Website owners fear 404 errors for good reason. Broken pages can damage a website’s reputation, frustrate users, and result in lost sales. So what can be done to ensure that this “page not found” error does not cause a loss in visitor traffic, a loss in the website’s search engine rank, or worse yet, a lost sale because the visitor couldn’t find the web page?
This post will attempt to define 404 errors and proper strategies for “fixing” these 404 errors.
404 Errors and HTTP Response Codes
Before understanding the best ways to fix a 404 error, let’s briefly talk through the technical aspects of how an Internet browser like Firefox or Chrome communicates with a website server. The basic communication between an Internet browser and a web server goes like this. The browser sends a request to the server and the server responds with a code. These response codes are called HyperText Transfer Protocol response status codes or HTTP response codes. These codes inform the browser that a page was found, a page was not found, a page has been moved permanently, a page has been moved temporarily, or that a server error happened. Every time an Internet browser makes a request to a website server, the browser expects a response code back from the server.
When a valid web page is requested by a browser and it is available from the server, the server responds with a “200” success code. This 200 code means that the requested page was found by the server and should be rendered for use in the browser. However, in the case of a 404 response code, the response means the page is “not found” by the server.
As a website visitor, getting a 404 error code can be very frustrating. The visitor wants to view the page, but the server is responding “the page is missing”. A 404 error response usually happens when a page used to exist on a website, but the page is now missing (or deleted) from the server. Another situation is when the URL is incorrect and there has never been a page available at that location. In other cases the page is missing on purpose because it was removed from the site and sometimes it is missing by accident. Regardless, if there are URLs pointing to the missing page on the Internet, then anyone clicking on that link will receive the server’s 404 response. This is especially troubling for site owners if the missing page has been indexed by search engines or when the URL is listed on a high traffic website.
How to Find and Diagnose 404 Errors
Diagnose broken links and find 404 errors with these free tools:
Tool #1 – Xenu’s Link Sleuth
Pros: Simple website crawler and link checker, provides a broken links report
Cons: This website crawler only crawls the links that it can find on the page — if 404 pages do not have any links for Xenu’s Link Sleuth to find, then it will not crawl them.
Tool #2 – Google Webmaster Tools (GWT)
Pros: Easy to use, has other valuable features
Cons: Website must be verified by Google and broken pages only appear when Google provides them
Tool #3 – Screaming Frog
Pros: Advanced spidering/crawling, SEO perspectives
Cons: 500 URI crawl limit for free version, complicated for basic users
Tool #4 – 404 Redirected Plugin For WordPress
Pros: Automatic 404 error detection, easy configuration of redirects
Cons: Available for WordPress websites only, requires an additional plugin
Do I need to fix 404 errors?
Not necessarily… 404 errors are okay to have as long as they are not causing damage through lost site traffic, lost sales, customer frustration, etc. Most of the time, 404 errors are bad for everyone. However, 404 errors are not to be confused with 404 pages. To create a replacement page, the 404 error should return a custom error page or should be replaced with a 301 redirect that takes visitors to a page that actually exists. Essentially, give the user a good experience even when the page is missing.
Find Links Pointing to the 404
One of the best approaches for handling new 404 errors is to determine how many links are pointing to the missing page. These “broken” links may be on the same website, they may be on other websites, may be within email messages, on offline marketing materials, or even within search engine results. If there are a lot of incoming links going to the missing page, then a 301 redirect should be setup.
Using 301 Redirects
301 redirects are highly recommended when redirecting individual pages or entire websites. A 301 redirect is setup on a server to let the Internet browser know “this page has moved permanently”. These redirects are especially handy when the missing page has a high organic search rank on search engines because it maintains the SEO strength of the link even when redirected. Sometimes there isn’t a good page to redirect to. In this case, a custom error page should be provided.
Creating Custom 404 Pages
If a 301 redirect was not chosen, then a visitor-friendly, custom error page can be used in place of the missing page. Typically, a website uses a single custom error page for
all 404 errors. This custom error page usually provides a few important items to the confused visitor:
- A message to the user explaining that the page they are looking for does not exist
- A search box to help a visitor find exactly what they want
- A website navigation system to help visitors browse for more information
- A link to the home page
So there you have it — how to find 404 pages and how to fix them. Now when your favorite customers find a broken link, they will find either your custom 404 page or won’t be able to tell that anything happened with a 301 redirect.
Or, you can make it even easier on yourself and have Volume Nine give your site an in-depth SEO Analysis of your website. Volume Nine has the tools and the skills to help users find every page on your site, hassle free. Contact us today!