The dreaded 404 page. The bane of webmasters everywhere.
Or are they?
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about 404 error pages and how they play into your SEO efforts:
What is a 404 Page?
A 404 page, or error page, is the content a user sees when they try to reach a non-existent page on our website. It’s the page your server displays when it can’t find the URL requested by the user.
To learn more about 404 errors themselves and how they play into SEO, see our guide to crawl errors.
While there’s a lot of thought and discussion surrounding how you should handle 404 errors and their impact on SEO, the fact remains that 404 errors are nearly unavoidable. While it’s tempting to simply redirect all 404 errors to the homepage, that’s actually the opposite of what you should be doing.
Redirecting to the homepage results in a bad user experience for a couple of reasons:
Users will be confused as to how they wound up on the homepage when they clicked a link to a different page.
Users won’t have access to the information they were promised and won’t know why.
Your users end up on a page that could be completely irrelevant to the link they clicked.
Using 301 or 302 redirects to your homepage is also a very bad SEO practice. Some website owners and SEOs do this in an attempt to preserve any link juice acquired by the removed/non-existent content.
Sending Google to your homepage instead of a page that returns a 404 status could make Google think your homepage is a soft 404 error. Here’s the explanation from Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller:
Here’s a further explanation from Mueller 2 years later:
So redirecting 404 errors to your homepage will wind up doing the exact opposite of what was intended.
Despite this fact, WooRank research found that 11.4% of redirected backlinks are redirected to the site’s homepage.
You can redirect some 404 errors to relevant pages if you have a way to determine which pages are relevant, like a similar product/category page or content that has the same information.
But it’s still a question of when you’ll need a good 404 page.
Using 404 Pages for Good
404 errors can be frustrating for users, so the main purpose of a 404 page is to turn the potential negative user experience of encountering an error into a positive one.
The key to this is links.
Links on 404 pages are so important because they give users a way out of the error page. Instead of closing the window or navigating away from your site, the user is able to find helpful and potentially relevant resources on another page.
Some links to add to your 404 pages should include:
- Your home page, obviously
- Some of your most popular blog pages
- Most popular or valuable product or category pages
- A way for users to report a broken link or a contact page/form
- An HTML sitemap
You can also help your users by adding a site search bar to your 404 page to allow them to find what they’re looking for directly from that page.
And as an added bonus?
Site searchers are more likely to convert than other users. Up to 50% in some cases!
Adding links and a search function can help increase site conversion rate by up to 50% in some cases.
What your custom 404 page will do
404 errors, and your server’s default 404 page, are generally ugly, unbranded and don’t provide any information beyond a generic "error has occurred" message. As such, they can drag down the overall marketing performance of your website.
Creating a custom 404 page with helpful links and maybe a search bar will
Reduce bounce rate and keep users on your website
Keep people engaged with your site and moving through your sales process
Leave them with a good feeling after a positive resolution to their 404 problem
Maintain consistent branding across your site
Attract external attention for your brand if you do a good enough job
A little more on that last point:
People like to talk about and share clever 404 pages they come across online. So a really good page can get you some great backlinks, like in this HubSpot blog post.
Creative branded custom 404 pages will help users as well as generate positive attention for your business.
What your 404 page will NOT do
Custom 404 pages will really help your human users who end up visiting a page that doesn’t exist. They can also help Google move on to other pages on your site via your links. However, there is one thing your 404 page will NOT do:
Pass link juice.
Yes, normally your landing pages can pass acquired link juice to your homepage or other internal pages via linking. But that’s because Google indexes your landing pages.
However, Google doesn’t index pages that return a 404 status (which your 404 page should do). That means they aren’t assigning any of the value passed by links that point to pages with 404 statuses.
But don’t panic!
If you have a page that has lots of high-quality links and results in a 404 error, you can still redirect that individual URL to a relevant page.
Google doesn't index URLs with a 404 status, so your error page doesn't pass link juice.
When Not to Use Your 404 Page
There are times when you don’t want to serve a 404 page to a user who requests a page that doesn’t (or no longer) exists.
What pages would you want to redirect?
Have very important external links or lots of links
Receive a lot of traffic or a substantive share of your website’s total traffic
Have an obvious URL that the user/linker is trying to reach
Replace, pages that get a lot of links, visitors or conversions to preserve SEO value instead of relying on redirects.
In these situations, it makes more sense to add a 301 redirect in order to send users — and link juice — to a more relevant and useful page.
Remember, though, that the destination pages you use for your redirects need to be legitimate replacement content. If you’ve got 404 errors for these types URLs, ideally you’ll have replacement content for these pages anyways since they are probably your website’s most important pages.
Creating Your 404 Page
How you create your 404 page depends entirely on how you manage your website.
For those using WordPress, 404page is a highly-recommended plugin that allows you to customize your 404 page. It doesn’t even require any development skills.
You can also check out these other 404 page plugins available for WordPress.
For those who don’t use WordPress as a CMS, it really is worth paying for a developer and/or designer to create and implement one for you.
When designing and writing your 404 page, follow the best practices and insights from the top 404 pages around the web.