Dissecting the 404 Error: Things That Could Happen if Your Website's Pages are Broken (infographic)

Setting up a website involves a long process, with multiple factors working together to keep it up and running. When a single cog in the wheel fails, it won’t be surprising to see a few pages go down. One of the most common errors that you or your site’s visitors may find is Error 404.

The 404 code is too common that it’s almost inevitable, especially if your website's content is continuously changing or updating. It may also pop up when you do a large-scale redesign, and the URL structure ends up being changed. However, this error isn’t very critical and can be helpful when it comes to troubleshooting issues.

But, what is a 404, and what are the possible causes behind it?

Error 404 is a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) status response code from the server. It occurs when a browser fails to open a page because the server couldn’t locate it despite the server being reachable, or simply because that page is no longer available. A link to an Error 404 page is referred to as a broken or dead link.

Other reasons behind a broken page are if the user incorrectly typed or misspelled some words on the URL, if the page was moved but was not appropriately fixed to redirect visitors, or if the page was removed entirely from the website.

What are the implications of Error 404?

More often than not, website operators don’t get to remove or update dead links immediately because they don’t always check external links; therefore, they aren’t always aware or informed that a linked content has been deleted or moved.

This error technically isn’t the end for your site. However, there’s no denying that one dead link can affect your website’s reputation among visitors. You may be missing out on prospects who are looking for valuable information on your site but failed to do so due to a broken link.

The effects of Error 404 can be twofold:

User experience

As much as possible, you want your leads (visitors) to find everything they need on your website. From the consumer angle, a dead-end page is a huge turn-off. On the one hand, your visitors may be driven away by this problem and may choose not to return to your website; they may also perform another search, which can lead them to your competitors.

On the other hand, though, this may make them contact you directly (provided, of course, that you have a Contact Us page or customized 404 page). However, don't count on this to happen every time—not all visitors have the patience to go through the lengths of contacting you directly to find what they need, especially if they have the option to just do a further search.

Search engine optimization

Each page on the website undergoes nurturing—acquiring inbound links, social shares, and many other ways to make it rank on search engine results page (SERP) and ultimately land on your target audience’s lap. When there are broken pages on your site, you lose the link juice and your SEO efforts to go waste.

This may also lead to a dip on the SERPs if the search engine spiders found broken links and assume that the page is not well maintained. Google and other search engines want to deliver the best results on their SERPs, and if they find that you have error pages up for some time, it may lose value and authority, ultimately leading to a decrease in traffic and increase in bounce rate.

How can you spot 404 errors on your site?

If you only have a few pages on your website, checking it regularly for broken links wouldn’t be too troublesome. In any case, finding these links to fix doesn’t have to be done manually, especially when you have any of these useful tools.

Google Analytics: Error 404 can be tracked with GA by using the custom filter Behavior > Site Content > All Pages. The report will show you the number of visitors that have seen the error, as well as the number of times they have seen it.

Google Search Console: Formerly known as Webmaster Tools, this tool is available to any website registered with a Google account. It crawls the site to find broken links, displays all the 404 errors found, and can also mark them as revised. It also shows the number of times Google spiders have crawled your website. Additional functions can also help find errors in robots.txt files.

Ahrefs: This handy SEO tool can find dead links on your site, too; simply input the URL into the Site Explorer, get the “Best by links” report, then filter to include “404 not found” under HTTP codes.

Raventools: Use the Site Auditor to discover all the desktop and mobile SEO issues that may be influencing the site’s ranking, including Error 404s.

ScreamingFrog: ScreamingFrog comes with an SEO Spider tool that will inspect your webpages for any errors. After the inspection, it will create a report of found errors and URLs.

Dead Link Checker: This fast and straightforward tool finds both internal and external dead links. To use, simply enter the URL and press enter to run the inspection. After which, you get to see the list of tracked error pages, including the status code and specific URL. You may choose to check just one page or your whole site’s.

W3C Link Checker: The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) own online tool for link checking runs long but detailed tests on individual pages to validate links. Like the other tools listed here, you simply have to enter the URL, and it will take care of the rest.

What are the possible solutions to this error?

Despite being tagged as an "error," not all 404s are worth fixing. However, if your pages get relevant links from external sources, consistently get high traffic, or has links leading to relevant pages, you need to pay attention to them. Errors that you believe are not harming your rankings or site indexing can be taken care of later on.

The most apparent solution to 404 pages is to do regular checks on your site for broken links (with help from the tools mentioned above). Find the pages that may be damaging your rank to start working on how to resolve them.

You can also utilize the other HTTP codes to help you with your dead links. Set up a 301 redirect (the code used to imply a permanent transfer of a page to a new URL) so that search engines and your visitors are redirected to the new page. Update your 404s to 301s, then contact the websites that link to it so they can update or remove the broken link.

Another code that you can use is the 410 status, which blocks search engines from associating your page with a link that is no longer relevant so it can be removed from the search engine index.

Do you need a customized 404 page?

Curiously, several authoritative websites use a standard 404 page despite it being a mistake. It is believed that having a personalized 404 error page is better than having none at all, as it provides an exact reason to visitors as to why the page they are trying to access isn't appearing. It also helps to communicate to them that the error means that the content they are looking for has been deleted or moved.

One type of site that regularly experience 404s are ecommerce websites (more commonly when a product or service isn’t being offered anymore). Design a user-friendly 404 error page, explaining why the customer ended up there. Add a cleverly designed CTA to keep the visitor on the site and make them want to continue browsing. You can also do that by including a link to the main page, available products and services page, and other relevant pages.

For other websites, you can include related links on your specially designed 404 page to redirect visitors to other pages within your site where they can find what they are looking for or add a search bar to make their search easier. With these steps, you don’t have to lose visitors who have encountered the 404 code.

Lastly, be creative with your own Error 404 pages to make it more fun or present your brand as more self-aware. This may not take away the disappointment from visitors over not finding what they need, but the originality or entertainment can help offset the distress. Just make sure that the pages still align with your brand and overall style of your website.

Still worried about 404s?

As much as possible, you wouldn’t want to have errors on your websites. There is a feeling of alarm or embarrassment when you view this blatant mistake from the eyes of your audience. However, 404s can only affect your site negatively if you’re not directing your audience to the right pages.

In addition, Error 404 isn’t completely preventable, but even Google knows that 404 is a typical incident, especially for enterprise sites. It’s only best to get it under control, which you can do so by having a better understanding of this error. With help from the infographic below, you can be better informed and form a plan for when this error strikes your website.

Dissecting 404: Things That Could Happen if Your Page is Broken

Featured Illustration: Raftel

Read next: 3 Things You Need to Know About Refining Your Website This Year.
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