404 error pages are nearly impossible to eliminate. Even if we have a proper website layout, a Content Management System running or carefully check for broken links, sooner or later one will pop up unexpectedly. But let’s start with the basics.
What is 404 error page?
404 is a server error, notifying that a file or resource is not found. Most often this means that a website (a .html file) has been removed from the specified location. This happens as we update sites, change the location of files or in CMS systems – as we change the title of a webpage.
But don’t worry – 404 error means that everything is all-right with the server. After all, it’s responding properly. It’s the content that’s missing.
Why is getting rid of 404 errors so important?
There are several reasons for this.
First of all, it’s an annoyance to the end-user. Imagine finding a link to an article or product that really interests you, only to find out, that the link leads to nowhere. In this situation, an e-commerce website owner will simply lose a potential customer, as chances are that the customer will not be motivated enough to search deeper into the site.
There are also issues with academic articles, for example. As we publish research, articles and texts, scholars might find these texts useful enough to be included in the bibliography or the references section. Once again, a 404 error page means a link to nowhere.
Secondly, our Search Engine Optimization (SEO) will suffer. This is due to the fact that popular search engines utilize bots and crawlers that crawl entire sites, as well as links within them. Search engines such as Google, Bing, Yandex and many others are businesses who want to provide their customers (users) the best search experience. As such, it’s essential to these search engines to deliver proper, well-indexed search results and to weed-out „links to nowhere” or low-quality links.
As these search engines crawl our sites, they not only index the content of each page but also secretly give our site a score. This score is based on many things, such as page load speed, content relevancy, number of links linking internally and externally, as well as the absence of broken or missing pages – and this includes 404 errors.
How to find 404 error pages?
For many webmasters, the tool of choice will be a free service such as Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools or Yandex Webmaster. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on Google Search Console.
The steps are simple:
- Register for a Google Account, if you have not already done so.
- Properly integrate Google Services with your account.
- With the above completed, navigate to Indexing>Indexing errors in the left-hand panel.
In this section, you’ll see a list of all pages with indexing problems: their URL, information about whether the error was found in mobile or desktop version, as well as the reason for the resource not being indexed.
Keep in mind, however, that Google Search Console has some problems as well. Although it does an excellent job of showing some of the indexing problems, it doesn’t always show all 404 errors. Some 404s might still be lingering on your site, but might not yet have been encountered by the Google indexing bot.
Screaming Frog from SEO Spider
Under this unusual name lies a handy service. When integrated with Google Search Console, this service will present its users with a wide array of tools to help the webmaster tune-up his/her website. By far, this service provides the most comprehensive overview of the website, as well as problems which it contains. 404s will be clearly visible.
In technical terms, if you already have a 404, a 301 redirect is the best solution. A 301 lets crawlers and indexing bots know, that the resource (read: page) has not been removed, but rather it’s been moved to a new location. Moreover, 301 can be applied to a group of resources, allowing us to quickly fix the problem across many instances.
Keep in mind, however, that although 301 is much better than 404 error, nonetheless it’s absolutely best idea to never change URLs, to begin with. Don’t give the search engines any reason to devalue your website or domain name. As such, if you can place the file back in its original location, chances are that your SEO ranking will not be negatively impacted.
As we mentioned above, it’s nearly impossible to account for every link on our websites. They’re simply too big and things slip our mind. Content Management Systems were developed to in-part fix these issues, but as experience shows, even CMS platforms end up missing a link to resource once in a while. 404 errors simply happen.
As such, it’s a good idea to do a regular check-up using the tools we mentioned above. Of course, there are other tools available as well, so keep your eyes open for the one which suits you the best.
Last, but not least, 404 error pages can be made fun and exciting. Not every error needs to be boring by design and with a little creativity, we can motivate the visitor to stay on our site nonetheless. Consider adding search functionality to your 404 templates, adding an interesting graphic or an inviting message to your visitors.