What is a 404 and what are the best practices?

Of all the status codes, the 404 error is the most well-known. This status indicates that a page cannot be found. How do search engines handle this? And how can you avoid dead-end pages? When to use a 404 and when to use an alternative (301)?


What is a 404 page?

A 404 page is probably the best known status code out there. The code indicates that a certain page of a website cannot be found.

When to use a 404?

Usually, people have a certain expectation pattern when they are browsing a website. There are a lot of people who redirect a 404 page to the home page. However, this creates confusion among users, as they expect to see a specific page on the website, rather than the home page.

When not to use 404

When you have a dead-end page that gets a lot of interesting links (backlinks) from important websites with a high page rank, you don’t want to lose it. Therefore you can opt for a 301, this is a redirect that diverts the user to a related page. This way the users still get to see related information somewhere and you get to retain a large part of the link value on the new page.

For common typos, it is also useful to pre-emptively use a 301 code. That way, someone who writes the URL incorrectly can still end up on the correct page. An example is that of the word Chihuahua, often (mistakenly) written as Chiwawa, which you can anticipate with a 301. That way, users don’t end up on a 404.

When to use a 404

In all other cases, you should use a 404 page. If an article on your website is no longer relevant, you usually delete the entire page. If Google then comes along and spots a 404, it will remove the page from the index. Do check if this page has any useful backlinks first, though, in which case we refer to the previous point about the 301s.

404s and SEO

Not done

Google doesn’t like too many 404 pages on your website because it’s a sign of a website that’s not that well maintained. When the pages you have indexed on Google just disappear after a while, users will be disappointed that they did not get the desired result via Google. Therefore Google will penalize you for not maintaining your website.

Does Google an actual error code?

Often a header response code 200 is given (all ok) to 404 pages, this is called a soft 404. For the search engines this would mean that there is no problem (which of course is not the case). Google does its best to recognize such false 404s, but does not always succeed. Consequently, old content remains indexed. You want to avoid this, unless your aim is to get a lot of traffic on your 404 pages. Make sure that the correct response code is given to an error page. If you get a header response code 200 OK, then the page exists. However, if the page does not exist, the error code should be 404.

How do you track down 404 errors?

    Error 404s can easily be tracked down with a program that goes through all the links on your site. Highly recommended is Screaming Frog SEO spider, which allows you to can scan up to 500 URLs with the free version.
    Make sure your 404 pages are logged. If you already use Google Analytics, you can simply place a custom tracking code on your error pages (where you replace UA-xxxxx-x with your own ID, of course):

CMS systems like Drupal and WordPress also allow you to easily install a plugin. Google Webmaster Console can be a solution, as well.

How the Google widget can help

It may be that you provide a URL for your email campaign but the platform shortens your URL and therefore it is broken.

This means that the user will land on a web page that gives a 404 error. In this case, you can install a widget from Google on your custom 404 page. This ensures that the users still have somewhere to go.

With this widget you can display the following:
– Link to parent of this page.
– Website map allowing users to go to other parts of the website.
– A site search field.

Hopefully you have learned what a 404 is and what it entails, as well as when to use or not to use a 404. If you need additional help, do not hesitate to call on us to eliminate your 404 errors.

Bye bye 404

Do you want to clean up your website and fix all your 404s? We at Growl can help you with this,