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How to Handle 404 Errors for SEO and Users

At one time or another, almost every internet user has encountered the dreaded 404 page not found error message, and chances are, visitors to your site are going to have a similar encounter. 404 errors typically occur when a user types in a non-existent web page address, or clicks on a link that leads to a page that no longer exists because it has been deleted.

Having 404 error pages is inevitable, and every website will probably have them at some point. Google is not going to penalize your site for 404 errors. What is important however, is the way you deal with them.

Consider this 404 error page:

bad 404-error page

This is a generic 404 error page and it is horrible to look at. It does absolutely nothing to encourage your visitors to explore more of your site. A 404 error page like this will lead to a poor user experience because the only option they have is to hit the Back button, never to return. This will count as a bounce rate, and this is what can seriously affect your organic search ranking, especially if lots of visitors to your site hit the back button as soon as they get there. A generic 404 error page will cost you potential customers.

A 404 error page will also negatively impact your SEO efforts because if the search engine spiders find a default 404 page on your site, you’ve thrown a roadblock in front of them that they have no way to get over. Search engines can’t hit the Back button or use the other advanced features of your Web site. All they can do is follow links. You have to give the search engine robots something to follow. If they come across a bad link and you don’t give them anywhere else to go, they will have no choice but to leave your site at that point. This may result in entire sections of your site not being indexed.

Dealing with 404 Error Pages

Having 404 error pages on your site is not going to get your site penalized by the search engines. In fact, no matter what you do, 404 error pages are inevitable, and even Google has described 404s as a perfectly normal part of the web. However, not dealing with them efficiently could be really damaging to your site for the reasons stated above.

There are a number of ways to deal with 404 errors on your site. One big mistake some webmasters make is to redirect the 404 error page to their home page. In fact, there is a WordPress plugin that exists for this purpose. This is a really bad idea, and Google strongly advices against doing this.

There are two main ways to deal with 404 errors, both of which are recommended by Google.

301 Redirects

If you have a broken link pointing to a 404 error page and you have external links pointing to the missing links, you should be redirecting those error pages to the most relevant page on your site as a matter of urgency.

Custom Error Pages

A well-designed custom 404 error page is a highly effective way to deal with 404 error pages because you can use it to engage your visitors and encourage them to remain on your site even when they navigate to a page that no longer exists. The page should include your main navigation, acknowledge what has gone wrong and then suggest alternative locations on your site such as an HTML sitemap if you have one or even a search page. If you engage the visitor well enough, they could be encouraged to visit other areas of your site.

Here’s a great 404 error page by Moz’s Dr Pete.

404 error page

 

As you can see, the page doesn’t even look like an error page. It has the site navigation, and displays helpful links to other pages of the site. This can play a key role in keeping visitors on the site because most internet users like funny pictures.

It is very easy to setup a custom 404 error page. You can easily do this by placing the following line of code in your website’s .htaccess file that references your customized error page. It is important to ensure that you add the 404 error page to your root directory before adding this code to your htaccess file.

ErrorDocument 404 /404pagename.html

This would redirect all 404 error messages to the customized error page.

You can also make a directory directly off your /public_html/ folder and call it “error” and place your error 404 page in there. This would now mean that your .htaccess command line would now look like this:

ErrorDocument 404 /error/404errors.html

Here are tips for creating a user-friendly and SEO-friendly 404 error page for your website:

  1. Design the page to look like other pages on your site. This will keep your users feeling like they’re still on your site and that everything’s under control. If possible, use the referenced error page as a guide.
  2. Apologize and acknowledge what has happened. Your message should match the tone of your site, but consider making it humorous to keep your readers engaged, such as what webhostingsecretrevealed.net have done.
  3. Offer suggestions with links to other pages they might want to go to. Include helpful descriptions in the links. (“Read about our car customization services. See picture of ‘new’ classic cars. Hear what our customers say about us.”)
  4. Include a link to your HTML and XML site maps. This is especially important for search engine robots because they can follow that map to get around your entire site. Providing access to your site map becomes even more beneficial because the engines continually return to your site to see if those non-existent pages have returned. If they have, the search engines re-index them. If they haven’t, the robots still find your 404 page and all of your relevant links.
  5. Put a Meta robots tag on your custom 404 error page. Tell the search engines that they should follow the links on the page, but not index it:
  6. <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow”>
  7. Do not redirect your 404 error page to your home page.

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