You've probably encountered at least one 404 error--maybe even on your own site. A 404 error is a type of error returned when a user attempts to access a page on the server that is not specified, does not exist, or otherwise can't be accessed. There are several error codes that indicate a problem returning a requested web page, but 404s are the most common and most talked about on the web. 

Most websites have a default 404 page that informs a user that the domain is live, but the requested page does not exist. Some webmasters let this catch-all page handle any resulting confusion, while others hunt down and eliminate 404 errors at all costs. In either case, the question remains--do 404 errors affect your SEO rankings? 

How 404 Errors Occur

There are a number of reasons why a 404 error might pop up, but all of them share a commonality: a user is trying to access a page that doesn't exist. This can happen because a user has mistyped the URL, or because the page no longer exists, and a user has tried to access it. This can be from an old bookmark, an existing link on an external source, or even a Google search result. If your page has been newly 404'd, Google may still display old information on the page, leading to confusion when a user tries to access it. 

So why could a page on your site suddenly 404?

  • You deleted or removed the page without updating your sitemap or external links. 
  • You changed the URL of a page without updating your sitemap or external links.
  • A user has mistyped the URL for a page that still exists. 

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about that last possibility--but the first two are fully in your control. 

Ranking Impact

To answer the main question of this article succinctly, you don't have to worry. There's no inherent penalty from Google for having a 404 error returned for a page on your site--and you can read the proof straight from the source. A 404 error on one page does not affect the way Google sees the other pages of your site, nor does it incur some type of penalty if too many 404 errors exist. This is a myth, so there's no need to worry about 404 errors dragging down your rankings.

User Experience and Secondary Impact

However, just because 404 errors don't directly influence your rankings doesn't mean you can ignore them. They can detract from your website's overall user experience, and might negatively impact your SEO goals. For example, if a specific page important to your business returns a 404 error, it will drop in rank (even though your other pages will remain steady). In this scenario, you stand to lose organic traffic. It only applies to the most important pages of your site, but it's still worth considering. 

You'll also want to consider how your users experience 404 errors. Experiencing one when you're expecting a page of content, such as when clicking a link or visiting from a bookmark, can leave users with a negative impression and prevent them from returning. As a general rule, correcting 404 errors will improve your user experience, and therefore, both your traffic and visibility. 

How to Fix 404 Errors

Fortunately, fixing 404 errors is relatively simple. If your page has been removed or renamed, you can revert it back to its original state as if nothing ever happened. If you wish to leave it in its new state, you can set up a 301 redirect to preserve any links pointing to the original location. In fact, 301 redirects are a good solution for almost any need in correcting 404 errors--they send any traffic from the old location to the new one, and neither users nor search engine crawlers get upset over it. 

Ensuring your sitemap, redirects, and pages are accurate and up-to-date is a somewhat tricky business. If you're new to the scene, you could work with an SEO agency, a web developer, or even a freelancer to help you get the rest of your site in order. 

404 Page Design

It's also worth noting that some 404 errors are unavoidable (since you can't always predict how users will type in URLs), and some are worth having (such as for pages with highly outdated content). In these cases, you'll need to ensure your 404 error page is as cleverly designed as possible. If you're looking for illustrations of what constitutes "clever," Complete Web Resources has an awesome post with 24 real-world examples. Not only will this soften the impact of seeing a 404 error, it might even leave users with a more positive impression of your brand. 

Important Takeaways

The main takeaway here is that 404 errors won't directly harm your site's rankings, but they aren't exactly good for your users or your overall online marketing strategy. It's a good idea to periodically check for 404 errors and fix them, either by restoring the pages to their original states or setting up a 301 redirect to handle any stray traffic that happens down that path. For all other 404 errors and URL mistakes, a clever and creative 404 page can ensure your users have the best experience possible. 

December 21, 2015

Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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Search Engine Guide > Jayson DeMers > Can 404 Errors Hurt Your SEO Rankings?