Error 404, 404 page, 4xx status code, 404 error, all refers to the same seo error but named differently depending on which SEO software you use or SEO expert you work with.
But what is the pesky 404 error? Why is it called a 404 error? And how do you fix a page with an error 404?
What is an error 404?
A 404 error is a page that contains no on-page content, the page doesn’t exist or it refers to a broken url link.
I know what you are thinking, “Well, that doesn’t clear it up at all…how do I tell which is a broken url 404 error and which is a page with a 4XX status code”? “What do you mean by, the page that does not exist?”
Let’s look at the different types of 404 errors individually and how you can identify them.
404 Error page with no content
When you run a site audit in any good SEO software tool like Semrush or Ubersuggest you might be notified that certain pages on your website are causing 404 errors or pages return a 4XX status code.
You could also use Google’s free Google Search Console tool to identify any pages with 404 errors.
When a page returns a 4XX status code or 404 error code Google is basically telling you “uh…I didn’t find anything”.
404 errors affect your SEO score in 2 ways
First off, you have given Google a page to crawl but this page contains no information. You had Google’s attention. He came to look at your website. But instead of inviting him in and giving him some cute pictures to look at or a book to read, he was met with nothing and therefore he left.
Now you are thinking “that doesn’t sound so bad?” and you are right. If you only have a handful of pages with 404 error codes and hundreds or thousands of healthy pages it isn’t that bad. More of a missed opportunity.
But let’s say you have more than a handful of 404 error pages, how do you think Google will rank your website compared to a website with no pages with a 4XX status code? Will Google direct its users to a website that has lots of pages, all with good content, or to a website that has multi pages with no content?
Remember at the end of the day Google is a business
And its business relies on showing its users what they expect to see when they use Google to browse the internet.
The other way a 404 error can affect your seo ranking, and the most important reason why you should fix it, is that a 404 error contains no content.
No content means poor user experience. Google is all about user experience. Remember, that is its core business.
So not only couldn’t Google find anything on the page, but you had a real live human visiting your store.
Let’s say you sell tea. The meta title promised tea, the meta description promised delicious tea. And the url mentioned tea as well, so the real live human and potential customer clicks on the link and they find….nothing.
Expectations not met. Your real-live-potential-customer leaves. Google notices when customers visit and leave straight away. It is all about the user experience.
If a page has a 4XX status code you should still be able to click on the url link and view the page but the page will have no content. Often this page will have a url, page title, meta title and meta description but no on-page content.
404 Error broken URL
Often a 4XX status code can be assigned to a link or an image on a healthy page. By fixing the link or the image you will be able to resolve the error without having to redo the entire page.
When Google crawls a website it doesn’t look at the different pages per se. It looks at the different urls.
Pages have urls, but so do images, video content and anchor links. Therefore if the original image source, link source or video source can not be found Google will also assign a 404 error code to that url.
Again there are 2 ways this affects your seo ranking. Google will give a higher ranking to a website without broken links, broken images and videos. And it makes for poor user experience.
It is also worth noting that older websites or websites that have seen a few migrations are prone to more 404 errors than a new website. As business owners we often create content and forget about it.
But if content is old and riddled with broken links and images Google will penalise you for it.
Even worse, a website with broken links and images instils doubt in the user that the website is secure and that the product they want to order is a true representation of the product they will receive.
404 Error page no longer exists
Similar to a page with no content and 404 error can also be assigned to a page that no longer exists.
This often happens to product based online stores.
Let’s say you sell tea. You have this super special Mother’s Day gift hamper full of tea goodies that mums will love. This hamper contains a special limited edition tea pot, homemade cookie that says “I love mum” and organic loose leaf tea. Delicious!
Clearly you have a bestseller here because it sells out in days. You would love to restock this item but the limited edition teapot is sold out with the supplier.
So, to avoid disappointment you hide this product from your website in the hope that your customers will buy either of your less popular mothers day gift hampers on offer.
Good news is, it works – your less popular Mother’s Day gift hamper sales starts picking up. Bad news is Google can’t find the old page anymore. It assigns a 4XX status code and now you do not rank for the keyword “Mother’s Day Tea Gift Hampers” anymore.
Just because you hide a page from your customers and from Google it doesn’t mean the url doesn’t exist anymore. It is still out there. Google crawled it. And indexed it.
Next time when a user searches for “mothers day gift hampers” and your url appears in the serp results and they click on the link they will be met by a 404 page and therefore leave.
Bad user experience plus 404 error equals a drop in seo ranking.
How do you fix an error 404?
Now that you know what an error 404 is and why it is so important to fix it (user experience!), let’s look at how to fix a 404 error.
To simplify matters we will work with a Shopify store. But the same principles apply for WordPress, WooCommerce, Wix and Squarespace.
How to fix a 404 error when the page has no content
This is by far the simplest of the 3 – add content.
Often in Shopify we see these 404 errors assigned to collection pages where every product in the collection has sold out.
