Best Practices for Managing 404 Error Pages

Last Updated: April 8, 2023By

Website errors affect search engine rankings and so managing them in the proper and search engine friendly way is a good practice for every website manager. When a page no longer exists, because it has probably been deleted or moved to another directory, viewers are presented with a 404 error page. A 404 response code is returned by the server when there is no matching URI. In other words, the server is telling the browser that the content is not found.

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The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent error. This should occur any time the server can’t find a matching page request. Often times webmasters will display a text 404 error but the response code is a 200. This tells search engine crawlers that the page has rendered correctly and many times the web page will get erroneously indexed.

According to Google, 404 is normal and there are pages on the Google website which returns a 404 error. Google says suggests 404 pages will not affect page ranking, that is a consolation of some sort, however, 404 error pages are not good for website reputation and need to be addressed. Google has been trying to communicate that 404s, page not found results, are a normal part of the web. Pages don’t always live forever. 404s are not a bad thing, they are a normal thing.

That being said, John Mueller once again said, 404s are not a signal of having a low quality site.

This statement came on Twitter this morning in response to that question. Here it is:

404x status codes are not a sign of a low quality site, it just means there are certain URLs on your site that do not exist and that is okay.

Forum discussion at Twitter

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When 404 Can Actually be Bad

Like we have said earlier that you need not worry about 404 pages, but, there are circumstances where 404 can really have very negative effects. Assuming you have 100 pages and about 600 of them are returning 404 pages. This is especially possible when you have redesigned your website creating a lot of broken links. Technically, this can be harmful from a user point of view and Google follow users so it could eventually have a negative SEO effect on your page.

There are two potentially dangerous 404 conditions: The soft 404 and when a 404 url has valuable links. In the case of a soft 404, the search engines continue to index the page. It is recommended that you correct the soft 404 condition with a good page match and in the case of a valuable link, you can contact the website managers to do a proper link correction after you have returned the related link on your site.

Types of 404 Errors

Google is quick to say that 404s are natural and not to obsess about them. On the other hand, they never quite said that 404s do not matter. The 2011 Google post on 404s is strangely convoluted on the subject.

While the status code remains the same there are different varieties of 404s: external, outgoing and internal. These are my own naming conventions so let it be clear in this post what is meant by each. Because some 404s are harmless and others are dangerous.

External 404

External 404s occur when someone else is linking to a broken page on your site. Even here, there is a small difference since there can be times when the content has legitimately been removed and other times when someone is linking improperly.

Back in the day many SEOs recommended that you 301 all of your 404s so you could reclaim all the link authority. This is no longer a good idea. Google looks for sites that employ 301s but have no 404s. In short, a site with no 404s is a red flag.

External 404s are not to give you much worry. But it is smart to periodically look to ensure that you capturing link equity by turning the appropriate 404s into 301s. 

Internal 404

This type of 404 error occurs when the site itself is linking to another not found page on their own site. Internal 404s are very new for SEO addressing them do have a positive impact on search engine rankings.

Why Internal 404s Matter

Internal 404 is a guide to determine whether a website is well cared for and has an attention to detail. There is a relationship between internal 404 and quality of a website. A high quality website should not have a lot of internal 404s.

It is plausible to think that Google does not want their users having a poor experience so they might steer folks away from a site they know has a high probability of ending in a dead internal 404 error

How to Detect Internal 404 Errors

You can find 404s using Screaming Frog or Google Search Console. Let us look at the Google Search Console here. In Search Console you will navigate to Crawl and select Crawl Errors.

At that point you will select the Not found tab to find the list of 404s Google has identified. Click on one of these URLs and you get a pop-up where you can select the “Linked from” tab

So What are the best practices in Handling 404 Errors?

Here, we will like to give a quick guide to handling 404 pages. Remember, 404 pages are normal and you need not panic over them. Just follow these recommendations:

1. Using 301 Redirects

301 redirects are recommended when redirecting sites or pages. This is because 302 redirects do not instruct search engine crawlers that a page or site has permanently moved.

2. Redirect 404s When Appropriate

If a page receives important links, gets a substantive volume of visitor traffic, or has an obvious URL that visitors or links are intended to reach, you should employ 301 redirects to the most relevant page possible. Outside of these instances, it may be necessary to purposefully have a URL return a 404; this will keep them from getting indexed and repeatedly crawled by search engines.

