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So you have a 404 error message? Here are your options.

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 by James Lee

When logging into Google Webmaster Tools, all too often your heart can sink. Crawl errors flood your screen and pages on your website are 404’ing. It all means that Google (and more importantly, visitors) cannot find pages on your website.

We would love to pretend they are not there – and to be fair they are not inherently bad – but if 404 errors mount up they can ruin visitors’ experience and reduce your rankings in search engines. The first question to ask if why your pages are 404’ing? If that is not a verb, it should be.

Why do I have a 404 error?

404 is an ambiguous status code that could mean a number of things. Some reasons are:

–          Page removed by Webmaster

–          Visitor mistyped URL

–          Malformed internal or external link

Why 404 errors matter

Google has been open and said it expects most sites to have some 404 errors. They are just part of running a website, especially huge ecommerce sites. However they do affect your sites integrity. If visitors are surfing through your site and are constantly hit by 404 errors they will soon leave and use a site without them. 404 can increase your bounce rate and damage your site’s reputation.

Search engines have to make a call whether the volume of 404 errors is just natural and acceptable or instead a more serious site issue. If the website has serious issues the search engine is much less likely to display it in on search engine results pages.

Your options for 404 error pages

So let’s have a look at the options you have when presented with 404 error pages:

Do nothing

It is an active choice and one that some webmasters advocate. Search engines are pretty smart and will take care of themselves – or so the argument goes. Do the best you can to manage your site but, ultimately, the return on investment for your time dedicated to 404 errors may not be worth it.

Advantage:

–          More time to play golf. *Cough* I mean work on other aspects of your website.

Disadvantage:

–          Reduce user experience of your site

–          Link equity lost from those pages

Soft 404 everything

Every 404 presents the visitor with a custom soft 404 page. Some of these novelty 404 pages can be fun, they can be stylish or clever.

Advantage:

–          As my above links show, good novelty 404 pages can attract links to your site.

–          Site visitors have a consistent experience of your site.

Disadvantage:

–          Risk of mass duplication on site

–          Site can suffer from page bloat

301 redirect all 404 to sitemap

You can direct to your xml sitemap, but for user experience I would recommend redirecting to your HTML sitemap.

Advantage:

–          Shares link juice evenly across the site

–          Easy set up

Disadvantage:

–          Missing out on a opportunity for a better match redirect

–          Viewing your sitemap may not provide the best user experience

301 redirect 404 errors to most relevant page

This solution involves plowing through your 404 errors individually and creating a 301 redirect for each to a relevant page on your site.

Advantage:

–          Creates a good user experience

–          Management link juice in an appropriate way

Disadvantage:

–          Labour intensive

–          An excessive number of redirects can look bad for search engines

A beautiful blend of all of the above

Personally, I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all solution to 404 page errors. The best method is to apply the above solutions appropriately. This approach does take time but I believe creates the best user and search engine experience.

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About the author

James Lee

James Lee

James is a SEO Campaign Delivery Manager. He works to maximise a websites visibility in search and loves working with customers to achieve their goals. Get James talking about how to optimise a website's page titles and you will be there for hours. He doesn't always talk about himself in third person.