Everything you need to know about 404 pages for your SEO

In this article you will find:

  • Understanding 404 pages
  • SEO impact of 404 pages and best practices
  • What features I think a 404 page should have

We’ve all been there – clicking a link only to be greeted by a seemingly ominous “404 Page Not Found” message. But what exactly is a 404 page, and why does it matter for your online presence? In this guide, we’ll unravel the mysteries of 404 pages, explore their impact on SEO, and delve into best practices recommended by Google.

Understanding 404 pages

What is a 404 page?

A 404 page is more than just an error message; it’s a communication from the server indicating that the requested URL is not available and has not been found. The term “404” refers to the HTTP status code assigned to this error, named “Page Not Found.” In simpler terms, it means that while you’re on the correct domain, the specific URL you’re looking for cannot be located. There are other types of ‘client errors’ (client meaning an error for you) for example if your browser is not allowed to access a page on purpose, it would be a 403 status code (called Forbidden).

When do 404 errors occur?

To effectively manage 404 errors, it’s crucial to understand when and why they occur. Whether a page was moved, deleted, or there was a typo in the URL, recognising the reasons behind 404 errors is key to maintaining a seamless user experience and optimising your site for search engines. These occur for different reasons, which are:

  • A typo in the URL, by the user
  • A link to your site pointing to a non-existent page
  • Moved or deleted content

How to spot 404 error page in a website

Proactive monitoring

Regular monitoring of your website for 404 errors is essential for identifying and addressing issues promptly. In this guide you will find a step-by-step process, utilising tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics to ensure your site remains error-free.

Google Search Console 404 pages vs Soft 404 pages

Google Search Console (GSC) shows two different reports about 404 pages. These are the most known “Not found (404)” report and the “Soft 404” report. Here’s the difference:

The first one includes pages that Google crawled but have not been found and the server responds with a “404 Not Found” status code. Google might have been able to reach this URL by following the internal or external links of a website or if the URL once had valuable and indexable content which has later been removed (Google knew the existence of the URL previously, so has made a decision to revisit it).

A soft 404, on the other hand, is a page that returns a “200 OK” status code but displays content that implies an error, such as a generic “Page Not Found” message. Google treats soft 404s differently, and they can still impact a site’s performance in search results.

Google Search Console also provides users with guidance about major issues that can make a specific page noindexed, including 4xx errors.

Here is the link to Google guidelines for 4xx errors.

On a side note, it is quite interesting saying that mentioning “404” several times across key elements of the page might get Google to think that page of a “Soft 404” page. We have seen instances in which product pages that have 404 in their names, were considered by Google a Soft 404 page. Especially if the “404” mention appears on key elements such as meta title and main headings.

404 pages on Google Analytics (GA4)

To identify 404 pages in Google Analytics 4 (GA4), first access your GA4 dashboard.

  1. Navigate to the “Reports” section.
  2. Choose “Pages and screens”.
  3. Select “Page title and screen class.
  4. Filter for “Not found” or “404”.
  5. Check for changes in page views comparing to time periods.

Regular monitoring ensures a healthy, error-free site. For more information about Google Analytics visit our GA4 essential guide.

SEO impact of 404 pages and best practices

Now that we explained when and why 404 pages occur, and how to spot them promptly, it is important to know what to do and how to fix them.

Does a 404 page affect SEO?

In the realm of digital channels, user experience is paramount. Hence why making sure that users land on a “working and live” page is extremely important. In SEO, this is even more important.

For instance, if for any reason the content of a page is removed, and the response status code turns into a 404, this exact page will start losing rankings. This is because Google will keep crawling the page, understanding that there isn’t any valuable content on it, and so it does not to be indexed. Google places significance on user satisfaction and addressing 404 errors is part of creating a positive online environment.

Best practices for dealing with 404 pages

No SEO strategy is complete without a plan for handling 404 errors. While there is no quick fix for typos and misspellings, there are solutions for broken links and moved or deleted content.

Fixing broken internal links

Broken internal links can contribute to 404 errors. In general, there are  three ways of fixing broken links the best practices, the good approaches, and the ones to avoid.

  • Best: Change the internal link to the live page or remove any inlinks pointing to the 404 page. Inlinks are all the internal links pointing to a specific page. Furthermore, it is best practice to implement the redirect from the old page to the new page.
  • Good: Only implementing redirects (without updating the internal links).
  • To avoid: Leaving broken links unattended which can harm the SEO performance and user experience as people navigating the site will come to dead ends.

Fixing moved or deleted content

When the same page is moving to a new URL, the best recommendation is to implement a redirect 301 from the old URL to the new URL. This would show Google that an up-to-date version of the page has been created on another URL. Redirecting not only the users but search engine crawlers as well. Helping to shift rankings and traffic gained through the old URL to the new URL.

On the other hand, when a page is removed from the site, a 404 page might appear if users click on existing links pointing to its URL.

Removing content automatically generates broken links within a website if the page is it linked from at least another page. Hence why, when it comes to remove content, it is good practice to update the broken internal links as explained previously.

What features should a 404 page have?

Despite doing your best to amend all broken links on the site, some 404 pages are inevitable.  Therefore our recommendation is to keep users engaged and, on the site, to avoid a user having a bad experience and consequently leaving the site. Here are some of my favourite 404 pages and strategies and why I found them interesting.

