October 20, 2014

The Dreaded 404 Error and What to Do About It

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404 error best practices

It’s no secret that the dreaded 404 error is not a good thing for a company to be serving to visitors. But it’s also an inevitable part of managing a website.

If you’re going through a redesign or starting to delete some of your pages to stay organized, you’re bound to miss a page here and there and forget to include a 301 or even 302 redirect.

Your first steps should, of course, be to try and make sure a 404 pages doesn’t happen. But what many companies don’t realize is that there is a second step that can help your SEO—optimize that 404 page.

404 Errors and Their SEO Effects

Carla Barker wrote an article on Search Engine People that explains that, although Google officially has said that they do not lower your rankings just because you have 404 pages, there are indirect implications that can cause you some SEO issues. A few of these include:

  • Pages with 404 errors do not build PageRank. In other words, any pages that link back to the page with the 404 error are essentially useless because that link juice will not transfer. Not to mention, whoever clicks on any of those backlinks are then taken to an error page, which is also not a good thing.
  • The same goes for link juice that is coming from external websites. It won’t be transferred through to internal pages.
  • 404 pages do not rank for the content that used to be on those pages. In other words, the traffic you used to get from those pages will drop right away.

To state the obvious, it’s clear that any visitor who navigates through your site or Google and comes across a 404 page is going to click off that page and move on, many times – to another website.

It’s annoying. However, there are actions that a website can take that give visitors an option to keep them on your site and clicking.

Tips to Improving Your 404 Error Pages for Your Visitors

Customizing your 404 pages to give users more information and other options and is the best way to keep people on your site. After all, they visited your site for a reason. So if you have another article or page that is similar, you’ll want to make sure they know how to get there.

You can do all this on a 404 page. Consider some of the following suggestions:

Customize the Content of Your 404 Error Pages

Customize the actual message to be funny or say something other than “404 Page not Found.” Many people browsing the Web don’t really know what that means, so tell it to them directly.

You can to customize your 404 messages by first creating/modifying the .htaccess file and then creating your error file. I highly recommend you get a developer to help you. You can learn about the details of getting started here.

the dreaded 404

Include Internal Links to Other Popular Pages

You can include links on your 404 pages to give people another option to click. Putting a link to your homepage (such as in the header image of this article), a popular product page, or recent articles are usually the most popular choices among companies.

Your 404 pages will look the same all around. So it’s tough to really customize which links you put there – but your popular pages are your best bets.

You can put links within your pages as you’re modifying the .htaccess file, as discussed above.

the dreaded 404

Include a Search Box for Your Site

In my opinion, this is the best thing you can do to customize your 404 page. A search box allows a visitor to search for exactly what they need and it will take them to a page within your site. It keeps them on your site and clicking, and it’s easy for them to make the decision to simply type in their search again.

You can use the Enhance 404 widget to embed a search box on your custom 404 page. You can visit this Google Help article for detailed information on how to use the widget and make the search bar happen.

the dreaded 404

Once again, if you notice a 404 error page your first job as a Webmaster should be to fix that page by implementing a 301 redirect or removing the URL from Google Webmaster Tools entirely. All of these customization ideas are just put in place so that if you are unaware that there is a 404 page somewhere, then you have your bases covered. You can read this article to learn more about redirecting and deleting pages.

Do you know of any great examples of 404 pages?

404 Photo via Shutterstock

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HigherVisibility HigherVisibility is part of the Small Business Trends Publisher Channel, offering a full range of professional interactive marketing services. The mission of HigherVisibility is to provide clients “Valuable Solutions with Visible Results.” HigherVisibility works with companies of all sizes, offering advice on topics ranging from keyword research to algorithm updates.

3 Reactions

  1. Most of these examples simply direct people back to the home page. The search box is cool, but why not have a bullet list of 5-10 of your most highly trafficked pages? You know they’re the pages most people look at.

  2. That’s a good idea. I just hope a lot of business owners really take the time to do this. Since this page can appear all around their site, it can be used as traffic redirection tool so that you can still funnel traffic into important pages on your site.

  3. I think it’s great when companies choose to add humour to their 404-error pages. It’s an attempt to lighten the ‘oops’ of what happened for themselves and the reader. / I’ve seen some pages that made me smile. I unfortunately can’t remember what sites they were (Squidoo’s possibly one of them, I think.)

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