• katherine Nwanorue

What Is a 404 Error and How Do You Fix It?

Have you ever clicked on an item you really want or even a blog post that has the exact information you need, only to hit ‘404 Not Found’?


Chances are you’ll either leave the website immediately for another that has what you need or, in very few cases, check out other similar resources on the website (if they’re compelling enough). Just like you, your page visitor would react the same way. And keeping them on your site is the best option. That’s where a properly fixed 404 error page comes in.


In this post, I’ll walk you through why 404 errors occur and how they affect your website. You’ll also learn how to find, vet, and fix your 404 error pages.

What Is a 404 Error?


Pixar 404 Error Page Example
Pixar 404 Page

A 404 error is an HTTP status code that indicates to search engines and visitors that a requested URL can’t be found or doesn’t exist. When you hit a page with this error, you'll typically see the notice ‘404 Not Found’, ‘404 Page Not Found, or something similar.


Why Do 404 Errors Occur?

There are several reasons you'll see this error, but commonly, a 404 error happens when:


• A URL is Mistyped or Malformed

This is simply a misspelling issue. Let's say, you're trying to access the blog section of a website by typing in ‘example.com/blogg’ when the correct URL is ‘example.com/blog’. This little misspelling would return a 404 response code.


• A Page Has Been Moved or Deleted

If a webpage or resources such as videos or images has been moved to another section of a website, its URL changes. Without any redirection, anyone trying to access the initial URL will hit a 404 HTTP status code. This also applies to pages that were deleted.


• There's a Soft 404

There are also instances when the server returns a 200 status code (i.e., everything's okay—the page exists) for a requested URL, but Google believes ‌it should return a 404. This is known as a soft 404.


Common reasons ‌a soft 404 occurs are when:

○ A page’s critical resources such as scripts and other non-textual elements didn’t load properly for search engine bots.

○ There’s little to no content on a page which, in most cases, could be because of the rendering issue mentioned above.

○ A page that’s no longer available returns a 200 status code.


• Broken Links Exists On a Webpage

Broken links are links that lead to nonexistent pages. Actively linking to these broken links would trigger a 404 error when users access the destination URL.


Do 404 Errors Hurt SEO?


Short answer—a couple of 404 error pages shouldn’t directly affect your website’s SEO. Here's how Google answers this question in the Search Console Help Center:


"In general, 404 errors won’t impact your site’s search performance, and you can safely ignore them if you’re certain that the URLs should not exist on your site"

But context matters a lot here, and that’s why a longer answer is better. Let me explain.


If a user mistypes a URL or adds random characters to a valid URL on your website, this isn’t worth worrying over because—well—the page doesn’t exist. So, there’s no negative impact here.


On the other hand, if you're actively linking to existing pages that were deleted or moved, it's a whole new ball game. Why?


For one, it creates a poor user experience. Like I mentioned earlier, if a visitor clicks on a page for the latest running shoes only to see a 404 not found error, they'll likely ditch your website and move to your competitors. This action results in high exit and bounce rates.


It doesn't end there. Any URL that returns a 404 HTTP status code won't be indexed or ranked because the link goes nowhere. Linking to these affected URLs (without implementing a permanent redirect) means that you'll miss out on any traffic or link equity they should have passed to another page. This translates to lost revenue opportunities.


That's why it's essential to handle your 404s properly, fixing what needs to be fixed and ignoring others.


How to Find and Fix 404 Errors On Your Website

To fix 404 pages, you’ll need to find the affected pages and then vet and prioritize which ones to fix. I’ll walk you through these steps.


Step 1: Finding 404 Errors


Some ways to find 404 error pages on your website are through third-party tools, Google Analytics, and the Google Search Console.


How to find 404 Error Pages on Screaming Frog

There are several third-party site audit tools, such as Semrush, Sitebulb, Screaming Frog, Botify, and DeepCrawl that can help you find error pages. I've used Semrush, Screaming Frog, and Sitebulb and can attest that they're all great tools. So whichever one you choose comes down to your preference.


