At first glance, we are tempted to believe that a 404 error is a small detail compared to the multitude of factors that are taken into account in the SEO optimization process. We will see throughout this article that this is not the case. This element, apparently with a minor impact on the SEO health of a site, can become a real Achilles’ heel for optimization campaigns.
What is a 404 error or a 404 page as it is called?
A 404 not found error is an HTTP status code that tells us that the web page we tried to access no longer exists (or never existed) on the server where the site is hosted. Since 404 errors are a fairly common phenomenon, they can be found in a wide variety of variants – both as a message (text) and as a design.
Here are the most common messages for a 404 HTTP error
- Error 404
- 404 Not Found
- The page was not found
- The requested URL [URL] was not found on this server
- HTTP 404
- Oops! Something went wrong!
- HTTP 404 Not Found
- 404 Page Not Found
How do 404 errors occur?
Technically, 404 page not found errors are client-related errors. This is supposed to be the fault of the user because he either typed the wrong URL or the page he wants to access has been modified and he should have known.
Another option is when a page in a site has been modified and the site administrator has not redirected from the old page to the new URL. Thus, instead of being automatically directed to the new page, the user will receive a 404 message.
Perhaps the most common variant is the one that refers to the change of the sites or rather of the platforms in which they are built. And when it comes to online stores with thousands of pages, changing the platform can be a real challenge. If you are in the above situation, we recommend that after making the change to do a complete SEO audit in which to focus on identifying 404 errors.
Can 404 errors affect the SEO optimization process?
This is actually the question that should be of particular concern to us. From my point of view, 404 errors must be analyzed in light of at least two extremely important SEO factors:
CTR – click-through rate: It is calculated as the ratio between the number of clicks and the number of impressions.
Bounce Rate: The bounce rate represents the number of immediate exits relative to the total number of sessions. An immediate exit is a session that involves viewing a single page on the site. The duration of these sessions is equal to 0 because the search engine cannot calculate the duration of the session because the first session is not followed by a second one.
CTR and Bounce Rate, SEO indicators strictly related to the user experience
Search engines put the user first. Everything revolves around it. That is why these two factors can be decisive in terms of the relevance and authority of a site.
Now, let’s see the process by which 404 errors can affect optimization campaigns.
First of all, 404 errors are by no means pleasant. Imagine that you did a search on Google, you found an attractive title and a meta description that matches what you were looking for, you rush to click to discover that page and… surprise. Instead of finding the content, you expect, you get a 404 error message. Quite unpleasant, isn’t it?
But what happens next? Obviously, the user will leave the page immediately and will go to other pages where he will find what he was looking for.
If it is also a page that occupies a leading position in the SERP and has a high number of hits, then the problem becomes even more pressing.
This user behaviour, as normal as possible, can lead to an accelerated increase in the bounce rate and, in the long run, this can lead to a decrease in CTR.
What solutions do we have for solving 404 errors?
Now that we have determined that 404 errors can have a negative impact on the SEO process, let’s see what solutions we have at hand to solve them.
First of all, as any problem, which, in order to be solved, must first be identified, so too 404 errors must first be discovered. There are at least two tools we recommend: Google Search Console and ScreamingFrog. The first tool is provided free of charge by Google and the second is also free – be careful, however, only for a maximum of 500 URLs. Beyond this limit, the ScreamingFrog tool is for a fee.
Once the nature of the 404 errors has been evaluated, we can proceed to solve them.
SEO efficient solutions for resolving 404 errors
Redirect 301 is recommended to be used whenever we need to redirect a site or page from a site. It is preferable to the 302 redirects, as it indicates to search engines that the change is permanent.
What kind of 404 pages are worth receiving a 301 redirect
Thus, if a 404 page receives important links, has a substantial volume of traffic or benefits from a friendly URL that can attract visitors and links, this page must be redirected.
To which pages on the site do we do 301 redirects?
There is a common practice in the SEO industry that all redirects should be simple, to the main page of the site – more precisely to the homepage. It is a variant as simple to implement as it is inefficient. Such a redirect only upsets the visitors, who will not even realize what happened.
It is best to redirect to the nearest page in terms of relevance. Specifically, a 404 page that featured “HP laptops” should be redirected to the general laptop page and not to the homepage. If it is a 404 product page, such as “blue men’s jeans with lace”, the redirect should go to the “men’s jeans” category page. If you want to find out more about the 301 redirects, write in the comment and we will write a separate blog on it.
Is it normal to have 404 pages on the site?
Yes, it is absolutely normal. Especially on multi-page sites, where changes are frequent, 404 pages are natural situations. As mentioned above, the existence of 404 error pages is preferable to redirecting to the homepage.
We saw that the problem of 404 pages is the affect of the two indicators related to the user experience. Thus, to prevent these problems, the solution is to turn 404 error pages from unpleasant experiences into pages that distract visitors and try to direct them to other pages of interest on the site.
The competition for the top ten positions on the first page of Google, regardless of field, is constantly growing. All sites fight for the top positions on as many keywords as possible, trying through effective SEO campaigns to outperform their competition. The battle has become so fierce that every detail matters. And yes, we all know that most of the time, the details make the difference.
404 errors are part of this category, the details of the difference between the first and second pages of Google. In the long run, especially, we have seen that ignoring them negatively impacts the SEO process.
Do you pay due attention to 404 error pages? What solutions did you find to solve them?