404 Error Messages: What You Should Know
The Dreaded 404 Error Messages
Ugh! You’re surfing the web and finally find a link that looks like it has exactly what you need. You click on it only to receive the dreaded “404: Not found” error message.
We all hate that, right? So it’s easy to understand how frustrating this can be for visitors who want to interact with your website and get an error message instead.
If this is the first time you’ve looked at the Google Analytics or Google Search Console dashboards for your site, you may be alarmed to find they show 404 errors have been generated.
But, before you go crazy trying to track down and fix every…single…one, there are a few things you should know about 404 errors, what causes them, and when you need to fix them.
What Causes 404 Errors?
These error messages can be generated in a number of ways… many of which are outside your control. Here are several possibilities.
- Typographical errors. Accidentally hitting the wrong key(s) or misspelling a word or phrase is something we all do from time to time. These errors either cause us to end up on a different website or receive an error message when the URL we’ve typed isn’t found by search engines.
- Guessing what a URL might be. A lot of times, if you know the name of a company (like Target or Walmart), you can type www. + the name of the company + .com (or just the company name and CTRL + Enter) and get the website you want.Other times, the company’s website address isn’t quite what you’d expect and you get a different website or receive an error message.
- Broken links from external sites that link to your content. Owners of other websites may include links to your website within their content. Their links will generate 404 errors if:
– Their links have typographical errors
– Other websites link to content that you have moved and they haven’t updated their links
– They link to content that no longer exists on your site
- Broken links from your social media profiles that link to your content. Many of us promote our blog posts and other content on our social media profiles. These links will generate 404 errors if:
– The links in our social media posts have typographical errors
– The posts link to content that you have moved and the links within your posts haven’t been updated
– The posts link to content that no longer exists on your site
- Broken links on your website. These can occur when:
– You mistype or misspell a URL for your own content
– You have internal links to content that you move and fail to update the internal links
– You remove content from your site that you had previously linked to
- Someone intentionally triggers an error to see what your 404 page looks like. As crazy as it sounds, some people may want to know what information you provide site visitors when the content they’re attempting to reach isn’t available. To do so, they will intentionally attempt to navigate to a page on your site that does not exist.
The Dynamic Nature of Websites
Most websites are a continual work in progress. To provide our visitors with fresh, interesting content that informs, engages, and keeps them coming back for more, savvy website owners are constantly:
- creating new blog posts, digital products, email opt-ins
- updating and reorganizing existing content, and
- removing content that is obsolete or no longer accurate or relevant.
And these activities can result in broken links. So it’s important to periodically check for broken links and fix the ones that have been caused by updates you have made to your site.
You can use the FREE Online Broken Link Checker to find the broken links on your site that need to be fixed.
When Do I Need To Fix 404 Errors
In an interview with Search Engine Roundtable, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, explains that 404 errors don’t negatively affect your site’s ranking in search results. But, when you restructure your site, you should redirect visitors to the new URLs and update the links on your site to ensure website visitors can get to your content directly in its new location. (You can watch the interview here.)
There are 4 main situations when you actually need to fix or prevent 404 errors.
- Internal Links That Generate A 404 Not Found
- Content You Will Be Moving Or Changing Its URL
- Content You Plan To Delete And Replace With New Content
- External Links From High Authority, High Traffic Websites
Internal Links That Generate A 404 Not Found
This usually occurs because the wrong URL has been provided in internal links due to typing mistakes or a spelling error. To fix these, you can simply edit the links on your site and provide the correct URL.
Content You Will Be Moving, Replacing, or Changing Its URL
If you already have or plan to move content, replace content, or change the URL for existing content, it is best to set up a 301 redirect which will automatically take visitors to the new location of the content.
If the content has been deleted and there is no replacement content, it’s a good idea to display a message page that explains that the content has been removed from your site and, if appropriate, the reason it was removed. For example, if you have discontinued a product or service, you will want website visitors to know that you no longer provide that product or service.
Or, if you want to call attention to the fact that you have replaced a product or service with something new, you can let visitors know that the old product or service has been replaced with something that will better meet their needs and provide a link to the new product or service.
You would also use an error message page for content that was removed for legal reasons.
External Links From High Authority, High Traffic Websites
External links from high authority, high traffic websites help your authority and importance with search engines and drive traffic to your site. For these reasons, it is a good idea to contact the owners of these sites when the content they are linking to is changed.
But not every 404 error needs to be fixed!
Here’s why. Search engine bots attempt to crawl every inch of a website to find and index potentially valuable content. They, quite literally, go to places where no man (or woman) has gone before! … including content that you don’t want to get any traffic but haven’t told search engines not to index.
The content that no one (other than the search engine bots) is visiting actually doesn’t need to be fixed.
