At some point in your online travels, you’re bound to come across a 404-error page. It looks something like this:
Although every website generates a different message, they all refer to the fact that the page you are looking for no longer exists.
The 400 series of errors (400-499) indicate that there was a problem loading the page. The 404 error code in particular means the page does not exist.
This is a problem for two reasons; no one really enjoys running into a dead end and therefore it takes away from the user experience; too many 404-errors on your website will lead to a drop in search visibility.
This leaves you with no option but to perform regular maintenance on your site and clean up any 404-errors that are being generated.
How to find the 404 errors being generated on your site
Finding 404 errors can be tricky if you’re not using the right tools. Here are a few tools that will identify any missing pages on your website.
If your site is on WordPress you can get a quick summary of your 404s using a plugin called Redirection.
Click on the 404 tabs to see the errors that are being generated.
If you are subscribed to an analytic software such as Moz (Ahrefs, SEMRush, and others will also have this feature) you can check your site regularly for 404s that crop up on a monthly basis.
You can even set up alerts to be notified when a 404 is generated.
The search console is excellent for identifying anything that is going on with your site. It’s the equivalent of looking under the hood of your car to see how the engine is running.
From the dashboard, you can click on Coverage to see what errors are being generated on your website.
Yet another way to monitor the inner workings of your website is by using Google Analytics. From your dashboard, click on Behavior, Site Content, All pages.
You will need to add a secondary dimension to search for the pages that are generating the error. Type in Page Title and add it to your report.
For most sites, the default message will contain the numbers of the error message. If you type in “404” in the search bar, the URLs that contain 404 in the title will appear.
Remember that every site is different, so if your error message is something unique, you’ll need to type in whatever message you’re using as your page title.
In this example, 404 doesn’t appear anywhere on the page.
You would have to type in “This is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?” in order to get the error pages to show up in the filtered report.
You can use Screaming Frog, Deep Crawl, or any similar web crawling tools as a way to find broken links and missing pages. These tools are commonly used to assist in a site audit at the onset of an effective SEO strategy.
Each tool crawls your site just as Google does and identifies any pages that are generating 404 errors along with a whole lot of other information.
Once you know which pages are the source of the error code, you can then move on to fixing the problem.
How to fix a 404 error on your website
Once you’ve identified the pages that are generating the error, your next step is to find out why the error is being generated. There are a few possibilities to consider:
- There were links pointing to a page you’ve deleted
- There are internal issues with the way your pages are being generated
- You have a broken website where plugins, themes, and core processing functions are incompatible and generating errors
Edit the links pointing to your page
The simplest solution is to change the links that point to your missing page to a page that exists. If the links are internal, it’s as easy as locating the page where your link is posted and editing your link.
If the links are external you may not always have the option, as the situation is not entirely under your control. In the event you can’t get the site owner to change the link for you, a 301 redirect is your best option.
Use a 301 redirect
A 301 redirect will transfer any traffic headed to the missing page to your new desired destination.
This is simple to implement using plugins (such as Redirection). The downside to using a plugin is that it takes longer to redirect traffic to the new URL.
If you want to make the change permanent and make the pages load as quickly as possible you will need to write the redirect in on your .htaccess page. This will instantly take users to the new URL without any delay or lag.
Yoast also offers this option through the plugins interface (in the pro version). By entering your redirection through the dashboard the plugin will write the redirection into your .htaccess page which makes the redirection as fast as possible.
Improve the users’ experience
No matter how diligent you are about deleting pages and repairing broken links, it’s inevitable that your site will occasionally generate 404 errors. One way to ensure a pleasant user experience is to customize your error message.
Rather than stick with the default message that is often boring and useless, make your 404 pages carry the tone of your brand.
Give users options when they find a broken page. Rather than having them back out and try again, have a search bar or links to other pages on your site to help them get where they want to go.
Here’s one more brilliant example of a 404 error page that appeals to the user’s lighter side.
Make your 404 errors one less thing to worry about
The number of 404 errors your website generates depends on how much content you publish and how many links you acquire on a regular basis. Regardless, fixing broken links and 404 errors are just a regular part of running a website.
In fact, this type of error is so common that broken link building is a legitimate strategy that has emerged as one of the top methods for acquiring backlinks.
Set up alerts or run a maintenance scan on a regular basis to clean up any unwanted 404s that your site generates.
Keep your user in mind and set up pages that are helpful when the inevitable happens and they hit a dead end.
The effort to provide a better user experience will work well to improve your brand loyalty and ranking in the search results.
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