Some of you may be thinking; what are 404 errors? And why is Google telling me to fix them?
A ‘404’ is simply a type of HTTP status code sent by the website’s server and is used to indicate that a page does not exist. So, if Google, or a user, tries to access a URL and that page is not there, the server should return a ‘404’.
The most common reasons for 404’s are:
1) The page has been deleted or
2) There is a typo in a link which is sending Google to a non-existent page.
Google itself says that these do not impact rankings;
“Generally, 404 errors don’t impact your site’s ranking in Google, and you can safely ignore them.”
Read Google’s full description of a 404 error here:
However, when your site has a large amount of 404 errors Google will send you a notification email in Google Webmaster Tools notifying you of this and, in my experience, if Google feels it’s worth telling you about it, then I would want to fix it…
I am going to argue that 404 errors can be have a negative impact on a website’s performance, and this is why:
We all know Google’s main aim is to find the best sites to display for a particular search. That will mean the best sites will offer the best user experience for the visitor. If a site has a multitude of 404 errors then, if while trying to click around the site the user constantly encounters broken pages, this would not be a good user experience.
Other than making your site a better user experience, fixing 404 errors can also be a quick way to build links. If external websites are linking to your site but have typed the URL incorrectly or are linking to a page that you have since deleted, then redirecting that page to a relevant page will pass on the link value that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. If you are lucky this can be a quick and easy way of gaining some valuable links.
I think there are 2 boats that the majority of search engine optimisers sit in; there are those that completely disregard 404 errors, and there are those that have realised the importance of fixing 404 errors and try to fix every single 404 error they can find. I think the best boat to be in is to realise that it’s important to not let your site be overwhelmed with 404 status code errors but to also realise which ones are worth your time in fixing. So here is what I think is the best way to handle 404 errors for both the users benefit as well as Google’s:
1) View your crawl errors in Webmaster Tools
2) Export them to a .csv spread sheet
3) Copy and paste these into a .txt document and save it
4) Use Screaming Frog to crawl these errors (change to list mode and select your .txt file)
5) Construct your view in Screaming Frog so that in the top half of the screen you are viewing the internal tab, and in the bottom half of the screen you are viewing the ‘in links’ tab.
6) Scroll through the 404 errors and decide the best way to deal with each error:
- If a 404 error only has 1 or 2 links pointing at it, it may be easiest to go and edit those pages to not link to the 404 page anymore
- If a 404 page has many links pointing to it, it will be easiest to redirect it to the most relevant page. Note, if you are redirecting a 404 page it should be ideally redirected to a page with similar content (page title, heading, content etc.), not just to your website’s home page.
But there’s so many!
If there are just too many 404 errors to deal with then it’s important to figure out which ones will bring the most benefit if you fix them. To do this:
- Export all 404 errors to a .csv file from Screaming Frog
- Copy and paste 404 URLs into the batch analysis tool in ahrefs.com or bulk backlink checker in Majestic SEO.
- See if any of the URLs have any strength or links pointing to them. If so you will need to prioritise them.
- Once you have chosen which URLs to fix, follow steps 3-6 above in order to fix them.
Think of Your Users
By far the most important thing to do, however, is to customise your 404 page to be as user friendly as possible. Instead of just a white page saying ‘404 not found error’, personalise it to use the site’s layout and theme so that the navigation menu is easily available for the user to find what they were actually looking for. If you are an ecommerce store, provide links to similar products. Do as much as you can to make it easy for the user to find what they are looking for.
So, why don’t you get started now and stay on top of your crawl errors by putting in some time to making your 404 page as user-friendly as possible.
Any other suggestions on how to handle 404 errors? Let us know in the comments below. Or find how this and more specialised knowledge can increase the effectiveness of your website by enlisting the help of roi.com.au -the number one SEO service in Australia.