You must be wondering why I would write a blog post about SEO and 404 Error pages. Read on and learn why.
I suspect that many of my readers may not know what a 404 Error page is. But I can guarantee that all of you have seen one at one point or another.
In short, a 404 Error page is what you see when a website has no content associated with the URL you have keyed into your web browser’s address bar or a link you have clicked on.
You are probably asking yourself what the possible causes would be in order to display a website’s 404 Error page. You are also probably wondering if your website is serving up 404 Error pages.
Some Causes of 404 Errors
Deletion of website content that has been indexed by the Search engines. We see this all the time!
Lack of maintenance of inbound links. This happens when you link to some part of your website from somewhere else (i.e. a partner site, LinkedIn, etc…) and you then delete the content that the link was pointing to. In other words, you totally forgot about the hard work you did to get this additional traffic.
Note to self: Leverage (and manage) Inbound links.
FAT FINGERS: People mistyping a URL but still landing on your website — and getting a 404 Error!
You or your website developer starts to create content in your hosting space for future viewing and then inadvertently omits to block the Search Engines from indexing it. The search engines index the content pretty quickly. Someone finds the half-baked content in a Google Search, and sends you a courtesy note advising of same (blush). Before you realize that it has been indexed, you call your Developer; who sheepishly takes the content down. But the damage is done! The content in question is in Google’s Index and people now get a 404 Error page when they click (the no longer live) link the are seeing in the SERP! Sad but true.
Bad Internal links. Don’t laugh. We see this all the time. Website owner updates a page URL and forgets that there are internal links pointing to that content. Poof! Bye Bye web visitor!
Finding 404 Errors
It’s better to find 404 Errors on your website before a web visitor does. Methods for identifying 404 Errors on your website are dependent on what platform you use to run your website. We use WordPress and have employed some nifty plugins that track any 404 Errors that occur when someone is accessing our site. Plus we monitor our Google Analytics & Webmaster accounts closely. Yes, that right, Google Analytics tracks everything; including visits to our 404 Error page. Plus (in the case of Inbound links), you can see where the link originated. So a quick email can usually get the link fixed on the far end. Or it could be you forgetting to update an outbound link from your company’s Facebook Fan Page.
Fixing 404 Errors
I won’t go into every possible scenario. But usually the quickest way to fix a 404 Error is to do a 301 redirect. This is an easy fix where you simply “tell” the Internet that when someone hits whatever bad link, that link is redirected to a link that has appropriate content. This strategy is often used when moving websites or if you change your website’s URL Structure. We did it last Summer when we upgraded our website to WordPress and changed the site’s URL structure. This involved 301 Redirects for +100 pages!
404 Error Pages
Okay face it, no matter what, somehow someone will get a 404 Error when they hit your website. In the eventuality of this happening, our advice is to make sure that your 404 error page is useful inasmuch as the web surfer is already unhappy with getting a 404 Error. Let’s keep them on your site. Give them some options.
For example, show them your sitemap. Suggest that maybe they mistyped a URL. Place your site search within easy reach so that they can do a quick search. If you want some ideas of what to put on a 404 Error page, have a look at ours. Be creative.
Here’s a good one!
A useless 404 Error Page
So what do 404 errors have to do with SEO? Everything as monitoring and mitigating 404 errors are part of a well balanced SEO diet.
Have you checked your website for 404 errors lately?