Can ignoring your site’s 404s impact your SEO performance?

From the SEO work that I’ve conducted throughout my career, your site having 404 errors flagged by Google can impact the SEO performance of your website. Google has always advised webmasters to provide the best user experience possible. When a user clicks on a URL and visits a web page that is no longer there, it provides a poor user experience.

Something else that I’ve noticed in my career is how many websites ignore the management of broken links on their website. Yet, they wonder why their SEO performance struggles to improve.

In this post, I’m going to share the following.

  1. What a 404 error indicates to Google and why you should fix it?
  2. How to fix a 404 error
  3. Some 404 error page solutions.

What does a 404 error indicate to Google and why you should fix it?

Matt Cutts describes the impact of a 404 (as well as other 404 errors) in this video. A 404 error tells Google that the page is temporarily gone. So the 404 should be redirected to the appropriate URL. A 410 tells Google that the page is permanently gone and will never come back.

Matt says with a 404, the crawling team protects the “value of the page” for up to 24h. The 404 errors are treated in a way that the page may come back. So it is important that those pages are corrected quickly.

How can you identify 404 errors on your website?

There are a few ways you can identify the errors.

Check the amount of errors being flagged in the Google Search Console.

Google will list a sample of the errors that it’s crawler comes across, however it is unlikely that it will be the complete set of URLs. You can download the URLs and then configure 301 redirects to the most relevant page or URL where necessary.

Once the error has been fixed, you can go back into Google and mark the error as “fixed”. The next time Google crawls the website, the URL should be removed from the error list.

Run a crawler to find any broken links.

You can use crawlers to navigate your website and to mimic the errors that would be returned by Googlebot. You can use software such as Xenu Link Sleuth (Windows only) or Screaming Frog. There are others out there, but I’ve used these two products for over ten years and I’ve been happy using them whenever I conduct an analysis.

Simply put the URL into the tool and let it run its crawl. I prefer the organisation in Screaming Frog as you can clearly filter it by the type of code that the results are returning.

Conduct a server log analysis to find the broken URLs that Googlebot is crawling.

The best method for finding the exact URLs that Googlebot is crawling is through an analysis of the server logs. By downloading the server logs, you will be able to see when and where Googlebot accesses the links to the broken URLs. You can then use the data gathered to fix the issue.

You will often find a set of URLs that’s missed by the Google search console and the crawlers.

Some 404 error page solutions.

Setting the default 404 error page.

Never ever set your site’s homepage as the default 404 page. Set it to a specific page such as ErrorDocument 404 /404-page.html

Instead, create a customised 404 error page that can direct people to the content that you want them to view.

You can be creative with your 404 error page. One of the most creative examples from Nosh actually got the website featured on Time magazine.

Nosh: 404 from Firespotter Labs on Vimeo.

You can see their development process here.

Learn how to fix a 404 error.

This depends on the server system or CMS that you are using. You need to ensure that configure a 301 redirect from the old URL to the new URL.

Manually implement a 301 redirect in the HTACCESS file.

You can implement a 301 redirect in the HTACCESS file to correct any broken links/404 errors. You can do this by:

Redirect 301 /old-page.html

Create a 301 redirect in WordPress CMS

You can add the plugin Redirections and add the old and new URL paths in the fields, which will then generate a 301 redirect path in the HTACCESS file. Just make sure you test the redirect as some plugins can conflict with others, preventing the redirect from working.

Configure 410s if the page has been permanently removed.

In the case where web URLs or pages are permanently removed from the website, set a specific page such as ErrorDocument 410 /410-page.html

Are there any experiences with handling 404 errors that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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