The death knell for any website is a 404 message. Users hate these and will usually leave your site rather than mess around trying to find a page they are looking for – they’ll simply move on to your competition. A good SEO linking professional will inform you that 404 errors are unacceptable.
The way page serving works is this: whenever a user tries to visit a page, if the request if successful the server will return a 200-OK response. If the server cannot find the right page that has been requested by the user, then it will return a 404-Page not found error.
Reasons for a 404 can be attributed to a broken link or if one of your pages have been moved and not redirected properly (see my previous post on selecting the correct redirect). A 404 error also happen when the user mistypes the URL. In both of these situations situations the client is able to communicate with the server but the request is not successful because the requested page cannot be found, – whether due to a typo on the visitor’s part or a error on your end.
You can deal with a user error by creating urls with common typos and redirecting them to the correct page. You can also have a basic page that comes up and gives the visitor a list of options. For errors on your end – well, you need to fix them. Ensure that all inbound links land on the correct page, and eliminate broken links. Also use redirects properly if you have been making a lot of changes to pages on your site.
You want to avoid losing your website’s ranking. When your website constantly returns 404 errors, it gives a good reason for the search engines to remove you from the index. They will think that your site is not yet complete or under construction, that you don’t care enough about it to keep it updated or maintained properly, and your credibility will suffer.
This means it is vital to make sure that your site returns no 404 errors as this can adversely affect your site’s rankings. In addition, it will also frustrate users when they constantly find 404 pages in your website and you can lose those visitors forever to your competitors. All of us know how difficult to get a potential lead – our traffic is the lifeblood of any site, and to waste your leads by not properly maintaining your site is absurd.
Solutions for times when an inadvertent 404 is served: use a custom designed 404 page that will help the visitor find what they want in your site. You can also use a 301 redirect to take the visitor to the home page or other relevant page in your site. Don’t forget that even if you use a redirect to move the visitor to a different page, the server status code will still return a 404 error, which the search engine will see – so it’s always best to test your site regularly like an average user and see what happenes – then fix any problems without delay.
A custom designed 404 error page is highly helpful because almost 50% of the people who meet with a 404 page after typing out a URL try again thinking that they have typed the URL wrongly or there is something wrong with their internet connection. You often get one more chance to turn thin gs around, and a well put together message heading them in the right direction can save your lead. Keep the interest of your visitor and keep them on your site by providing them with viable alternative options.
Here’s a great, simple 404 message that just tells the user to hit the back browser button – good for internal use.
One more thing – It is also important to make sure that your server does not return a 200 OK status code for a 404 error. Search engines hate duplicate content and if your 404 page is indexed, search engines will find the same content on all these pages and penalize the site for duplicate content.
If you have a 404-error then that page will not be indexed. If it happens to be an old page which has been deleted or moved but still exists in the cache, it will be removed in the following listing. However, if it then returns a 200-OK status, this will be indexed but with the ‘Page cannot be found.’ error message. Don’t let this happen! If necessary, have an SEO professional check all links into your site for you.