The SEO Friendly Way to Handle 404 Pages on Your Site

Published Mar 02, 2014 by Dan Virgillito in SEO
Estimated read time of 3 minutes and 51 seconds3 0
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404 pages are considered by most to be an extremely bad sign. Although they are commonly called errors, they are technically the page that shows up when a website is not able to perform a request. The most common action that results in a 404 page being displayed is when there is a person clicks on a link that has a URL that is not able to be delivered. It’s common knowledge that people who click on links with URLs that cannot be delivered have the tendency to become frustrated quickly and abandon their search for the page. If too many customers become frustrated, a business has the potential to lose a lot of web traffic and therefore a great deal of money. Experts in search engine optimization, or SEO, even goes as far as to have every 404 redirected to another page, such as the homepage or a page that is close proximity to the page that was requested.

This is not advisable because, in reality, 404s are not horrible. Those who work on web pages even consider them to be part of a normal web experience. Most of the worry about 404s stems from the belief that Google will cause the search page result rankings to go down if there are any 404s that exist. Another common concern is that a great deal of link equity, or the number of in bound links that connect to any page of a given website, will be lost should quality links direct to 404 pages. Despite the fact that this latter concern is actually valid, 404 pages are fairly normal and not ordinarily threatening to a website’s rankings on any search engine.

When They Are Dangerous:

A website that has a lot of 404 pages, meaning a number that is abnormally high, does have the potential to be rated lower on a Google search results page. When a customer clicks on a link, that means that there is information that he or she needs. If the link does not connect to the page that is expected, instead redirecting to a 404 page, then the customer will not be able to have access to that information. This will reduce the efficiency of the SEO system that the website is currently using to remain high on a search page. When a customer is not able to get the information that he or she wants, then he or she will not use the site. This will reduce the amount of traffic on the site, as users travel elsewhere. The search engines follow the users and, if a website is not getting a lot of views, then the search engines will turn away from that website.

Another issue is if a URL has a lot of valuable links. Link equity does not demand that every single 404 be redirected to a valid page. A 404 page is never a good reason to direct a link to a page that is in no way relevant to the page where the link was supposed to go. However, if the links are hard to obtain and secure on a site, then it’s recommended to create relevant content for the link that exists, or finding a page that approximates what is supposed to be on the page.

Ideas for Dealing With 404 Pages to Help SEO

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Assure the User that it is Just the Page That Doesn’t Work

Users will often feel as though a page that is directed incorrectly is indicative of the entire site not working. This will cause them to leave the site and reduce the amount of web traffic. If the customer is told that the overall site is working and provided with links to get to the site’s homepage, less web traffic will be lost.

Tell the User Exactly What is Wrong

It is best to be upfront with the user and let him or her know why he or she has reached a 404 page. Explain that the link might have been bad and the page might have moved, or talk about how the URL might be misspelled and resulted in the incorrect redirect. This will make the user feel empowered and give clues as to how best to find the information that was originally being sought.

Post Helpful Links on a 404 Page

Another excellent way to deal with 404 pages in an SEO friendly manner is to have the 404 able to be used as a springboard to get to other information pages. It is important to always let the user know that he or she has reached a 404 page in order to clarify his or her experience. Then, some of the website’s most popular pages, or pages that are relevant to the page that wasn’t able to be returned, can be linked to that 404 page. This will allow the users to continue onto the site, so that no web traffic is lost. It will also increase the chances that the users to find the information that they were searching for and be satisfied with their experiences on the site.

Provide a Way for Users to Report Broken Links

Another way to deal with 404 pages in an SEO friendly manner is to provide users with a way to report broken links. This could simply be adding a link to the 404 page redirecting the user to a contact page where he or she can enter the URL that didn’t work. This will cut down on the total number of 404 pages in the system and reduce the chances that Google or other search engines will no longer index it.

Use the Enhance 404 Widget

Many search engines provide tools that allow web developers to customize the 404 pages. This customization tool lets developers create pages that, when accessed because of a broken URL, provide ways for the customers to find the information that they need. There are various ways to do this. A list of different alternatives or common misspellings will help users fix the URL themselves. A search bar will allow users to search for the information that they were originally looking for. Both of these ideas will allow users to find the information on the website and prevent the loss of traffic.

Update the Website’s Address

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A common reason for an increased number of 404 pages is because a website might change its web address. Most search engines will provide a page that allows the web address for the website to be updated so that it is correct. It essentially tells the search engine about the new URL and will result in the pages being directed correctly.

Use a 301 Redirect

It is possible to take a link that directs to a 404 page and label it with the HTTP status code 301 Moved Permanently. This will allow anyone who tries to click on the link to be permanently redirected to whatever new URL is provided by the company that is hosting the website. The response is entirely cachable and will prevent 404 pages from ever being formed.

Written by Dan Virgillito

Dan Virgillito

Dan Virgillito is a freelance content strategist with a passion for good storytelling and all things digital. He lived in the Netherlands, Poland, England and Sicily. Say hi on Twitter.

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