One common misconception is that it is an SEO best practice to simply 301 redirect pages that return a 404 status code to the homepage of the given domain. This is actually a bad idea for the majority of cases because it can confuse users who may not realize that the web page they were trying to access does not exist.

Further reading:

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3. Create an Error Page

When visitors reach 404 pages, they should be given navigational options so they do not leave the given site. Web optimized 404 errors pages should contain:

  • notification that the user has reached a page that does not exist&lt
  • a search box
  • an easy-to-understand navigation system so the user can potentially find what they were originally looking to access
  • a link to the home page
  • Additional tips in dealing with error pages
  • Redirect only to a category or homepage if that is the most relevant user experience available.
  • It is okay to serve a 404 when the page does not exist anymore.
  • If you have valuable links pointing to 404 pages, use a 301 redirect to correct and possibly contact the website owner for proper linking.

Remember that 404 errors are normal and you need not panic over them. Hope this was helpful. You can share the link freely but remember to acknowledge this source.

Also read: How Not to Hurt Your Visitors When Using the WordPress Maintenance Mode

Other Important HTTP Status Codes for SEOs and search engines

200 OK

The request has succeeded. This is considered correct for most scenarios

301 Moved Permanently

The requested resource has been assigned a new permanent URI and any future references to this resource should use one of the returned URIs. The 301 redirect, as it is commonly called by SEOs, should be utilized any time one URL needs to be redirected to another.

302 Found

The server is currently responding to the request with a page from a different location, yet the request or continues to use the original location for future requests. This approach is not recommended. It is not an effective way to instruct search engine bots that a page or site has moved. Using 302 will cause search engine crawlers to treat the redirect as temporary and not give it the link juice (ranking power) abilities of 301 redirects.

410 Gone

The requested resource is no longer available at the server and no forwarding address is known. This condition is expected to be considered permanent. Clients with link editing capabilities SHOULD delete references to the Request-URI after user approval. If the server does not know or has no facility to determine whether or not the condition is permanent, the status code 404 (Not Found) should be used instead of 410 (Gone). This response is cacheable unless indicated otherwise.

503 Service Unavailable

The server is currently unable to handle the request due to a temporary overloading or maintenance of the server. The 503 should be used whenever there is a temporary outage (for example, if the server has to come down for a short period for maintenance). This ensures that the engines know to come back soon because the page/site is only down for a short time.

Most Common HTTP Errors According to Google

Now, you might wonder, which are the most common HTTP errors that people encounter when they surf the Web? The basic idea here is that some of the people who encounter errors when they visit websites will want to know more about that error, and will go to the nearest search engine to do so. In short, Google’s search statistics should in this case be able to give us a pretty good idea of which HTTP errors are most common.

In a study using Google Insights for Search (a great tool for estimating the “popularity” of search terms) these 5 error codes were top:

The top 5 errors, according to Google

Here they are, listed and explained in reverse order, the five most common HTTP errors.

5. HTTP error 401 (unauthorized)

This error happens when a website visitor tries to access a restricted web page but isn’t authorized to do so, usually because of a failed login attempt.

4. HTTP error 400 (bad request)

This is basically an error message from the web server telling you that the application you are using (e.g. your web browser) accessed it incorrectly or that the request was somehow corrupted on the way.

3. HTTP error 403 (forbidden)

This error is similar to the 401 error, but note the difference between unauthorized and forbidden. In this case no login opportunity was available. This can for example happen if you try to access a (forbidden) directory on a website.

2. HTTP error 404 (not found)

Most people are bound to recognize this one. A 404 error happens when you try to access a resource on a web server (usually a web page) that doesn’t exist. Some reasons for this happening can for example be a broken link, a mistyped URL, or that the webmaster has moved the requested page somewhere else (or deleted it). To counter the ill effect of broken links, some websites set up custom pages for them (and some of those are really cool).

1. HTTP error 500 (internal server error)

The description of this error pretty much says it all. It’s a general-purpose error message for when a web server encounters some form of internal error. For example, the web server could be overloaded and therefore unable to handle requests properly.

Judging by Google’s search statistics, this problem is more than twice as common as 404 errors.

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