Oops, you just received a 404 Error

You may have previously experienced the ominous 404 error if you visited a page of a website that has been moved, deleted or renamed, or if you typed in part of the web site URL incorrectly or even clicked on a broken link that hasn’t been updated on another website or directory.

When these types of website issues occur, you’ll see an error message in your web browser telling you that there’s no web page at that address. The technical name for this is a ‘404’ error – Page Not Found, which is a web server HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) standard status code and they’re very important for website owners to consider and to handle correctly.

404 errors negatively impact your website’s SEO

Apart from losing website visitors when a 404 error is displayed, there are negative SEO impacts to having a high 404 error rate:

Google penalises the SEO ranking of sites with consistently high 404 error percentages because they are less reliable and this ruins the user experience. Cleaning up bad links, broken images and missing pages can significantly increase search ranking positioning for a business.

Broken external links hurt a website’s PageRank, an authority ranking metric used by Google. If a web site has similar quality, keywords, internal and external links to another comparative web site but better PageRank, it may outperform this competitor in terms of SEO.

According to stats from popular ecommerce platform BigCommerce, 404 errors are lost revenue opportunities. According to a Webmasters’ survey, 77% of people who attempt to visit a webpage but receive the 404 Error Page instead make no further attempt to access the searched-for page. The average website will show 7 out of every 100 would-be visitors the 404 error page, demonstrating the profit potential for minimizing broken links.

When a website doesn’t have a custom 404 error page to display when the server could not find what was requested and a mistake happens, the website visitor may see the hosting company’s default error screen which as a general rule isn’t all that useful, possibly promotes their business, or the browser default 404 error message.

All of this starts to create a sense of frustration for website visitor in their experience with your brand. Therefore, commonly this becomes the point of abandonment for the website visitor leaving your website and not proceeding any further. Since you’ve spent a lot of time and effort in driving traffic to a website we certainly don’t want to see the user leave without spending time on your site to explore what you have to offer!

It’s actually possible to customise your 404 error pages so that website visitors will see your own custom message on your website. This allows you to make the page look exactly like any other page of your website maintaining your branding and professional appearance along with access to your site’s navigation menu, search function or contact details, whilst at the same time displaying a clear message to your visitors telling them that the page they were looking for has unfortunately not been found but there are other options… A simple statement to include on the page is: “Sorry, it looks like we couldn’t find the page you were looking for”.

I also recommend the inclusion of a simple on-page site map or search tool, so that the user can quickly locate the area, page or information on the website that they want to go to and you get to direct them along their way.

Consider also providing an option for the website visitor to get in touch with you directly as this may simply be the purpose why they are visiting your website in the first place, or they may wish to be helpful by letting you know that there is a broken link… some people do want to be helpful!

Now, here is something key to think about! Consider that the 404 error page may actually be the first page the website visitor sees of your website and it’s an error page. They might assume the entire web site is down, where actually the only problem is that a page has been renamed. Website visitors don’t tend to expend the time nor energy thinking about what the issue might be and problem solving this for you!

Did you know that there is a useful website for looking up to find if the intended website you are wanting to view is down for everyone or just yourself? This is a useful place to start in your own problem-solving approach to determine if you have an ISP or network connectivity issue, or if the website is at fault.

Some websites even use the 404 page as another place to up-sell/cross-sell their products/services to visitors. “We couldn’t find the page you were looking for… so why not have a look at these other items instead…”

I’ve even seen a few funny customised 404 error messages from companies used to generate ‘viral’ marketing, and encourage discussion and attract users to their websites such as: http://www.dilbert.com/sadsad

Every website hosting operating system (Linux/Windows), and Content Management Systems (CMS) has a different manner in which they can implement customised 404 Error Pages, and some are definitely more complex than others.

Setting up a custom 404 page on Linux – Apache web server. The process on Apache can vary depending on exactly how your web server is configured, but typically your webmaster will need to edit the .htaccess file. In the .htaccess file the following line of code is added to the file:

ErrorDocument 404 /404.php

This tells the server to serve the 404.php error page from the root level of your web site when a page can’t be found.

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) states that 404 Not Found error code should be used in cases where the server fails to find the requested location and is unsure of its status. When a page has been permanently removed, the status code used should be 410. However, the 410 is not properly used and instead the 404 Not Found page has become popular and the most commonly used error page.

As part of our Toby Creative Perth SEO services, we like monitor various error codes such as the 404 Error Pages on our client websites to determine the cause and manage these to update referring links. Using website analytics and statistics packages like Google Analytics enable us to determine what drives traffic to this point and identifying and resolving these problems whether internal or external causes.

Tracking and Preventing 404 Errors is possible by reviewing analytics, but commonly you will need access to the web server log files to help in tracking the 404 errors. The log files have each HTTP protocol transaction, whether completed or not, recorded in them. Most of the HTTP errors are recorded in the transfer log and the error log files. You can observe the HTTP status code field. This field gives you an idea about the occurrence of 404 errors, their frequencies, consistencies, and also the referred document that led to the errors. You can also find out the existence of any broken links on your web site and the misspelled URL that led to the error. When you know all of this information, you can easily correct the link and prevent 404 errors on your website.

If you find a page that is consistently getting a 404 error, you can create a permanent 301 redirect page using the .htaccess file that automatically takes the users from an older page to its newer replacement. You can use Permanent 301 and Temporary 302 Redirects to “catch” old referrals from other sites and send the visitors to their intended location.

If you have a section of your site with pages that are frequently changed, you could block the search engines from indexing them in their databases using the robots.txt file so that you can prevent 404 errors, but this consideration has to be balanced between your SEO intentions of wanting your content to be both found and listed within Search Engines, so then working to a plan how you can more conveniently either reuse URLs or redirect URLs to ensure a better consumer experience.

Toby Creative Branding & Marketing in Perth, WA, can provide a customised 404 Error Page solution to suit your brand’s requirements. We also provide complete website design and development services as well as website hosting and management. Contact us on (08) 9386 3444 to book a no obligation free initial consultation at your location so that we can discuss your specific requirements.

1 Comment
  • Matt Lynch - November 3, 2017 at 5:53 am

    So many website designers unfortunately get this wrong. It is important how you correctly handle the 404 error response. Monitoring 404 errors with Google Analytics helps to identify the source of the problem and enables you the opportunity to resolve this issue by fixing a broken internal/external link for example. I find have a good internal search tool available on the 404 error page invaluable for the website visitor to search for the resource that they were looking for rather than making them do the hard yards drilling through the sitemap or navigation.

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