How to Deal with the 404 Error for Search Engine Optimization 1

“Error 404 – Page Not Found” – This is one of the most common web errors we see in our day-to-day Internet surfing. We know that error pages offer an obviously negative user experience, but how do they impact search engines?

  • Are 404 pages bad for SEO?
  • Do search engines penalize websites with too many 404 status code pages?

In this article, I will look at 404 error pages from the perspective of both users and search engines, and will recommend some of the best practices that one can follow to improve their 404 error pages.

How to Deal with the 404 Error for Search Engine Optimization

Most common reasons for 404 error pages:

404 errors can happen for multiple reasons. Some of the most common are as follows:

  • You change your permalink or the link structure of your website. (This mostly happens when changing design, or changing permalinks.)
  • You removed content from your website.
  • Somebody linked your website to a misspelled link or to an otherwise incorrect link.

When a user or search engine bot requests access to a bad page on a server, web servers usually reply with an HTTP status code of 404, to tell the user that the page doesn’t exist on the server. Usually search engine bots are smart, and they don’t care much about 404 error pages.  For the real-life user, however,  aa 404 error page presents a bad user experience, and in response the user usually goes back and follows another link.

How to Deal with the 404 Error for Search Engine Optimization

Another disadvantage is of the 404 error is that it can cause you to miss out on important links from other domains. This is not something that I worry much about, but when a user lands on a website by way of a referral link and sees a 404 page, it usually makes them go away.

  • How to make a user-friendly website or blog

Finding 404 links and fixing them for users as well as for SEO:

Let’s figure out what you can do with 404 error pages, and how to deal with them to your best advantage.

We first need to identify any 404 pages on your blog.  The best place to start is with the Google Webmaster tool(Also known as Google search console). Login to your Webmaster tool dashboard > Crawl errors > Not found >

How to Deal with the 404 Error for Search Engine Optimization

Click on any of the links and you will see “linked from” which will give you an idea of where these pages are linked from. This is also handy for finding potential link juice on your website.

If you are using WordPress, you can use a redirection plugin to monitor and redirect 404 error pages from your dashboard. (This is what I use here at ShoutMeLoud). Once you have a list of 404 pages for your domain, here are several solutions for dealing with them:

  • 301 Redirect the link to the most relevant post/article or category. If there is no relevant article or category, follow the next step.
  • If the error is arising due to a misspelled link from another domain, you can either ask the webmaster to update the link, or you can use the 301 redirection.
  • If no relevant article is on your website related to the 404 link, simply let it be. Google will automatically de-index such pages eventually.
  • You can also manually de-index such pages from the web index using the webmaster removal tool. However, if you have thousands of such pages, it will be quite a task for you. So I would suggest either the previous suggestion or the following one.
  • Use a custom 404 page to spice up your page. You can add a search box, show articles relevant to the user’s search query, or show some of the most popular articles from your portal. The whole idea is to give a good user experience.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you have a portal with thousands of 404 pages, you do not want the search engine bots to waste their limited crawling resources on such pages.  For this reason it is best to re-direct whenever possible or to block bots from accessing these pages using Robots.txt, and remove them using the Google Webmaster tool. This is ideal particularly when you have removed any directory or category/tag pages from your portal.

  • What is Google crawling and indexing
  • Useful tips to increase Google crawl rate
  • Understand Google Webmaster tool crawl errors and fixes

404 pages are not SEO enemies, but it’s not a good idea to have a long list of 404 pages on your blog. My main concern with 404 pages is the poor user-experience they create.  With search engine optimization revolving around offering a good user experience, this is an issue we do want to make the effort to address.

Related reading:

  • Learn about soft 404 error
  • Use the Broken Link Checker plugin to find broken links on your WordPress blog

How do you handle 404 pages on your blog or website? Do you set a redirection or show a custom 404 error page?  Let us know using the comments section below.

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