The Error 404 “Page not found” is the error page displayed whenever someone asks for a page that’s simply not available on your site. It is an HTTP standard response code displayed when the server could not find the page. It often happens when a site changes their layout, internal linking or moves or transitions their site to a different infrastructure.
Why are 404 Errors so Bad? An Ugly Sabotage of Your Rankings? Not Exactly…
…but they are ugly!
First of all, 404 Errors are ugly and bad user experiences for site visitors. Essentially, it’s a dead end- a page that usually confuses users, leaving them with no option but to close the window or smartly click the back button (many don’t know to do this). It hurts your site credibility and frustrates people using the site.
Additionally, on Google’s Webmaster Blog, they go into detail about the damage that is and isn’t done by 404 Errors. To summarize, they realize these errors are going to happen, but they want you to fix them as much as possible. They state:
“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; we have 404 errors on our own sites, as you can see above, and we find them all over the web. In fact, we actually prefer that, when you get rid of a page on your site, you make sure that it returns a proper 404 or 410 response code (rather than a “soft 404”).”
Google doesn’t necessarily like them, but won’t kill you for them. With everything considered, 404’s should be handled correctly for the sake of your users. So, let’s address how this is done.
How Can I Prevent 404 Errors?
Three ways to avoid 404 errors include:
Redirects: In the .htaccess file on your root directory you can create redirects to the correct pages. Particularly helpful if pages consistently keep getting 404 errors.
Robots.txt file: If you have pages of your site that change all the time, or sections that need frequent alterations, you can simply block search engines from indexing these pages within the robots.txt file on your root directory.
Log files: Web server log files track 404 errors. If you access these log files you can view the 404 errors and look to make the necessary changes (fix links, restore pages, misspellings, etc.). If you are using WordPress for your site/blog, these logs can be easily seen if you’ve installed the SEO Ultimate plugin (check out our review of this great SEO worpress plugin).
What If I Miss Something? At Least Make it Pretty.
As Google mentioned above, 404 Errors are going to happen. Chances are you will miss some of them. A great best practice is to create a customized 404 Error page that helps users know what has happened and identifies what they can do to get back to the site. It’s a good chance to add some personality to your site- and may even win over some fans, as you respectfully apologize and redirect the visitor.
One of the most effective example is shown here. It includes some personality, explanation of what has happened and some alternative directions to help the visitors know where they can go.
Top Custom 404 Error Pages:
Some sites have gone out of their way to make their inevitable dead-ends look great. Below are some great examples and lists. Enjoy!
Do you have examples of great 404 Error pages? Post them below and share the love!