Likewise, the content that does not exist and does not have new replacement content doesn’t need to be fixed.
How To Set Up A 301 Redirect
The easiest way to set up a 301 redirect in WordPress that will automatically take users to content that has been moved or replaced by new content is to use a plugin.
For robust features, affordability, and ease of use, I recommend the Yoast Premium SEO plugin for my clients. It helps website owners of all experience levels… novice to experts… achieve great results with their SEO without becoming an SEO expert or writing any code.
If the Yoast Premium plugin is already installed when you move or delete content, it will automatically detect these changes and ask you whether you want to redirect visitors to a new URL or display an error message.
If you need to manually create content redirects for your content, here’s how:
Sign In To Your Website’s WPAdmin Account
Scroll Down Until You See SEO On The Left Navigation Menu And Hover Your Mouse Over It
Select Redirects from the Yoast SEO Menu
Choose The Type Of Redirect
- 301 – Moved permanently
- 302 – Found
- 307 – Temporary redirect
- 410 – Content deleted
- 451 – Content unavailable for legal reasons
Enter The Old URL
Enter The New URL
Click Add Redirect
It’s that easy to set up a redirect using the Yoast Premium SEO plugin.
But what if your content has been permanently deleted and there is no new content to replace it? Or what if the 404 error is occurring due to reasons outside your control?
In those cases, you’ll be wondering…
What IS An Effective Strategy For Dealing With 404 Error Messages?
It isn’t possible to fix every 404 error. For example, you have no control over typographical errors or spelling errors visitors may make when entering your URLs.
Although you can’t fix every error, you can use an effective strategy to reduce any adverse effects they may cause.
NO! Redirecting every 404 error to your website home page is NOT an effective strategy.
What strategy is that?
Create A Custom 404 Error Page
Many website owners have no idea that they can create a custom error page they can direct visitors to when a 404 error is generated. And, in doing so, they can turn an otherwise frustrating event into an opportunity.
Here’s what Google has to say about Custom 404 Pages.
404 Error Page Best Practices
If you plan to create your own custom 404 Error Page, you need to be sure that it:
- Includes your branding. Using your logo and branded graphics lets visitors know that they reached the right website.
- Communicates your most important message quickly. Keep your page design simple and sleek, and get to the point quickly. Visitors won’t spend much time on a page that isn’t the content they’re seeking. So it’s important to get right to the point and be clear.
- Explains that an error has occurred. Make it obvious that they are not reaching this page by accident, but because an error has occurred.
- Explains, in general, why it occurred. You can simply state, “the content you are looking for has moved or no longer exists.”
- Provides a way for them to find what they want. Your 404 Error Page can become a great asset if you provide a way for visitors to still find the content they want. You can do this by providing a search feature and/or a site map.
Neil Patel recommends using a search feature because the information provided in on-site searches is tracked in Google Analytics and can be used to help you identify links you can add to your 404 Error Page, evergreen content or lead magnets you can create to provide even more value to your visitors.
- Invites them to contact you with further issues or if they are still unable to find what they need. It’s great customer service like this that will distinguish you from your competition and help you build a tribe of loyal visitors and customers.
404 Error Page Examples From 5 Top Websites
This 404 Error Page lets visitors know they’re on the ActiveCampaign website, even though an error has occurred. It explains the content is gone or never existed. Also, it empowers visitors to use the website’s navigation menu or the on-site search feature to find the information they want. Most important, though, it offers a clear call to action that aligns with the main purpose for visiting their site.
Gary Vaynerchuk has all his bases covered on his 404 Error Page. His page makes it clear that a visitor has landed on his site on what appears to be an intentional web page. It really gives you a feel for what you’ll encounter on the rest of his site with its top navigation bar and search box, most recent blog post, email opt-in, social media links, and other popular blog posts.
The 404 Error Page for HubSpot also makes it clear, upfront, that you’ve reached the HubSpot website, an error has occurred and places their Contact Us link at the top of the page with the search bar so there’s almost no effort to get what you need. And they prefer to offer three options for visitors who land on this page: check out their blog, visit their product page to get more information about the products they offer or schedule a free demo.
Moz injects some humor in their 404 Error Page to diffuse what could be a frustrating situation while making it clear you’ve reached the Moz website. They make their search bar very prominent while providing website navigation below the fold. And they include a call to action to subscribe to their email list.
Short, sweet, and to the point, Neil Patel’s 404 Error Page makes it clear you’re on his site, the page you want wasn’t found and gives two prominent places for visitors to respond to a call to action. It’s clear that his priority is getting people on his email list by offering two very prominent calls to action. He also offers ways to connect with him on social media via links at the bottom of his page. And he infuses some excitement with a “Spin to Win” popup (not pictured).