How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (or at least not fear) 404 Errors

By Scott Garrett | Jan 29, 2014
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Dr. Strangelove and 404 Errors

It almost seems like standard practice that once I begin working with a new client, they soon decide that they want to re-brand or re-launch their current site. This usually comes with some reordering of the folder system, which causes their URL structure to change, and that means new 404 errors are not far behind. When I first started in this industry, I will admit 404 errors seemed quite unsettling to me and the notion that they would cause my client’s pages to lose rank was just down right terrifying. 404 errors can be weapons of mass destruction for web rankings, but if they’re handled correctly then they are no more dangerous than a water balloon (as long as you are not wearing all suede).

What are 404 Errors?

Let me back up first: what exactly is a 404 error? They occur to searchers when they try to follow a link to a page on your website that does not exist. As I mentioned before, this usually happens after a domain change or a site restructuring causes the URL format to change. This causes webpages that were previously working URLs to become broken links that land users on 404 error pages, rather than the actual proper pages. This is obviously not good from a user point of view, and also not optimal from a search engine perspective if you want this page to rank for a particular keyword.

404 errors also sometimes form from basic structural issues within your site or CMS that cause incorrect URLs to form. In addition, 404 errors can be created when bots scrape your site and create lots of spam links that lead to pages that never existed. Both of these examples of 404s are from invalid URLs, and 404s on these types of URLs do not harm your site’s overall ranking or indexing; however, what if you see in Webmaster Tools that your site has 10 million 404 errors? Surly, search engines such as Google will penalize you!

As long as all those 404 errors are from invalid URLs then you are copasetic. Don’t believe me? Then listen to John Muller, a Website Error Analyst for Google Webmaster Tools who is also quite active on the Google Webmaster Central blog:

“404 errors on invalid URLs do not harm your site’s indexing or ranking in any way. It doesn’t matter if there are 100 or 10 million, they won’t harm your site’s ranking.”

This good news for any webmaster whose site has fallen victim to spamming link scrapes that fill their Webmaster Tools with notifications of 404 errors on invalid URLs.

Now that I have eased your mind that some 404 errors will not harm your site, what about all the valid URLs on your site that are currently 404s? First off, let’s hope that you do not have too many of them, and the only real reason you should have them is from a recent re-launch or moving of content to new URLs (particularly, PDFs seem to fall into this trap often). If you are in any way changing the URLs of your current pages, then you need to ensure that you set-up 301 redirects from the current page to the new page where you are placing the content. This will help ensure that all the “link juice” from the current page gets transferred to the new page, thereby, avoiding large drops in page rank on search result pages.

Remember: do not worry about 404 errors on pages that do not actually exist. If you set up redirects for pages that never existed to your current pages or even your homepage, it will only make it harder for search bots to fully and properly understand your site’s structure, which will inhibit their ability to correctly crawl and index your site.

A great way to check on the 404 errors on your site is to use, as I mentioned above, Google Webmaster Tools. If you want to read even more about new changes in how Google Webmaster Tools will be reporting on 404s then check out this post on the Webmaster Tools blog here.

Lastly, remember that 404s are not the end of your site, they are just a simple obstacle to overcome (and please remember, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”).

war room 404 errors

What has your experience been with 404s? Comment below and follow me @ScottGarrett89.

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