What the 404 Error Message Means for Your Site's SEO

04 Nov, 2020

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The 404 error status is the only computer status message we have all heard of. We associate it with a feeling of disappointment: when we see it —  something has gone wrong. Rather than seeing the page we want to see, we are greeted with the words:

404
PAGE NOT FOUND

accompanied by a quirky image — something like a malfunctioning robot, a large question mark, or a broken spaceship. This is always the page where, no matter how serious the rest of a site is, the graphic designer is given a bit more freedom to create something playful and funny.

The idea behind having an amusing 404 error message is that it will soften the user’s disappointment and encourage them to stick around on the website for a bit longer. Most digital marketers love spending a little too much time thinking about their amusing 404 image messages. Before you do the same, make sure you have done everything in your powers to ensure that the smallest number of people possible ever see it, sorry graphic designers!  

What Does The Status Code 404 Mean? 

The main reason why users see an error 404 messages is that they have entered or clicked on a URL for a subpage on a website that cannot be found by the server that hosts the main URL.

This message doesn’t always mean that a site owner has done something wrong but it does mean something is missing. 

For instance, a user visiting www.hats.com and thinks they know the name of a subpage but types it in incorrectly: www.hats.com/tophatts. In this case, unless the site owner has put special redirects to cover this specific spelling mistake, the visitors won’t be shown the site they want www.hats.com/tophats

They will be shown the pages error 404 — because the subpage they typed in doesn’t exist. This is a key reason why a website needs a 404 page even it doesn’t have problems with its technical SEO 

When 404 error messages are bad for SEO

Site owners must minimize the numbers of Error 404 message that visitors or web crawlers find because they can hurt a site’s search engine rankings. Issues in this area are normally to do with out-of-date URLs and people failing to realize that, in order for a search engine to find a new page location, the search engine crawler needs to find the new page and know to replace the old one in the rankings with it. 

To give you a better idea of why this problem occurs let’s say you have a page at the  URL, www.hats.com/scarf hosted for long enough that it gets indexed by search engines and appears in the search results.

Then one day the owner decides to move the location of this page to www.hats/scarves, but you don’t tell Google that the page’s location has changed, with the appropriate methods (301 and 302 redirects

Because you haven’t told Google that the old page (scarfs) has moved the URL to a new location (scarves), the search engine won’t know where to find the page’s new location.

For the first few weeks when searchers type scarf shops into Google, the old page (which no longer has any content), will still appear in the Google results,but when users on search results click on the link for this page won’t be taken to the new page, they will be greeted by your pages 404 error message page. This old page has become a deadlink. 

Why Deadlinks are Bad for SEO

Having dead page links instead of the new page link in the search results can be catastrophic for your site’s rankings. The visitors who click on a result in a search engine who are taken to the 404 error message will click off the page and right back to Google to find another page.

Google will see that lots of visitors don’t like staying on this page of your site, and It won’t take very long for the old page(/scarfs) to drop out of the rankings completely. After this has happened it will be too late for old rankings to be transferred to the new pages.

Showing lots of error 404 messages to your visitors is also bad for your site’s overall rankings because it will play havoc with other important rankings factors such as bounce rates. This is why you need to do a bit of research and have a plan in place whenever you change URLs. To get some more advice on avoiding this kind of issues check out these Google guidelines on redirects 

The 404 status code and link building

The 404 status code can also throw a serious spanner in the works of backlink building initiatives. Site owners want links from other reputable sites because this is good for their site’s rankings.

But all the hard work setting up a link exchange with another website will do no good for your website's ranking if the links to the markers website aren’t set up correctly. If the other site types the wrong URL in the link then the visitors who click on it won’t be taken to your page they will see its error 404 message instead. This will stop your site from receiving the benefits of linking in the first place, and if lots of people click on this broken link it will also be bad for your bounce rates and rankings. 

Avoiding 404 Error Messages with Link Exchanges

It's always good to double-check the links you receive from exchanges to make sure the work. The simplest way of doing this is by visiting the page the exchange article is posted on and clicking the links.

It’s also important to remember that any changes you make to URLs on your site that are linked to from other sites will change broken links and created the error 404 messages if those links are not updated. If you spot a broken link or you are worried about creating a broken link from an exchange, don’t be scared to send your exchange partner an email to tell them your pages URL has changed. Removing broken links from their website is also in their best interest so they will be happy to help.

We hope this article has helped you to gain a better understanding of the 404 error message, and that next time you see one you don’t just think about broken robots and spaceships!

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