404 Errors – And 5 Ways to Avoid Them

Share this article

Picture this: you want to go shopping so you look for a store in the yellow pages and find the address. Once you get to where the store is supposed to be located you discover it’s not there anymore. When that happens on the Internet it’s called a 404. Considering all the time and effort that you’ve put into finding this store, I imagine you’d be pretty upset. I most certainly would. Would you try to find out where the store had moved to? Probably not.

That’s exactly what happens when a page on your Website comes up as a 404. The potential customer who clicked the inbound link will simply go to another site with a little click of the mouse.

What Causes a 404?

For those of you who don’t know what a 404 is, it’s an error that’s displayed when a user requests a Web page that’s no longer available on the server. This often happens when sites change layout and or page information — but 404s are by no means unavoidable! In fact, I think it’s a safe bet to say that this would never happen if Webmasters and site owners always double-checked their work. Unfortunately, however, too many sites seem to slip through the net.

Then, a potential customer performs a keyword search for something that has to do with that business, and the results list includes a page from the site that’s recently been taken down — the page no longer exists. But, as the search engine hasn’t sent another spider to the site since the page was removed, it thinks the page is still available, and serves the link in the search results.

Guess what happens when the user clicks on the link? They’re taken to a 404 page. Online, this is like saying “Hey thanks for trying but we don’t want you here.” Accordingly, the user will usually just go back to the search engine and click on the listing of one of your competitors. And just like that you’ve lost a potential customer.

A True Story

404 errors caused a real problem for a client of mine who run an online stock site that provides users with insights and tips into the world of trading.

They were very new to the whole search engine optimization arena and wanted to get more traffic to their site. After doing some research at a few search engines I was amazed at what I found: they had some good rankings but the pages that were listed were no longer available on their site. There were 404s everywhere.

Once I realized what was happening I could help solve the problem. The client had no idea that each time people were clicking on their search engine listing they were getting the “404 page not found” error message. They now understood that these people wanted to visit the site, but because of the company’s lack of attention to detail, these potential clients would simply go to a competitor’s site with the click of the mouse. I could only guess how many visitors were lost due to these missing pages.

Avoid the 404!

So what was the solution for my client? It was simple:

1. Redirect on-site

I showed them how, instead of ever taking a page down, they should redirect the page to a main page of their site (or a page that displays a message saying “Sorry but this page is no longer updated. Please visit our homepage or contact us for more information”).

2. Redirect from the host

Another option is to check with your hosting company to see if they offer a 404 redirect. Then, when a user enters the URL of any page off your domain (i.e.-www.yourcompany.com/nopage) that doesn’t exist, they are automatically taken to a specified page, such as your index or home page. It’s the easiest way to ensure that a potential customer is never lost due to a page not being found.

3. Submit new pages to the search engines

Another good idea is to resubmit new pages to search engines for reindexing. Although it’s nice to inform visitors that a page they’re looking for no longer exists, it’s even better to have the new page with all the information the visitor wants appear when they perform a search.

4. Keep an eye on your page listings

Do yourself a favour and check regularly to make sure your site listings aren’t taking potential clients to 404 pages. Go to a search engine like www.altavista.com and type www.yoursiteURL.com in the search bar.

If the search results index a page that no longer appears on your server:

  • go to the search engine’s submissions page and submit the new URL for the page that covers the information of the old page, and
  • make note of the name of the page that’s no longer available, and then rename one of your existing pages with this old title.

This way you can ensure that people who search for information on your site will be taken to the correct page until the new page is indexed — and ensure you don’t lose potential sales because of missing pages.

5. Get organised with updates

Keep notes: maintaining a Website is a big job, so don’t rely solely on your memory. Keep a notebook or digital log full of your site changes to help refresh your memory and ensure you follow up changes with the search engines.

Throw Open Your Virtual Doors!

In the 3 months after we corrected the 404s on the client site, we saw a dramatic rise in unique visitors. Although the company implemented other Web marketing tactics, I’m positive that correcting the 404s had a lot to do with the traffic increase. The moral of the story: don’t close a door to your site: you never know who might come knocking.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about 404 Errors

What causes a 404 error?

A 404 error is typically caused when the server cannot find the page you’re trying to access. This can happen if the page has been deleted or moved and the URL was not changed accordingly. It can also occur if the URL is typed incorrectly.

How can I fix a 404 error on my website?

If you’re the website owner, you can fix a 404 error by either restoring the deleted page, correcting the URL, or redirecting the old URL to another live page. Regularly checking your website for 404 errors can help maintain a good user experience.

Can 404 errors affect my website’s SEO?

Yes, 404 errors can impact your website’s SEO negatively. Search engines like Google view these errors as a sign of a poorly maintained site, which can affect your site’s ranking. However, occasional 404 errors are normal and won’t significantly harm your SEO.

What is a soft 404 error?

A soft 404 error occurs when a page is not found, but the server incorrectly returns a 200 OK status code. This can confuse search engines and users, as the page appears to be working fine, but the content is not found.

How can I detect 404 errors on my website?

You can use tools like Google Search Console or website crawler software to detect 404 errors on your website. These tools can help you identify broken links and fix them promptly.

What is a custom 404 page and how can it help?

A custom 404 page is a user-friendly page that visitors are directed to when a page is not found. It can help by maintaining a positive user experience, offering options to navigate to other parts of your website, and potentially converting a lost visitor into a customer.

How can I create a custom 404 page?

You can create a custom 404 page by designing a new page that informs visitors that the page they’re looking for cannot be found, and providing links to other parts of your website. Once the page is created, you can configure your server to display this page whenever a 404 error occurs.

Can 404 errors be prevented?

While it’s impossible to prevent all 404 errors, regular website maintenance can help minimize them. This includes regularly checking for broken links, updating or redirecting URLs when pages are moved or deleted, and ensuring that all internal links are correct.

Are all 404 errors bad?

Not all 404 errors are bad. For example, if a page was deleted because it’s no longer relevant, a 404 error is the correct response. However, if a page is live and users or search engines can’t reach it, this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

What’s the difference between a 404 error and a server error?

A 404 error indicates that a specific page could not be found, but the server is working correctly. On the other hand, a server error, indicated by a 500 status code, means there is a problem with the server itself, preventing it from fulfilling the request.

Haig SakouyanHaig Sakouyan
View Author

Haig is a search engine expert and is the President of My Marketing Pro, an Internet services company. Haig has also created MarketingPro.net, a Web marketing resource site.

Share this article
Read Next
Get the freshest news and resources for developers, designers and digital creators in your inbox each week
Loading form