Are 404 Errors on Your Website “Fine”?
Over the weekend I saw an article doing the rounds on Twitter that I thought could cause the world of SEO a headache in the coming weeks and months – “Google: Fine if 30-40% of URLs in Search Console Are 404s”.
On the surface, that could be a good thing. Fixing 404s (page not found errors – when a page/document can no longer be found), is tedious and sometimes costly. Removing this from a list of worries would be beneficial for businesses. BUT this isn’t quite so simple.
Representatives from Google have a tough time in the SEO community, their every word is over analysed and the algorithms that power search are complex.
Before you stop fixing site errors or remove any existing tickets you need to read on.
You Still Need to Be Concerned about 404 Errors
When a page (or file) cannot be found it means a few things:
- The user may not be able to find something they’re looking for
- Google cannot find the resource it’s trying to access
- Any traffic to that page is wasted
- Any kind of authority or relevancy signals around that page are lost
If you’ve clicked on a link in a blog post and the link takes you to a broken page, that’s disruptive and annoying. What’s worse is if you are trying to complete a task on a website and cannot do it because something is broken. Google will not pass benefit or look to rank pages that give a bad experience – simple!
This has not changed.
A BIG caveat here is pages that 404 will lose benefit, Google will not penalise an entire site for it. If large sections of your website suddenly stop working (for a significant period of time) then you may lose traffic and rankings. This is not a penalty, this is simply those pages dropping out.
When 30-40% of 404 Errors in Google Search Console is Fine
The news post (you can read it here) which reported John Mueller’s (from Google) remarks
“That’s perfectly fine. That’s completely natural especially for a site that has a lot of churn. If it’s like a classifieds site where you have classified listings that are valid for a month, then you expect those listings to drop out. And then we, like, over the years, we collect a ton of those URLs and try them again. And if they return 404s or 410s, like, whatever. Perfectly fine.
I don’t think that would look unusual to us. It’s not like we would see that as a quality signal or anything.”
There are normal reasons for pages to cease to exist and many, many reasons why you wouldn’t want to either a) keep those pages or b) redirect those to another destination.
How You Need to Treat 404 Errors
The errors reported in Google Search Console are notifications, Google’s actually being helpful at showing us what they’re seeing. You may also detect 404 errors with SEO software which looks to check the health of a website. However you encounter an error you need to consider the following:
- Is the page meant to still be there? If it was removed by accident (or someone mistyped a URL), then you should fix that.
- Did the URL get changed recently? Sometimes people tweak/change their URLs, even if the content still exists on your website, Google will still try the old URL. You need to 301 redirect the old URL to the new one to remove any potential disruption.
- Does that page have any links directed to it? Links from other websites (or within your own site) mean that people could still find that page. If those links are of value, you need to 301 redirect that to somewhere which makes sense.
- If that page was intentionally removed, is there a logical place to redirect it to? For example, if a product has been replaced by a new version, a redirect to the new product’s page could make sense. You may need to inform users that they have been forwarded to a later version.
There are other scenarios you’ll need to consider, but these are the most common. Pages which 404 risk losing value, you need to be sure you will not regret this later.
When a 404 is the Best Option
When is it okay to let a page drop off? When it makes sense to!
If you host a directory or an ecommerce site products or listings will come and go over time. When a product is gone or a listing has expired it may not benefit anyone for it to still exist. Redirecting these pages to a category – or worse the homepage – will cause the following:
- It will confuse (and potentially annoy) users who do not end up where they expected – this could harm your conversion rate.
- Google will assume those pages should have 404’d and likely list them as a “soft 404” within Google Search Console.
Past pages which should go BUT drive a lot of traffic need to be treated differently. Why do people still want to go there? What can you do with that traffic to create some kind of value? Keep the page (and change the content) to best help the users OR 301 redirect it to a page that explains why the original page is gone and give them some helpful options.
For those pages which you’re considering removing if they have little/no significant traffic or links and that is unlikely to change – 404ing them is likely the best option.
When a 404 Could Mean Something More Sinister…
Imagine you had 1% of URLs reported as 404 errors in Search Console, that had remained steady for weeks/months – everything is fine. One day you check and you now have 30-40% of errors, that’s a problem!
Large quantities of unexpected 404 errors implies that something has broken or been changed without your knowledge, THIS is a situation that needs a more thorough investigation.
If you’re worried about these issues or need someone to help give you an understanding of what is going on – get in touch, we specialise in site audits and can offer a fresh pair of eyes.