A 404 error is a ‘file not found’ error. It means that the server cannot find the intended page for that specific URL and as such, instead of displaying the page that the user probably thought they were going to see, they receive a 404 error instead. That may seem like the end of the matter, the user tries to visit a page but according to the server the page does not exist at that particular moment in time and therefore the user cannot view the page, but there are some SEO issues to be taken into account when talking about 404 errors.
Be warned, there are different schools of thought on how to deal with 404 errors on your website. The information below is somewhat of a compromise and one that we believe allows the greatest flexibility.
Think user experience
Receiving a standard browser 404 error may not seem like a big deal. There may be issues with the server but more likely the user has simply typed in the incorrect URL or clicked on a link which points to the wrong URL. However, a standard 404 error definitely detracts from the user experience, they are not particularly attractive and highly likely to be ‘off brand’. A 404 error gives you (as the webmaster) the opportunity to provide a better user experience than your competitors. With small websites you may be able to keep track of any broken pages but as websites grow it is advisable to implement a policy in regards to your 404 errors because dealing with all of them manually is often not viable.
To 301 or not to 301
A solution to a 404 error is to ensure that all 404 errors are 301 redirected to the homepage so that the user at least gets to a page from which they can navigate to the page that they initially intended to visit (by the way this is assuming that in instances such as changing the URL of a page that you 301 redirect the old page to the new one directly so that the user is none the wiser). Don’t know what a 301 redirect is? Have a read of our explanation here. Ironically, one of the issues with having these redirects set up is that it can be confusing for the user. If the user clicks on a link that they think works, or types in a URL that they think is correct, they end up being shown the homepage or whatever page has been designated as the destination of the 301 rather than the page that they were expecting. As a result, many argue that it is better to simply allow the user to be presented with a 404 error. At least the user knows where they stand and can figure it out for themselves.
There is a reason behind 301 redirecting to the homepage. You may have a very popular site that earns a considerable amount of backlinks. Like a self fulfilling prophecy these links contribute significantly to the site’s search engine rankings which gives it more visibility, in turn earning more links, etc, etc. The link juice is therefore likely to be highly prized by said website. Pages that return 404 errors but have inbound links to them would be counted as lost link juice and therefore lost opportunity. Automatically 301 redirecting these pages ensures that you retain as much of your link juice as possible.
The alternative? Custom 404 pages
Custom 404 pages come in all shapes and sizes, from simple ‘on brand’ text to ones with exceptionally designed graphics or photography with multiple links to other areas of the site. Creating awesome 404 pages may seem a little frivolous but they can make a considerable impact on the user’s experience of not only your website, but also of your brand. Put it this way, if you walked into a company’s building for the first and opened a door to a room that you thought you needed to be in but the room was empty, what would you prefer to see? Would you like someone to simply tell you that you are in the wrong room with no further information? Would you like that person to send you back to the lobby without even telling you that you had walked into the wrong room (automatic 301 redirects above)? Or would you like to be greeted by someone who realises you are in the wrong room but gives you some further options which may help you find the right room, and happens to be really nice and friendly, they might even make you laugh. I know which one I would choose, and Google are pretty clear about which one they prefer. Sometimes it is better for both the search engine and the user to forget about hoarding as much link juice as you can!
For many websites (and design agencies) a bespoke 404 page presents an opportunity to be more creative than they might on what could be considered slightly more serious pages. There are some seriously cool examples of creative 404 pages around the web, just work the Google machine and see for yourself.
Avoid soft 404’s
Not all 404’s are the same. Soft 404’s are where a page is returned as ‘not found’ but the server doesn’t return a HTTP 404 response code. As such, Google’s crawlers are not formally told by the server that the web page doesn’t exist and therefore crawl it as a normal page. The problem being that there is no content on the page which is understandably frustrating for Google. Without getting into the nitty gritty of it, you will need to look at your Search Console data to identify pages that are listed as soft 404’s and rectify the issue with your web developer.
Soft 404’s can also be created by improper redirects which is another reason as to why simply redirecting all of your 404 pages to the homepage is not necessarily the best idea especially if you are using 302 redirects.
It is our job as SEOs to make Google’s life as easy as possible when trying to read your website and as a by product, decipher which pages should be returned for certain search terms. Not giving search engines the proper server response codes wastes time and adds to confusion so take the time to assess the status of your 404 issues.