If you don’t bother adding any on-page copy to your collection pages and set automatic rules when creating your collections – for example “only include products with inventory greater than 0” – you run the risk that the products will sell out and Google or the real-live-human-customers that land on the page are met with “nothing”.
The simplest way to prevent this is to make sure that all your collection pages contain on-page copy.
Especially those seasonal or sales collections that run the risk of products selling out.
By adding on-page copy to your collection pages you not only prevent those pesky 404 errors but you also have the opportunity to tell the customer and Google what this page is all about.
So make sure you do your keyword research first and include keywords when you go to the effort of writing on-page copy.
How to fix a broken link, broken image or broken video with a 4xx status code
Okay, I will be the first to admit that fixing this type of 404 error can be a little bit tricky.
Fixing the broken image, link or video url is not hard. The trouble is finding the broken url.
Sometimes for an image or video you will be able to view the broken asset on the live page. The solution is to edit the page or blog post in the backend. A simple delete and re-upload should do the trick.
The same goes for a broken anchor link. Often all you need to do is test the anchor links on the live page to find the broken one. A simple copy, paste and replace of the correct url link in the Shopify backend should fix the 404 error.
The problem lies when you can not view the broken image or video or find the broken anchor link on the live page. Often these broken urls are hidden inside the html.
This can seem like a bit of a daunting task for someone who is not confident in reading code. My suggestion would be to copy part or all of the broken url and see if you can either spot it by reading through the code or with your computer’s “command F” function.
If you are working with old outdated content and can’t even remember what image/video or link should be there, my best advice is to remove the entire broken url and save the page without it.
How to fix a 404 error when the page no longer exists
So, you’ve hidden a page from Google. A page that Google already crawled, indexed and ranked you for. Prior to reading this blog you didn’t know that that would cause a 404 error. What do you do now? Unhide it from Google? Tell Google you are sorry?
You have a few options here.
- Unhide it from Google.
You guessed right. By unhiding the page it will resolve the 404 issue. But does it solve the user experience problem?
Let’s use the same example I used above.
By hiding the popular Mother’s Day Tea Gift hamper your customers were more inclined to purchase one of your other gift hampers.
So if you “unhide” this page you run the risk that customers will feel disappointed that they can’t purchase this super awesome gift hamper for their mums and leave your store instead of looking at the other hampers on offer.
That brings us to solution number 2.
- Add on-page copy and a link to another page.
First of all, I will disclose that this is Google’s favourite method of resolving the pesky 404 error. Google not only loves it when you keep content up to date but it also loves internal links. The more internal links you have the more chances the Google bots have to find the page.
How would this look in the Mother’s Day Tea hamper example?
You would add a sentence or 2 to the on-page copy letting the customer know that this product has now sold out and that if they are looking for other awesome Mother’s Day hampers they should see the Mother’s Day Gift collection (add an anchor link to the Mother’s Day Gift collection.)
It is as simple as that.
The results are that the original page still exists, you’ve updated the on-page content telling the customer that the product is sold out. And you have provided them with a link that will showcase similar products that may solve their needs.
This makes for a great user experience. Your customers are staying on the page to read the content AND they are clicking on a link to visit another page. Ultimate Google-brownie points awarded!
- Create a URL redirect
The problem with option 2 is that some customers may still feel disappointed. Or they may not read the product description after they notice that the product is sold out and leave your website.
We also mentioned above that the fancy limited edition teapot is sold out with suppliers, so does it really make sense to keep a product page when the product can never ever be restocked?
The answer is a url redirect. For product pages that contain products that will never ever be restocked again the best solution is to hide the page form Google and the user and set up a url redirect to a page that contains similar products or content.
Remember, the real live customer can still find the link in their serp results. So if the title, meta description and url promise them a Mother’s Day Gift Hamper but now you are showing them a product page for socks they are going to be very confused. Therefore make sure you redirect the old page to a new page with a similar product/collection.
I recommend setting up url redirects to collection pages instead of product pages. You are less likely to sell out of an entire collection than a single product.
Google will penalise you if you redirect the same redirect too many times.
For example if you redirect the Mother’s Day Gift Hamper to the Mother’s Day Luxe Gift Hamper only for that product to sell out, so you redirect it to a new product that sells out…it makes it really hard for the Google bots to follow the trail.
It is also very unlikely that the initial page will be similar to the 5th page you redirect it to, which again makes for a confusing user and bad user experience.
In Shopify you can either set up an individual url redirect by changing the url on the backend of the old page. Or you could bulk upload url redirects using a csv file.
In conclusion, it is important to fix any 404 errors not only to improve your Google ranking but also to ensure your user has the best experience when visiting your store.
Need some help?
Hope you find the above information helpful and that you feel up to eliminating your website’s 404 pages.
If not, please book in a free strategy session with us so we can assess the best way to help you improve your website’s seo ranking, drive more organic traffic to your store and boost your sales.
We have options from learning resources, training programs and done-for-you services to suit wherever you’re at in your business journey.