“Page Not Found“ messages frustrate website visitors, and send negative signals to search engines (which is bad for SEO). Let’s look at how to fix those 404 errors.
How many times have you been told “Page Not Found" when surfing the web? So annoying! 404 errors are guaranteed to frustrate your site visitors, and can cause drops in search engine rankings (and in the worst cases loss of revenue).
So how can you prevent 404 errors on your website? And what’s the best way to deal with inaccessible pages? We’ll show you how these errors occur, what consequences they have and what you can do about them.
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The simple explanation is that they're an HTTP status code. It’s part of the response returned by the server when a client (like your Internet browser) requests access to a URL that does not exist, or no longer exists.
This "negotiation" between client and server usually goes unnoticed by users. Unless errors occur! And there a number of reasons why that might happen, as we'll see…
Content can no longer be found by the server for a wide variety of reasons. For example:
One of the most common causes of inaccessibility of a resource is the removal or renaming of a URL. In many cases, this happens accidentally when content editors and website managers are adjusting web pages.
For example, some Content Management Systems (CMS) automatically update a page URL when the title of the page is adjusted, which renders the old URL obsolete.
A 404 error happens when the website does not redirect to a new destination when the original URL is called. Fortunately, many Content Management Systems now do this automatically. Nevertheless, every time you change a URL, you should check whether there is a working redirect in place for the old URL.
Read our complete guide to website redirects.
Another source of 404 errors are changes to the URL structure of a website. For example, if you move the domain as part of a website relaunch or change the structure of the website. If redirects from old URLs to new URLs are not set up for the pages, or URLs are "forgotten" in the process, then calling up these URLs will result in an error message with status code 404. Not good.
If you have a large number of inaccessible pages, then the risk increases that important content can no longer be reached through the internal link structure. Both search engines and visitors will find it harder to navigate your website.
We’ve already discussed what happens when a user land directly on error pages via links: it causes frustration, high bounce rates and ultimately affects the success of both your website and your business.
Online retailers in particular have to deal with inaccessible pages on a regular basis. Why? Because it often happens that products are temporarily out of stock, or out of season (nobody needs ski jackets in July, after all).
So what happens when the pages for unavailable products are removed? 404 errors. If you remove these pages from your online store, they’ll no longer be found anywhere on your website, but they will still be visible in the search engine results (if they were crawled and indexed correctly).
In some cases, external pages may also link to your product pages – which in turn creates dead links and a lot of frustration for users.
If search engines find accessibility problems on your website, this will also have a negative impact on your organic rankings. Which in turn leads to less organic traffic and fewer conversions. A real vicious circle!
To ensure that SEO doesn’t suffer, and visitors don't get frustrated, you need to deal with 404 pages correctly. This means that you have to find 404 errors and solve them before your visitors (and search engines) do.
On your website you should always keep the number of 404 errors as low as possible. They annoy both your visitors and the Googlebot (and therefore your search engine rankings).
You can see which pages are found by Google with status code 404 in Google Search Console under "Settings -> Crawling Stats -> By Response -> Not found (404)”, like this:
Google Search Console lists all 404 pages that currently exist, or existed at some point in time. When evaluating 404 pages, you should therefore pay particular attention to the date of these pages, and check whether they still exist.
It’s also worth taking a look at pages with a soft 404 error. These are pages that contain errors or are empty, but deliver the status code "200 OK" or "302 Found".
Soft 404 errors occur when pages are marked as accessible, but they do not provide the expected content. This might be because it has been deleted, or because the pages contain very little unique content in the first place.
This means that users can’t find the content they’re looking for. To avoid confusion, Google recommends always using the 404 status code when a piece of content is no longer hosted on a site.
To analyze soft 404 errors, you can also use Google Search Console. They are displayed under "Index" in the coverage report.
If you want to go deeper into the analysis of your 404 errors, we recommend you the Ryte platform. Of course!
With Ryte, you can crawl your complete website and identify all pages with status code 404 with just a few clicks. To do this, simply select the report "Status Codes Overview" in the Quality Assurance module and click on the area 4xx (not found).
Ryte also shows you the broken pages automatically in your problem overview, so that you are informed as quickly as possible about non-accessible content:
You can find out where the 404 errors come from, i.e. which pages link to these unreachable pages, in the "Link Status Codes" report, also under Quality Assurance.
Just click on "4xx (not found)" in the overview to filter the list view by status code 404. To show only internal links to internal 404 errors, you can filter by your domain via "URL (source)" and "URL (destination)".
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Now that you've found your site's 404 errors, you must decide how to deal with each one, on a case-by-case basis. The solution may differ depending on the reason for the error.
Here are the most important steps in dealing with broken pages.
As mentioned above, redirects are often the right solution for 404 errors on your website (see explainer). They ensure that when the URL of a page changes, the client is redirected to a new address and the content remains accessible for the user.
A permanent redirect (301 redirect) is suitable for those 404 pages for which there are new versions, or thematically similar pages. This way, visitors receive the same (or similar) information as before. You should avoid redirects to pages that have no topical similarity, because this causes confusion for users and search engines, and can lead to a loss in rankings.
For example, let's say you wrote a compelling guide about terracotta garden gnomes some time ago, which is unfortunately no longer available. If your blog also offers a post about the different types of garden gnomes, this would be a suitable redirect target. A blog category page on the topic of garden decoration would also be suitable. Not very suitable, on the other hand, would be baking instructions for grandma's apple pie.
If you want to brush up your knowledge on this topic, read our article on 301 vs. 302 redirects.
It also possible however to have pages that are not accessible, and will remain so. For example, pages whose content has been permanently removed and for which a redirect is out of the question because there are no similar pages.
A classic example are discontinued products in an online store. If you remove products from your store for which you cannot offer direct substitutes, this should be clearly visible to your customers. If a page is deliberately and permanently no longer available, you should display the status codes "404 Not Found" or "410 Gone”, to tell visitors that the content they are looking for no longer exists.
It’s helpful to display a custom error page, to inform visitors about the page status, explain the reason for the error and help them navigate back to the website homepage.
Custom 404 pages also give you the opportunity to connect emotionally with your target group, so that they will hopefully excuse the error:
Check out this article for more inspiration for your custom 404 page.
You should also think about your existing links when dealing with 404s. If you remove content from your website or change its address, you should adjust the internal links for this content.
Remove internal links to content that is permanently unavailable, and adjust the link destination for links to content that has moved. As explained above, you can avoid the loss of external links by using the appropriate redirects.
Inaccessible pages have a negative impact on your website user experience and can become a real conversion killer. Just think how often they annoy you as a web user! So, check your website regularly for 404 errors.
By keeping an eye on deleted pages, setting up appropriate redirects and keeping links up-to-date, you ensure that all your content remains accessible to your target audience.
This will not only make your visitors happy, but also Google, we promise.
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Published on 08/11/2022 by Editorial Team.
The editorial team's mission: to help brands and agencies improve their website user experience. Ryte's content specialists regularly produce guides, explainers and other resources on a variety of topics, from SEO to accessibility, compliance and more.
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