As an SEO, I really dislike seeing http status 404 errors on a site, also known as 404 “page not found” errors. You know, those empty pages that don’t contain what you expected to find. Happening upon page not found errors can be frustrating, especially if they are not handled properly on the site—more on that subject later—but they are there for good reason.
Why use http status 404?
Believe it or not, the 404 status code serves an important purpose: to tell Google and visitors that the page no longer exists and, equally important, that it has not moved to another location on the site. The page is simply no longer available. This is a perfectly acceptable, and correct, use of the 404 error code.
Google expects to see some 404 errors on a normal-functioning site; however, large and increasing numbers of 404s can be a red flag and your site may receive a warning from Google in the Search Console if this occurs. Such a message looks like this:
Note the last line: “If these URLs don’t exist at all, no action is necessary.” Google spells it out for us right there. Despite this, webmasters often feel compelled to “fix” these 404 errors using methods that are not recommended, such as:
- Marking 404 errors as “fixed” in the Search Console simply to remove them from the crawl errors list. Rest assured, Google will find them and add them back if they have not actually been resolved. If a 404 page has been properly redirected, however, it may then be marked as fixed.
- Redirecting removed pages to the home page. A redirect tells Google the new URL where content resides and it should be a close match, with similar or identical page content as the original URL. Doing otherwise causes confusion for the visitor, who unexpectedly ends up on the home page rather than the intended page. This method also causes soft 404 errors to occur.
What are soft 404 errors?
Soft 404 errors are pages that display unexpected content, either by redirecting to an incorrect page, as in the home page example above, or by showing page-not-found type content on a page that doesn’t return the correct http status 404. Soft 404 errors are listed in the crawl errors section of the Search Console, and any significant increases will be reported by Google:
Excessive soft 404 errors also waste crawling resources on non-existent pages and can create a poor user experience. These URLs should be changed to a 404 status code if they cannot be redirected to new, equivalent pages.
The importance of a custom 404 page
While 404 page not found errors are inevitable, especially on larger sites, creating a custom 404 page will help keep visitors on your site. The page should contain the same site layout and menus and provide helpful verbiage and links to direct the visitor, as in this example:
By contrast, here’s a bad example of a 404 page not found that could cause your site to lose visitors:
Best practices for 404 errors
Follow these tips for handling crawl errors on your site:
- Both 404 errors and soft 404 errors should be checked periodically in the Google Search Console to see if any can be redirected to new pages
- If a page no longer exists and cannot be redirected to a logical new page then the 404 status should be implemented
- Never redirect removed pages to the home page
- Always employ a custom 404 page with useful links to guide visitors
Contact the SEO professionals at DAGMAR Marketing to ensure your site is being crawled completely and efficiently.
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