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Do 404 Errors Impact SEO Rankings?

    Reposition Services UK
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    By Dev
    February 22, 2024
    ~ 6 minutes to read

    With search engine optimisation (SEO) constantly changing, website owners and digital marketers are continuously striving to enhance their online visibility and rankings. One aspect frequently raises concerns is the presence of 404 errors, also known as “page not found” errors, on a website. These errors occur when a user attempts to access a URL that no longer exists or has been moved to a different location. The question that arises is whether these 404 errors have a direct impact on a website’s SEO rankings, and if so, what measures can be taken to mitigate their effects.

    Understanding 404 Errors

    Before delving into the impact of 404 errors on SEO, it is crucial to understand what these errors represent and the various reasons behind their occurrence. A 404 error is an HTTP status code that indicates that the requested resource is not available on the server. This can occur for a multitude of reasons, which can be categorised as follows:

    Deleted or Moved Pages

    If a webpage has been deleted or moved to a new location without proper redirection, the old URL will return a 404 error when accessed. This can happen during website restructuring, content consolidation, or when individual pages are deliberately removed.

    Broken Links

    Internal or external links that point to URLs that no longer exist can also trigger 404 errors. These broken links may result from outdated or poorly maintained internal linking structures, changes in third-party websites that host linked content, or typographical errors in link construction.

    Typographical Errors

    Typing errors in the URL or mistyping a website address can result in a 404 error if the requested URL does not match any existing resources on the server. Incorrectly typed URLs, especially those with complex structures or long paths, can easily lead to 404 errors.

    Expired Resources

    Temporary or time-sensitive resources, such as promotional landing pages, campaign-specific URLs, or expired content, may no longer be available after a certain period, leading to 404 errors when accessed after their intended lifespan.

    The Impact Of 404 Errors On SEO Rankings

    The impact of 404 errors on a website’s SEO rankings is a complex topic that has been widely debated within the SEO community. While there is no definitive consensus, several factors influence how search engines perceive and respond to 404 errors, and these factors can have varying degrees of impact on a website’s search engine performance.

    User Experience

    Search engines place a significant emphasis on providing users with the best possible experience, and 404 errors can negatively impact this objective. When a user encounters a 404 error, they are likely to become frustrated and leave the website, leading to increased bounce rates and reduced engagement.

    High bounce rates and low engagement metrics can signal to search engines that the website is not meeting user expectations, potentially leading to a decrease in overall rankings.

    Crawlability and Indexability

    Web crawlers, also called bots or spiders, regularly scan websites to discover new or updated content. If these crawlers encounter a large number of 404 errors, it may impact their ability to efficiently crawl and index the website’s content.

    While search engines are generally adept at handling a certain level of 404 errors, an excessive number of these errors can hinder the crawler’s ability to discover and prioritise valuable content for indexing, potentially leading to a decrease in overall rankings.

    Link Equity and Ranking Signals

    Broken links or deleted pages that previously held significant link equity or ranking signals may cause a temporary drop in rankings until the search engine reprocesses the website’s link structure and redistributes the link equity across the remaining pages.

    When a page with a strong backlink profile is deleted or moved without proper redirection, the link equity and ranking signals associated with that page may be lost, potentially impacting the overall ranking of the website.

    However, search engines are continuously improving their algorithms to handle link equity distribution more effectively, minimising the impact of this factor over time.

    Mitigating the Impact of 404 Errors on SEO

    While the presence of 404 errors on a website can have some negative consequences for SEO, several strategies can be employed to mitigate their impact and maintain a healthy website structure, ensuring optimal search engine performance.

    Implement Proper Redirects

    When moving or deleting pages, it is crucial to implement proper redirects using 301 (permanent) or 302 (temporary) HTTP status codes. These redirects inform search engines and users that the content has been moved to a new URL, preserving link equity and providing a seamless user experience.

    By properly redirecting URLs, you can ensure that the ranking signals and authority associated with the old URL are transferred to the new location, minimising any potential ranking impact.

    Create Custom 404 Error Pages

    Instead of displaying the default “page not found” error message, create custom 404 error pages that provide users with relevant information and guidance. These pages can include links to popular or related content, a search bar, or even a sitemap to assist users in finding what they’re looking for.

    Custom 404 pages can improve the user experience, reduce bounce rates, and demonstrate to search engines that the website is proactively addressing issues related to broken or missing pages.

