What is a 404 page and a 301 redirect?
404 page is commonly referred to as an error page or page not found on your website.
It is a broken page on your website, a page that’s moved or deleted. The error message can also occur if a user types in the wrong URL address.
It is likely one of the most frequent error messages and very specific. It means the page the viewer is trying to reach can’t be found on the server.
A 404 Error Wreaks Havoc
Website owners, be mindful. You need to be wary about showing up with 404 pages. It doesn’t matter if a browser mistyped the URL or the page no longer exists.
A 404 error can negatively impact your SEO by making it harder for search engines to crawl your site. It leads to a loss of link equity and higher bounce rates, both which can reduce ranking. A “hard” 404 that fails to redirect to relevant content decreases your rankings. It also sullies the customer experience which requires that you must be findable, accessible, and usable among other criteria. Therefore, in addition to SEO and ranking, a bad user experience reflects negatively on your brand.
The 301 Redirect Problem Solver
Finding and fixing 404 errors is a priority, and a 301 redirect is a problem solver. 301s give you the opportunity to permanently redirect from the broken URL to your preferred page and essentially make up for the broken page problem.
That’s why 404s and 301s should in most instances work in unison. A 301 redirect should be instituted simultaneously when you delete pages. Without a redirect, browsers can get frustrated by being stopped by a 404 message.
Google Not a 404 Fan
And one more important point: Google is not terribly fond of 404s.
There are 2 types of 404 pages: incoming and outgoing. You have less control of incoming 404’s because they can occur when a user mistypes your URL or if another organization links to your site with an incorrect URL.
But outgoing 404s occur on your website. You own them. This type of 404 will create a bad user experience—and Google doesn’t like bad user experiences, especially when inbound links point to a page that doesn’t exist. The more 404s you have, the less authoritative your website. And once again, a word to the wise, too many bad links on your website, and your rank can be affected.
Good News and Helpful Tools
Fortunately, WordPress allows you to easily install a redirection plugin on the backend of your site to eliminate 404 pages. It also redirects traffic to relevant content similar to what may have appeared previously on the 404 page. You can also redirect to your home page, which is a less preferred option because it does not specifically replicate information that was on the 404 page.
Other apps like Ubersuggest allow you to complete a site audit and click on Warnings to see what’s working or isn’t with your ranking and SEO.
Google Search Console is another helpful tool, particularly for targeting 404 “soft” errors. Soft 404s occur when a page requested by the user cannot be found or is invalid because it has limited content. Instead of giving search engines the correct error code so that they ignore it, your server tells users that the page is valid and search engines keep crawling the site. Your crawl space is wasted, your ranking diminished, and your brand’s authority and credibility will likely suffer.
Attack soft 404s before you do anything else…either by bulking up page content with relevant content or converting them to a hard 404 status instead.
Exceptions to the Rule
In some instances, it is sometimes okay not to redirect a 404. Your site may have been hacked, and the hackers put up a bunch of irrelevant pages. These are now 404 pages, but they should not be redirected. They are not at all relevant to the site and should have no association with it.
Understandably, the 404 topic and what to do about it and when can be confusing, but the following reminders will help:
- Address soft 404s first by adding relevant, credible content to enumerated pages
- Pair a hard 404 which occurs because the page material is no longer valid with a 301 redirect
- Use tools that will help you identify and categorize your 404 errors and correct them
Bottom line: 404s can throw a monkey wrench into your search ranking and the credibility of your brand. Get a handle on the issue. Be attentive. Be proactive.
Working with an agency like Ballantine can also help. Call us and get a jumpstart on controlling 404s and managing 301 redirects. Keep your Google rankings high and your brand’s authority and credibility head and shoulders above the crowd.
I'm the Director of Digital Services and Partner at Ballantine, a family-owned and operated direct mail & digital marketing company based in New Jersey. and started in 1966 by my great uncle!