How Do 404 Errors Affect the SEO of Your Website?

June 30, 2016 - Martin Hodkinson

If you have had a technical audit done on your website, your attention will have probably been drawn to the number of 404 errors it’s accumulated. So what are the effects of these errors on your SEO efforts?

What Are 404 Errors?

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Code 404 relates to a “not found” error. Meaning that the server is working correctly but the target page could not be located. So instead of returning the desired content, a holding page is served to the user.

Returning 404 errors is an inevitable part of managing a website. As such, a great variety of styles of 404 pages have been developed; from functional (with the intention of getting users back on track), humorous and even distractingly interactive (like the magic eightball found on Mattel.com’s 404 page). From a user’s point of view, the worst type to find is an un-customised or un-branded 404. It leads to confusion and can lead them to click off the site, as they fear they have been duped or the site doesn’t work.  Would you put your payment details into a site you don’t trust?

How Do They Effect SEO?

For the official take from Google, you can check out their Webmaster Central post on the topic. To save you from reading this a short quote from the page is:

“404s are a perfectly normal part of the web; the Internet is always changing, new content is born, old content dies, and when it dies it (ideally) returns a 404 HTTP response code. Search engines are aware of this.”

So the search engines acknowledge that 404 pages happen. But do they affect your SEO? The answer is yes, in indirect fashions. Fixing all your 404’s wont launch your site to the top of the serps but it will improve user experience and retain the benefits generated by incoming links.

Google has long been focused on generating relevant quality results for its users. That’s why Google is now a verb in the Oxford Dictionary. So anything that helps keep users happy and on your website can only be a positive indicator to the search engines.

The SEO benefits of links, comes from the PageRank that is passed to the page from the linked page. Google recognises when a 404 is returned and will remove it from its index, as such the benefit of the link is lost. For a few pages/links this will not be an issue however, as Domain Authority is drawn from the sum of the pages, large numbers of 404 errors can be detrimental to the site as a whole. The same can be said if important or previously well trafficked pages fall to a 404 error.

What Can Be Done to Reduce 404 Errors?

Well, thankfully using 301 redirects, you can let the user’s browser (and the crawlers of the search engines) that the page has been permanently moved to another location. So they simply get redirected to another page, thus keeping the user and the PageRank on your site.

The key is to ensure relevance in your redirects. If a user wanted a Yucca plant, being directed to a wheel barrow won’t help to keep them interested.  In instances where there is no logical alternative or if you have a lot of redirects to do, you could redirect to the homepage or contact page of the website This allows users to recommence their search on your site.

For a technical audit of your site, that will highlight any 404 errors on your site, contact the team at DSM. We can also help with prioritising your 404 errors, in order to maximise the SEO benefits of your 301 redirects.