no longer exists or has moved”. We as users get it.
- Where they need to go next. Here's where your funnel comes into play. Don't use send them to any ole space on your site, send them to a space that makes the most sense. Provide a few options like a popular article, a resource area, your home page or your ways to work with you. You can invite them to contact you if they still can't find the right option. It's all about the choices.
Your 404 page doesn't need to be overly clever or to fancy, but it does need to be helpful. And sometimes a fun design will help lighten the frustration of landing on the page.
Remember, Not All 404 Errors Are Bad
The bottom line is it's not so much the actual 404 pages that hurt SEO, but the links that contain URLs pointing to the 404s because they cause a bad user experience and it's hard to get and keep eyes on your site to start. And Google has been telling us since 2011 that they are a normal part of the web.
You don't want to spend too much time hunting down every 404, but you do need to monitor them. Obviously, that's a lot of some business owners and you have better things to do for your clients. That's why we have maintenance packages that help you reign in your 404 errors and other maintenance for your WordPress website.