Search Engine Optimization Tip 29: 404 Errors

404 errorsThis is search engine optimization tip number twenty nine in our continuing series of search engine optimization tips. All of our search engine optimization tips are meant to be specific, they should not take too much time to implement, and are meant to be directly to the point. In fact, this search engine optimization tip is pretty simple: check your 404 error pages on your website.

Not following along with our Search Engine Optimization Tips? You might want to take a look at the recap of search engine optimization tips we have posted in the past few months. Our last SEO tip was about the Canonical Tag. The canonical tag lets us tell the search engines that a specific URL is a duplicate of another URL, another web page on your website.

What is a 404 Error?
A 404 error is an error that your web server creates that indicates a “file not found” or a “page not found” on your website. Whenever someone goes to a web page that doesn’t exist on your website, your website should tell them that the page (the file) that they’re requesting is “not found”.

Why Checking your 404 Errors is Important
There are several reasons why checking the 404 errors are important to do. You could be missing out on traffic to your website: and link “credit”. Another website could be linking to a page on your website but when they made the link to you they mistyped something: and the link to your website goes to a web page that doesn’t exist. If you were to fix the link (by redirecting the visitors from that ‘not found’ page to the correct page using a 301 Permanent Redirect), you could get the visitors and the ‘credit’ for it.

You could have redesigned your website at one point and you may have missed a page on your website that still had some traffic and visitors (and links from another website). If you check your 404 errors there’s a good chance that you would see this traffic. As previously mentioned, you’re going to need to redirect that 404 error (actually, you redirect the URL of the page) to another page on your website that DOES exist.

You also could have purchased a domain name that was owned by someone else previously: and there may be traffic and links pointing to old pages on the site: if you redirect those pages (or put content up on those old URLs) then again there’s a good chance that you can redirect the traffic over to the other part of your website.

Your web host may be monetizing your 404 error pages without you knowing it. In fact, some web hosts actually are taking advantage of the fact that you are not using a custom 404 error page on your website. When someone goes to a web page that doesn’t exist on your website, they are served up a page full of ads: and your web hosting is making money for every click that goes through that error page, on your own website!

What is a Custom 404 Error page?
A custom 404 error page is simply that: a customized version of the 404 error. When someone gets the 404 error on your website, your website shows a web page that looks like your current website: and ideally would tell your visitors that they didn’t get to a correct page, or a page that’s valid. Perhaps they then could be offered a way to search your website or even go to another page via the navigation in your website.

The bottom line
What’s the bottom line? You need to go to your website and enter an invalid page/URL address. Something like: http://www.yourdomain.com/whatever-23i39390.html. A page that you KNOW doesn’t exist. Then, see what happens. You should not see a page full of ads and you should see an error. Check your server’s headers to make sure your site is serving up a correct 404 error. You can do that by entering the page (or a page that does not exist) using an HTML Viewer or using a “server header check” tool. You should see a true 404 error, not a “200 OK” or something else. And it should not redirect to your home page.

Many web analytics packages will NOT give you the 404 errors. In fact, Google Analytics, since it relies on JavaScript, will not show you the 404 errors on your website: you must use something that analyzes your website log files. By checking your 404 errors, you could see a lot of traffic and a way to redirect that traffic to the ‘live’ pages on your site. And if there are links to those 404 errors you can fix the errors and help your website’s search engine optimization.