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How 404 errors are killing your SEO efforts

Have you redesigned your website recently? Whether you’ve switched to a different content management system (CMS) or revised your website’s look and structure, it’s likely that some of your pages are no longer accessible at their previous URLs.

If your website is brand new and doesn’t have any links pointing towards it, having new URLs isn’t a big deal. But if there are lots of links to your website that no longer send users to real pages, this could have an effect on your search engine rankings.

Links are arguably the most important aspect of SEO. When another website links to your content, it increases its PageRank and makes it more visible in Google’s search results, relative to its competitors.

When you change your website’s URL structure or take down a page that other sites link to, you lose this PageRank, resulting in a decreased level of search visibility and a website that isn’t quite as powerful, in Google’s eyes, at it once was.

Managing your 404 errors and redirecting links that point to non-existent pages is a simple process that will help you avoid losing rankings due to dead links. Read on to learn exactly how you can prevent 404 errors from affecting your SEO efforts.

What is a 404 error?

Every web-related error has a specific error code. Code 404 refers to a “not found” error – a message alerting you to the fact that your browser was able to connect to the server it was looking for, but that its target page couldn’t be found.

You’ll notice a 404 error whenever you click on a link that no longer points towards an active page. For example, if another website links to a page on your website and you delete this page, users will receive a 404 error whenever they click on the link.

Are 404 errors bad for SEO?

Google’s official stance on 404 errors is straightforward and simple, explaining that they’re a normal part of the Internet but generally undesirable for SEO:

“404s are a perfectly normal part of the web… In fact, we actually prefer that, when you get rid of a page on your site, you make sure that it returns a proper 404 or 410 response code (rather than a “soft 404”).”

When a link directs users to a page that returns a 404 error, Google recognizes that the page is no longer available and removes it from their search index. It also drops all of the PageRank from links pointing to the page, rendering the links worthless.

If there are lots of links pointing to inactive or non-existent pages on your website that return 404 errors, you’re missing out on PageRank that could help you rank higher in Google’s search engine results and generate more traffic.

Since PageRank matters on both a page and domain level, your entire website can suffer from 404 errors specific to certain pages. Because of this, it’s important that you redirect important links that return 404 errors for users.

How to fix your 404 errors

Fixing your website’s 404 errors is a great way to increase the flow of PageRank to your website and improve usability. The easiest and most effective way to fix 404 errors, from an SEO perspective, is to use a 301 redirect.

301 is an HTTP response code that signals to the user’s browser (as well as Google’s search indexing robots) that your content has moved permanently from one URL to another one. Unlike 404 errors, 301 redirects keep PageRank flowing to your site.

When you come across a link that delivers a 404 error, use a 301 redirect to redirect users to the most relevant page on your website. This will direct PageRank from the old URL towards the new one.

For example, if you run an e-commerce website that sells leather shoes and notice a lot of valuable links pointing towards a certain leather boot’s page that gives a 404 error, use a 301 redirect to point the links towards your leather boots category.

If you run a B2B services website and notice links that point towards a professional services page that no longer exists, use a 301 redirect to make them point towards a page featuring a similar, relevant service.

Don’t know how to use a 301 redirect? If you use an Apache web server, you’ll need to modify your .htaccess file. Click here to read the Apache URL Rewriting Guide and learn how to use a 301 redirect on your website.

How not to use 301 redirects

The key to an effective 301 redirect is relevance. If you redirect users to a page that has similar content to the deleted page on your website and improved their overall experience, you’ll recover both PageRank and potentially lost sales.

If you redirect users towards any old page on your website that you want to rank higher, especially pages that aren’t related to the links that returned 404 errors in the past, you risk losing conversions because of the irrelevant content.

It’s also important not to use 302 redirects. 302 redirects are used to indicate to a user’s browser (and to Google’s search indexing robots) that your content is only moving temporarily. While 302 redirects help users, they don’t pass PageRank.

What if you have a lot of 404 errors?

If you’ve recently restructured your website or switched to a new CMS, you might have several hundred (or even thousand) links that return 404 errors. In this case, redirecting them all to separate pages might not be a cost effective solution.

There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is to bulk redirect all pages to your website’s homepage – a quick and simple solution. The second option is to download your backlinks and prioritise the links that are worth redirecting.

Start by downloading your backlinks using Majestic (other SEO tools also include this feature) and enter the backlinks into Screaming Frog. Choose “list mode” and take note of links pointing to your website that return 404 errors.

From here, you can prioritise URLs with multiple high-PageRank links and redirect them to relevant inner pages on your website. URLs with few valuable links or very little commercial value can be bulk redirected towards your homepage.

Does your website have a 404 problem?

While almost every website has some links that return 404 errors, many websites have hundreds or thousands of valuable links from blogs, forums and communities that drive traffic and PageRank towards… well, nothing.

Use the tools above to check all of the links pointing towards your website and find any URLs that return 404 errors. From here, you can redirect URLs to preserve your website’s PageRank and recover potential sales that would be lost on a 404 page.

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