    Regularly Audit and Fix Broken Links

    Conduct regular website audits to identify and fix broken internal and external links. Tools like Screaming Frog or Google Search Console can help identify 404 errors, allowing website owners to address them promptly.

    By fixing broken links, you can ensure that users and search engine crawlers are not encountering unnecessary 404 errors, which can improve the overall website experience and reduce the risk of negative ranking impacts.

    Optimise URL Structure and Naming Conventions

    Implement a logical and consistent URL structure for your website, using descriptive and keyword-rich filenames and folder names. This can help minimise accidental 404 errors caused by misspelt or mistyped URLs. Clear and intuitive URL structures not only improve the user experience but also enhance the crawlability and indexability of your website, potentially leading to better search engine performance.

    Utilise Webmaster Tools and Analytics

    Leverage tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics to monitor website performance, crawl errors, and user behaviour. These tools can help identify areas for improvement and track the impact of your efforts to resolve 404 errors.

    By monitoring metrics such as crawl errors, bounce rates, and page views, you can gain insights into how well your strategies for mitigating 404 errors are working and make data-driven decisions to further improve your website’s search engine performance.

    Case Studies and Examples

    To illustrate the impact of 404 errors on SEO rankings and the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, let’s explore some real-world case studies and examples:

    E-Commerce Website Case Study

    An e-commerce website experienced a significant drop in organic search traffic after a major website redesign. Upon investigation, it was discovered that numerous 404 errors were being generated due to improper redirects and broken links. By implementing proper redirects and fixing the broken links, the website was able to recover its organic search visibility and rankings within a few months, regaining the lost traffic and potential revenue.

    News and Media Website Example

    News and media website frequently updates their content, resulting in a large number of expired or time-sensitive URLs. By implementing custom 404 error pages with relevant links and a search bar, the website was able to improve the user experience and reduce the bounce rate for users encountering 404 errors. This approach helped maintain their search engine rankings, as users were less likely to abandon the website due to the improved handling of 404 errors.

    Corporate Website Case Study

    A corporate website underwent a domain migration, resulting in numerous 404 errors due to outdated backlinks from external sources. By regularly monitoring server logs and using webmaster tools to identify and address crawl errors, the website was able to gradually regain its rankings and authority in search engine results. Proactive monitoring and addressing of 404 errors helped minimise the impact on their search engine performance during the domain migration process.

    Blog and Content Website Example

    One Blog and content website focusing on a niche topic experienced a slight drop in rankings after deleting a substantial amount of outdated content. By properly redirecting the deleted URLs and optimising the remaining content, the website was able to maintain its overall rankings and visibility in search results. The use of proper redirects and ongoing content optimisation helped mitigate the potential negative impact of deleting a significant portion of their content.

    Local Business Website Case Study

    A local business website with multiple location pages experienced issues with 404 errors due to inconsistent URL structures across different locations. By auditing their website structure, implementing consistent URL naming conventions, and fixing broken internal links, the business was able to resolve the majority of their 404 errors. This improved the overall crawlability and indexability of their website, leading to enhanced visibility in local search results and improved rankings for their target geographic areas.

    These case studies and examples highlight the importance of proactively addressing 404 errors and implementing effective mitigation strategies to maintain a healthy website structure and optimal SEO performance. By taking a holistic approach to website management, businesses can minimise the negative impact of 404 errors and position themselves for success in search engine rankings.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, while 404 errors can have an impact on a website’s SEO rankings, their significance should not be overstated. Search engines understand that 404 errors are a natural part of the web ecosystem, and their algorithms are designed to handle them effectively. 

    However, by implementing proper redirects, creating custom 404 error pages, regularly auditing and fixing broken links, optimising URL structures, monitoring server logs, utilising webmaster tools, and keeping content fresh and relevant, website owners can minimise the negative impact of 404 errors and maintain a strong online presence.

    It is essential to remember that a holistic approach to SEO, focusing on providing high-quality content, optimising for user experience, and building a solid technical foundation, is crucial for achieving sustainable success in search engine rankings. While addressing 404 errors is an important aspect of this overall strategy, it should be considered alongside other essential SEO best practices, such as keyword research, on-page optimisation, link building, and mobile-friendliness.

    By taking a proactive approach to website management and prioritising user experience, businesses can create a positive impression with both search engines and users, ultimately leading to increased visibility, higher rankings, and improved online performance.