Finding and Fixing 404 Errors

by | Apr 27, 2017 | Actionable SEO Tips, Technical SEO Tips

404 pages make users bounce from your websiteIf you were fortunate enough to be in Florida a few weeks ago at the inaugural Digital Innovation Summit (DIS), you would have heard Dave from Threefold Systems and Natalie from the AIM team present their 10 Commandments of User Experience and Conversion Optimization. Their presentation resonated with those who were present and lots of related conversations took place at the bar afterwards.

Each commandment was just as important as the last, but I want to talk to you today about an important element of your website that falls under their first; thou shall make a good impression to visitors. The specific element I want to discuss is 404 errors.

How to find 404 errors

Essentially, a 404 error is a broken link on your website.  The 404 “Page Not Found” error is a response code from a server telling the user that the requested page could not be found. A 404 error is one of the most annoying pages that a visitor can hit on your site. Having lots of broken links is a sure way to provide a poor user experience for visitors. Page Not Found errors have a negative effect on bounce rate, average time spent on your site and ultimately conversion rates.

A study conducted by SpringTrax found that 3 out of every 4 visitors who hit a 404 page leave your website straight away. If you aren’t regularly monitoring and eradicating 404 errors from your site, then you should start right now. Checking for 404 errors at least once per month is good practice. Once per week is best practice.

AIM Tip: Consider setting up a monitor on your most important pages to ping you if they 404. This can be done for free through IFTTT and Uptime Robot.

Most visitors leave your site when they find a 404 error on your website

Reasons for a 404 Response

The primary reasons for a 404 response are misspelled URLs, a page has been moved and a redirect hasn’t been put in place, or a page has been deleted.

  1. Misspelled URLs

If a site linking to you has misspelled your URL and referral traffic from that page is hitting a broken page on your website, there are two steps you should take. First, place a 301 redirect from the broken link to the correct page on your website. Second, contact the webmaster of the site linking to you to update the link on their site. Redirects add additional load time to your pages and in 2017, every millisecond counts.

If a user misspells your URL in their address bar, there isn’t a lot you can do apart from optimizing your 404 page to try direct the user to the content that they initially wanted to see.

A good 404 page apologizes to the reader, contains links to latest articles and the most used categories on the website as well as a prominent search box for the user to help navigate to another page. You really want to make it as easy as possible for the user to find the content that they want to see. It’s your last chance to keep them on your website. At DIS, we talked about Messenger Bots from an advertising perspective. Wouldn’t it also be cool if a bot could help the user get the information they wanted, from a 404 page? To turn that negative user experience into a positive one, and you might even gain a lead while doing it. Consider it. Maybe even test it. Let us know the results.

  1. A page has been moved and a 301 redirect hasn’t been put in place.

This is the most common type of 404 error. The permalink structure might have changed or a redirect may have been set up incorrectly, or not at all, when you moved some content to another page on your site.  It happens.

When it does happen, it’s vitally important that you retrospectively redirect to the new pages for two reasons. Firstly, 301 redirects transfer any of the SEO authority that the original URL gained over its lifetime to the new URL helping the new URL to rank. Secondly, if another site is linking to the old URL and somebody clicks on it or a user has the old URL saved in their bookmarks, you want them to see content that they’re expecting to see on your site rather than get a page not found error.

I’ve already mentioned that every millisecond counts when it comes to page load speed. As well as adding a 301 redirect from the dead link in this situation, best practice is to update all your internal links that were pointing to the dead link to your new URL. It’s manual. It’s time consuming. It’s worth it.

  1. When a page is deleted.

When a page is deleted from your website, you should do one of two things. Either redirect the URL of the deleted page to another relevant page on your website using a 301 redirect or tell search engines that the content on this page is now obsolete and that this page has been permanently deleted. You can do this by making the page in question return a 410-response code.

When you delete a post in WordPress, Yoast SEO Premium prompts you to either redirect the deleted page to another URL or to make the page serve a 410-response code.

Yoast redirects - The best way to fix 404 errors

If you aren’t using Yoast SEO Premium, consider purchasing it. It’s relatively inexpensive and is a great tool to help you optimize your website. It’s worth the cost for the redirect manager alone.

How to set up redirects using the Yoast SEO Dashboard

If you didn’t set up a redirect when you initially deleted a page, you’ll need to use the Yoast SEO Dashboard to set one up.

In the Yoast SEO Dashboard, click on redirects.

The Yoast Redirect dashboard

From there it’s pretty straightforward. Select the redirect type, enter the old URL and the URL you want to redirect to.

Setting up a redirect in Yoast

It’s highly recommended that you use 301 redirects when redirecting broken pages to other pages on the site. Using the incorrect redirect type will have a negative effect on your rankings. 301s pass link authority to the new URL. 302s and 307s don’t. In fact, you should rarely, if ever, use a 302 or 307 redirect on your website.

Finding 404 Errors

To find all the 404s on your website you’ll need to use a combination of Google Search Console and some other SEO software such as Screaming Frog, Moz Pro or SEMrush. When monitoring 404s on a weekly basis I like to use Search Console and Moz Pro. When conducting a broken link audit, especially if I’m looking at a site for the first time, I use Screaming Frog.

How to Find 404 Errors Through GSC

Google Search Console (GSC) is a really powerful tool provided by Google. If you haven’t connected your site to GSC yet, please reach out, and I can help get you set up. It’s a free tool that provides lots of useful insights into your website. One of them is the Crawl Errors report.

Errors in Google Search Console

In the Crawl Errors report, click on Not Found and you’ll get a list of all the 404 errors Google has found on your site.

If you want to delve a little deeper and see where the links are coming from, click on the URL in the Crawl Errors report and then click on Linked From.

Using the Yoast SEO redirects manager, you can redirect the broken links to other relevant pages on your site. Before redirecting, make sure the links are actually still broken. Sometimes I find GSC brings up false 404s.

Sometimes GSC flags 404s that don’t exist on your site, also. Google are OK with you ignoring these links. See here. It’s an old post from Google but it’s still relevant.

For these reasons, I like to use Moz Pro to monitor 404s, also. Moz is also more user friendly than GSC, and makes it easier to see the number of links pointing towards the 404 page, which makes it easier to prioritise which broken links to fix first.

Monitoring 404 Errors Through Moz Pro Campaigns

If you use Moz Pro, click into Campaigns > Site Crawl.

The Moz Site Crawl Dashboard

The number of 404 errors returned in the last Moz Crawl will appear under high priority issues.

Finding 404 errors in Moz

Click into 4XX Client Error and you’ll see a list of errors.

Using the Yoast SEO redirect manager, you can redirect these broken links to the most relevant page on your website.

Moz is great for monitoring 404s, and a great tool to help with website maintenance. However, it takes a week, or more, to gather data when you initially set up a Moz campaign for your site. For this reason, I use Screaming Frog when conducting a 404 audit.

Finding 404 Errors Through Screaming Frog

After you run a site crawl using Screaming Frog, click into Response Codes and then Filter by Client Error (4XX) to see all the 404s that Screaming Frog picked up on your site.

Fixing broken links using Screaming Frog

If you don’t currently have access to the premium version of Screaming Frog, reach out and I’ll run a crawl for you and forward on the list of broken links on your website. Free of charge.

Hopefully this post helps you clean up any broken links on your website. Remember 3 out of every 4 people who hit a 404 on your website, leave. Eradicate 404s to keep visitors on your site and increase the number of conversions through your website. If you’ve any questions or comments, please reach out.

Thanks for reading.

Colm O' Sullivan
Colm O’Sullivan
SEO Specialist

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