Amazon 404 page

The main issue of a 404 page from a user experience perspective is frustrating. Landing on a page that shows something we did not want to see can ruin the user experience. Amazon site understood this and the way to reduce this sense of frustration is to make the user smile, somehow. Hence, why opted to show pets when 404 results occur.

Attic Self Storage 404 page

Experiences like the Amazon example can be also seen on other sites, like Attic Self Storage.

I loved how they also linked the cardboard box with the puppy, as a reference to the storage business.

Space & Time 404 page

This case could be slightly more subtle, but it still aims to reduce users’ frustration and to keep them engaged, by leveraging a creative copy, with a reference to the spacetime continuum. Our copy indeed goes like: “Oops, it looks like you’ve fallen into a Space & Time continuum…” and just right below: “Back to home”, linking to the homepage of the site.

Linking to the homepage anticipates the next good practice when building 404 pages, which is internal linking.

Harper Adams University 404 page

I like how creative they have been with their copy. Harper Adams University in fact focuses on higher education for the rural and agricultural sector. And the copy here it is a reference to the sound of cows.

Just Landed 404 Page

Another creative way to leverage a good copy with images is the example of Just Landed. I particularly liked this one as the online directory crosses the “Landed” in their logo when a 404 page occurs. Showing users that they haven’t really landed where they are meant to.

Lego 404 page

The Lego website proposes a smart combo of copy and images to keep the users engaged with the site. Here there is an obvious reference to the “Lego’s bricks” and in also to the fact that little Lego men have interchangeable heads, an iconic Lego feature.

Apple 404 page

If on a first glance this 404 page does not look exciting at all, there are few features that make it great.

Firstly, I find the search bar a great way to keep the users on the site, as it will let them manually search what they could not found in the first place, without having to leave the site.

This internal linking feature is enhanced by linking to the site map, where the user is directed to the main list of live pages (and categories) of the site.

A HTML sitemap should first be implemented and optimised by an SEO team. Overall, I believe that it is a great practice to leverage internal linking to keep users on the site. As shown, this can be done in different ways like adding a search bar, a link to the sitemap, the navigation bar, or the footer to the 404 page.

Spotify 404 page

This 404 page is interesting because the internal linking is pointing to helpful pages like the FAQs page or the Community section of Spotify.

Yell 404 page

Websites like Yell provide the users with a full search bar, to help them to search again what they were looking for from within the site. In this case, Yell is known to be an online directory where users can look for businesses. By adding a search bar for businesses on their 404-page template, they are actually promoting their services once again to the user.

Ahrefs 404 page

Similar to Yell, there is the example of Ahrefs, a website that work as an SEO tool. When a 404 page occur, they try to upsell and link to the broken link report they provide (as we mentioned, broken links can be a reason why 404 pages are occurring), to improve internal linking of their site, reduce bounce rate and lastly to increase conversion for a service they provide.

BrewDog 404 page

This is the best option for eCommerce brands. It is beneficial to even add some best-selling products in the 404 page template like the case of BrewDog.

I like to see the use of puppies at the top because they are in theme with the brand name, and they reduce the frustration of the user. In addition to it they also add a carousel with either core products or products they want to promote. This practice requires keeping the 404-page template up to date but it also has more benefit from a conversion point of view.

Conquer the frustration, convert the lost

So, we’ve explored the dreaded 404, unravelling its mysteries and learning its impact on SEO. But this isn’t just a tale of technical woes; it’s a chance to turn user disappointment into opportunity. Think of your 404 page as a portal, not a dead end.

Embrace the unexpected

  • Infuse personality: A witty message, a playful graphic, even a cute critter (think Attic Self Storage’s adorable dog!) can disarm frustration and leave a smile.
  • Weave a narrative: Channel your inner storyteller like Harper Adams University, guiding lost visitors with engaging copy that keeps them glued to the page.
  • Show, don’t just tell: Lego’s clever animations and Just Landed’s playful image tweaks add another layer of fun, transforming the error into an interactive experience.

Let’s also recap 404 pages don’ts here:

  • Don’t leave the page blank with nowhere to click.
  • Don’t ignore the internal linking opportunities of a 404 page.
  • Don’t ignore the raising number of 404 pages.

Guide the way, not just back home

Internal linking is key, but let’s be strategic. Sure, offer a “Back to Home” button, but go beyond.

  • Offer curated suggestions: Showcase relevant content based on the broken link or user behaviour. Apple’s HTML sitemap provides a clear map, while Ahrefs offers a helpful link to their broken link report.
  • Emphasise navigation: Let users explore, not just return. A footer bar or even a full navigation menu on your 404 page gives them control and saves clicks.
  • Convert the dead end: For e-commerce brands, BrewDog’s approach is genius. Highlight best-selling products right on the 404 page, turning a dead end into a potential sale.

Remember, every 404 is a chance to:

  • Reduce bounce rate: Keep users engaged, don’t send them fleeing.
  • Boost SEO: Google rewards positive user experiences, and a delightful 404 page contributes.
  • Strengthen your brand: Inject personality and reinforce your message, even in the face of an error.

So, embrace the 404. It’s not just a technical headache; it’s a blank canvas for creativity, user engagement, and even a sneaky conversion opportunity. Make your 404 page a delightful surprise, not a disappointing dead end. And watch your lost visitors become loyal fans, all thanks to the power of a well-crafted error page.