For this post, I'll be using Screaming Frog. If you don't have a license, you can start with the free version that allows you to crawl up to 500 URLs.


Here's how to find 404s using Screaming Frog:

  1. Open the Screaming Frog audit tool

  2. Click on ‘Mode’ at the top-level navigation of the screen and select 'Spider' to allow you to crawl the entire website.

  3. Enter the URL you want to crawl into the search bar and start the audit

  4. Once the audit is complete, select the 'Response Codes' tab

  5. Next, select 'Client Error (4xx)' from the filter feature to check for URLs that return a 404 status code.

How to find 404 pages in Google Analytics 4

If you have access to the website's Google Analytics account, you can spot 404 pages there through the following steps:


  1. Go to 'Reports' from the sidebar.

  2. Click on ‘Engagement’.

  3. Select 'Page and screens' from the dropdown menu.

  4. In the lower search bar, type in variations of the word ‘404 errors’ one at a time and hit enter. Variations to search for include '404' and 'Page not found’.

  5. Depending on the word variation you searched for, you should see pages that have a 404 error-related title.

  6. To see the exact URL returning that response, click on the + sign to add a filter.

  7. Select Page/Screen and then select ‘Page path and screen class’.

How to find 404 pages on Google Search Console

Spotting 404 pages on GSC is pretty straightforward.

  1. Select 'Coverage' from the options on the sidebar

  2. Tap on 'Excluded' from the graph header summary on the page

  3. Check the 'Details' section to see flagged errors. Look out for headers such as 'Submitted URL seems to be a soft 404', 'Submitted URL not found (404)', and 'Not Found (404)'. We're interested in anything that mentions soft 404 or 404.

  4. Next, click on each header to view a list of affected URLs under that group.

Step 2: Vetting 404 Errors


Most times, it may seem that some valid pages are flagged as 404 error pages. But on a closer look, you’ll find that it’s a broken link found within that page that triggers the error. That’s why you should confirm whether it’s a source page that’s non-existent or a linked URL within it.


Screaming Frog provides an easy way to help you investigate this thoroughly. So, once you have a list of your 404 error pages, click on any of them. You’ll see more details about that page on the lower side of the screen.

404 Error Audit on Screaming Frog
Screaming Frog 404 Error Audit

Click on ‘inlinks’ from the options in the bottom navigation bar. This provides you with the information on:

  • Link Type: The type of link the 404 page is (e.g., hyperlink)

  • From: This is the source where the 404 error URL can be found. If it’s an internally linked broken link, you’ll see the URL where it was linked from.

  • To: Here, you’ll find the URL of the broken link itself.

Another way to vet your 404s is through manual checks. Simply paste the URL on your browser to confirm the page doesn't exist. This method works best when you only have a few URLs to check.


Step 3: Prioritizing Which 404 Error Pages to Fix


One thing Aleyda has always emphasized during our training is prioritization. Just because something is broken doesn't mean it has to be fixed. You need to assess if it's relevant to your goals and if the impact is worth the effort.


With that in mind, when fixing 404 error pages, pay attention to:

  • Pages that historically have high traffic and have generated substantial revenue. You can use Google Analytics to spot these pages. Follow the steps I mentioned in the previous section for finding error pages on GA4 and assess the page views, conversions, revenue, and similar data for your top-performing pages.

  • 404 pages with significant backlinks. The more quality backlinks a page has, the higher the trustworthiness of that page. This improves the chances of ranking. But you can only tap into this benefit if you fix the affected 404 pages. You can use Semrush's Backlink Analytics tool to check the number of external links that point to your error page.

Checking Your Backlinks on Semrush Backlinks Tool
Semrush Backlinks Analytics Tool
  • 404 pages search engines keep crawling. Are search engines frequently crawling your 404 pages even after a long time since the pages stopped existing? Then there's a reason ‌those pages are still a priority to them. And that's why you should consider fixing such pages. Not every hosting service provides you access to your log files. But on others like Namecheap, you can get your download your log files through your cPanel.

