We’ve all experienced it. You’re reading an article online – perhaps a ‘how to remove gum from your hair’ guide as you pick at the Hubba Bubba glued to your fringe, and the article links to another page - ‘FIND OUT THE SECRET TO INSTANTLY REMOVING GUM FROM YOUR HAIR HERE’. You click the link with eager anticipation, but what are you met with? 404 error – page not found.
As a website user, you are left with no choice but to snip your fringe off and look like the kid in school whose parents were too cheap to send them to the hairdresser. Not only that, you feel frustrated with the website and probably won’t be back again. The moral of the story? Website owners need to stay on top of their 404 errors.
Are 404 errors bad for SEO?
While 404 errors aren’t likely to directly affect your rankings, a poor user experience will, so it’s important to fix 404 errors where possible. Google Support says the following:
There are, however, other reasons why you might receive a 404 error:
- Incorrect URL link from another website
- Old URLs in your sitemap which have since been deleted
- URLs of pages that no longer exist
- Your site changed domains and redirects were not implemented
So, if Google says you can safely ignore most 404 errors, why would you want to redirect them? Well, there are several reasons. Firstly, while a personalised 404 error page for a non-existent page is ‘best practice’, it isn’t the best user experience. Users are likely to leave your site if they hit a 404 error page as you aren’t offering them anything of real value. This will send negative user engagement signals to Google, which could result in a loss in rankings. Furthermore, if external websites are linking to a page on your site which is 404 erroring, you will lose the ‘link juice’ or authority gained from those backlinks.
How to fix 404 errors
The first thing you want to do is discover if/where any 404 errors are appearing on your site. The easiest way to do this is by checking Google Search Console. If you don’t have Google Search Console already, set it up and you can start discovering which URLs are producing a 404 error and where they are coming from. You can also use a web crawler such as Screaming Frog to get this information.
Within Google Search Console, navigate to Crawl > Crawl Errors and then you need to hit ‘download’ on the list of URLs which are 404 erroring.
Now you are left with a full spreadsheet of the URLs which are producing a 404 error. Next, you need to find the most appropriate new URL for each 404 erroring URL to be 301 redirected to. This can be quite a time consuming, manual task (keep an eye out for our tool which will do this part for you!) but it is necessary to send the user to the most relevant page possible.
Now, how you upload your list of 301 redirects will vary, particularly depending on the CMS you use. If you’re lucky, your CMS will contain some sort of redirector where you can simply upload your redirect data. The format of your data will vary depending on the CMS.
If, however, your CMS does not contain a redirector tool, you might need to get assistance from your web developer, or you can give it a go yourself. How you do it will depend on your web server – here’s how to do it for one of the most common web servers, Apache.
Apache Web Server
If your site uses Apache web server, you’ll need to create a .htaccess file containing your redirects. You can create a .htaccess file using a text editor e.g. notepad and save the file as htaccess.txt (this is to ensure your operating system is able to read the file – you can rename the file to .htaccess once uploaded to the server). You should structure your redirects as follows:
Redirect 301 /oldpage https://domain.com/newpage
This will create a permanent redirect for https://domain.com/oldpage to https://domain.com/newpage
Once you have added all of your redirects, upload the file to your web route and rename it to .htaccess – voila! You have fixed your 404 errors!
If you are on a different web server, you will need to upload your redirects according to the server’s processes. Your developer will be able to assist you with this.
Once the redirects are uploaded, head back into Google Search Console to check whether they are working. You can then mark each 404 error as fixed once you have checked them (if you have hundreds, you might just want to spot check a few then mark them as fixed in bulk).
Finally, you should check back into Google Search Console at regular intervals, perhaps once a month, just to see whether 404 errors are on the rise again.
Remember, it’s likely your website will have 404 errors at some point, so design a 404 page which allows some possible related content/links or fun and engaging content to keep the user on their journey. To talk to us about 404 errors or any aspect of technical SEO, give us a call today to talk to the self proclaimed smartest seo in the world, Tom Crewe!