Step 4: How to fix 404 error pages


Solution one: Implement a 301 redirect

The best way to fix your priority 404 pages is to implement a 301 redirect to pass link equity from the old page to the destination URL.


What to do:

  • Redirect your 404s to the most relevant page. Ideally, it should be:

  1. A page that contains similar or substitute items or posts

  2. A relevant parent category

  • If you're working on your personal site and don’t have access to a developer, you can use plugins to implement the permanent redirect at scale. For WordPress, some popular free plugins that can help are Redirection, Safe Redirect Manager, and SEO Redirection. Follow the prompts within these plugins to set up your redirects and you’re good to go.

What not to do:

  • Redirecting all 404 error pages to your homepage. This is bad practice because you're sending both search engines and users irrelevant content. What's more? It could make you lose out on all the original ranking signals associated with the 404 pages. John Mueller addressed this at the 1 hour 6 minutes and 24 seconds mark of this Google Webmaster Central Hangout video.

  • Redirecting to another 404 page. This one is self-explanatory. A dead end leading to another dead end offers no value to bots and page visitors.

  • Holding off on fixing your 404s for too long. Over time, Google drops 404 pages out of the index. This means that you could lose any traffic and potential revenue that the page generates. Also, no one likes linking to a non-functional page. So, the backlinks pointing to the affected page will dwindle as well.

Solution two: Design a helpful 404 error page template

If, for some reason you don’t want to redirect the page, design a 404 error template that will keep the user engaged and possibly seek ‌your other resources. You can design this if you have access to your server’s configuration files.

Template of HelpScout's 404 Error Page
HelpScout Error Page Template

Just make sure that:

  • The page’s title has the text ‘404’, ‘Page not found’, or a combination of both. This helps you locate 404 error pages on Google Analytics that users are visiting more (as we identified in the previous sections). Most plugins have templates for this.

  • There should be a body text that clearly explains to the user that the page they requested has been moved or deleted.

  • Include helpful resources for the visitor. This could be a contact page to reach you, a link to similar category pages, another link leading to your homepage, or a search bar to find other pages within your website.

  • Bonus point: Add an HTML sitemap on your site’s page, including the 404s to help users go to any part of your website they wish.

If you’re looking for inspiration, ‌check out Help Scout’s 404 error page template above.


How to Fix Soft 404 Errors


Most soft 404 errors can be fixed by clicking on ‘Request Indexing’ once you inspect a URL in Google Search Console. But before that, you need to make confirm that there’s no rendering issue and that search engine bots can access critical resources such as your images, scripts, and other non-textual elements.


To confirm through the GSC that ‌it isn’t a JavaScript rendering issue:

  • Follow the steps I outlined in the ‘how to find 404 pages in the Google Search Console’ section

  • Once you Live test the URL, click on ‘View Tested Page”

  • Check the ‘Screenshot’ tab to view a snapshot of the rendered version. If the page is blank or nearly blank, it means your page resources are not loading properly. The reason might be a blocked resource (by robots.txt) or very large scripts.

  • Next, check the ‘more Info’ tab for further details on the rendered version.

  • If there are error messages or warnings that some resources couldn’t be loaded but the screenshot of the page shows ‌everything renders as it should, then the resource is non-critical and you can ignore it.

  • If there are warnings with a blank or incomplete screenshot, then the affected resource is a critical one. Confirm if it’s blocked by robots.txt and unblock it. If it’s a size issue, try minifying the script.

  • Also, confirm from the ‘more info’ tab what HTTP code the page returns.

  • If it’s a page that should be indexed, it should return a 200 HTTP code. Once you confirm it returns the right response, click on ‘Request Indexing’ to submit the page to search engines.

  • If it’s a page that shouldn’t exist, serve a 404 HTTP status code instead.

Wrapping Up

In a faraway world where everything is perfect, 404s don’t exist. But on a real website, it exists. And failing to take the right action on the right 404 error pages could cost you traffic, backlinks, and well-deserved revenue you should be making. Don’t sleep on it. Follow the steps I’ve mentioned to find your 404s, identify the best pages to focus on, and the right way to fix them.


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