When a searcher clicks on your website, their browser sends your server the information about the content they want to access.
The server then identifies the page they’re requesting and sends it back to the searcher’s browser.
The server responds to the user’s request through an HTTP response code.
Now, if everything plays out well, the searcher will land on the page without seeing the response code. On the other hand, if there is any problem in the interaction between the server and the browser, the error message will be displayed.
There are two types of browser error messages.
First, 5xx server errors indicate that the server has encountered a particular problem, being unable to respond to the searcher’s request.
Second, the 4xx browser errors show that there is a problem with the client’s browser.
I’ve already written about different types of 4xx errors in a recent article and now it’s time to focus on the most frustrating of them all.
Yep, I’m talking about the notorious “Sorry, the page could not be found” warning that feels like a dagger in any searcher’s heart.
That’s the 404 Not Found error, informing a user that their requested piece of content is not available at the moment.
The 404 Not Found Error Defined
A 404 error is the HTTP response code sent by your server to the searcher’s browser.
This message informs a user that the server works, but their requested page doesn’t exist on it anymore.
It’s important not to confuse the 404 error message with the DNS error, which indicates that the server name cannot be found.
The Importance of Personalizing 404 Error Pages
Like any other 4xx error, 404 Page Not Found is also a client-side error.
It usually occurs for three key reasons:
- A user has mistyped your Web address. Even the tiniest typo can guide us to a completely different domain or result in the appearance of the 404 page.
- A user clicked on the broken link. This is an external link, leading to the page that doesn’t exist on your site anymore.
- You removed the requested piece of content from your website or simply moved it to another URL.
Your goal is to maintain spotless user experiences by explaining what happened.
For starters, look at the common 404 pages you bump into when browsing online. They usually start with the message like “404 Error,” “404 Not Found,” “404 Page Not Found,” followed by confusing technical jargon.
What do searchers do in such situations? Overwhelmed, they ditch such a page and start looking for a similar piece of content.
Fortunately, you can avoid that by customizing your 404 Error pages.
Look at the brilliant 404 page by Lego.
Image taken from official lego website
It teaches us an important lesson – simplicity is key to increasing user experience:
- Instead of choosing a generic design option, they used their Minifigures on their 404 page.
Lego’s 404 error page is fun, emphasizing their core traits, such as playfulness and friendliness. Using your brand colors, typography, logos, or images on your 404 page lets you build trust with users and raise their brand awareness.
- They used natural language to explain the problem.
Lego simply informed a user that the cause of the problem is either an old link or a page that has been moved. Replace complex terms with simple explanations and everyday language everyone can understand.
- They keep searchers on their site.
The idea is to inspire searchers to go back to your homepage. For example, provide a link to your homepage, a link to your sitemap, a search bar, links to your popular posts, links to (and photos of) your hottest products.
Don’t forget to provide links to your customer support or even add a contact form, as this is one of the easiest ways to get customer feedback.
Finding a 404 Error on your Site
There are many powerful tools, both free and paid, which may help you identify and fix error 404 on your website.
Choose ones that offer real-time monitoring options, map out all places where searchers see the 404 error, and help you estimate the costs of the 404 error.
1. Web Log Analytics
For starters, you could use your hosting environment to access your log files.
Log on your cPanel account and go to File Manager. It will provide you with thorough log details within the desired timeframe. You can utilize website logs to learn more about how searchers found the error.
One of its greatest advantages is that it observes any website visitor, be it your customer or Google’s crawlers.
Most importantly, this information can be easily opened as an excel file and then classified based on the HTTP response code.
2. Crawl Tools
Crawl tools like Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl are a treasure trove of information about your website links. They use a crawler that indexes your site similarly to Google.
The crawler scans your entire site and the tool provides an extensive list of all broken links on it. This way, you will easily identify the source of the 404 error.
One of the major problems with crawl tools is that they have a limited scope. They do scan your entire site, but what about other channels people use to find your content?
3. Analytics Tools
Many website administrators observe 404 Not Found errors from their Google Analytics account. This can be done through Event Tracking that records users’ interactions with different website elements.
One of the greatest advantages of these tools lies in the fact that they can inform you about how 404 errors are costing you. For example, you can classify your reports by the visitors that bumped into a 404 error and those who didn’t and compare their behaviors.
If you’re running a WP site, then the Google Analytics by Yoast is one of the most powerful plugins for you. Namely, it automatically tags all 404 errors so you can find them directly in Google Analytics.
All you need to do is go to Behavior > Site content > Content Drilldown and then see 404.html.
The only problem with analytics tools is that they don’t prevent your website from future errors. They only inform you about the things that already happened.
4. Backlink Tools
Link building is still one of the most significant SEO tactics. It allows us to earn high-quality links from authoritative online sources. This will not only boost your rankings, but also grow your online authority.
Namely, once bloggers understand the value your content delivers, they will link back to it organically.
To get the most out of your link building strategy, you need to monitor your backlinks regularly.
Your goal is to check whether any spammy sites are linking to you or, worse yet, whether any websites are linking to non-existing pages on your website.
There are many backlink checkers, like Moz Pro, Ahrefs, Monitor Backlinks, and SEMrush, that let you see what websites are linking to your website.
Once you identify that a link is leading to a deleted page on your site, you should contact a blogger and ask them to link back to a similar resource on your blog.
Fixing a 404 Error
You’ve identified 404 errors, so you need to fix them now.
Sure, this depends on the source of 404 error.
For example, if the problem lies in a broken link, then do what I mentioned above – connect with the website owner and ask them to replace the broken link with the working one.
If people are still looking for the content on the page you’ve deleted, this means that it brought value to them.
For you, this is an indicator that you should restore the page. Of course, you should do so only if there isn’t a good reason why you deleted the page in the first place.
Finally, you could fix the 404 error with redirects. This way, you’re telling a server to guide a visitor from a broken link to a working one:
- Create redirects manually in the .htaccess file, a configuration file that controls the functions of the Apache server. It is placed in the root directory of your site.You will first need to emphasize that you want to make a statement redirect and then choose the 301 (Moved Permanently) redirect. Then, you want to state the link you’re redirecting, as well as the link you want URL to redirect to.
- Use a redirect plugin. This is a simpler way to create redirects. Some of the most powerful redirect plugins for WordPress are Redirects, Easy HTTPS Redirection, 301 Redirects, and WP 404 Auto Redirect to Similar Post.
Wrapping It Up
404 Not Found pages hurt your online presence on so many levels.
Apart from impacting your SEO rankings, they hurt user experiences. Today’s searchers are tech-savvy.
They value their time and don’t want to waste time on faulty website pages. This is why you need to monitor the 404 errors on your website and fix them accordingly.
Sure, pages and content are getting deleted constantly. No matter how careful they are, a searcher will still mistype your address or click on a link that doesn’t work.
This is why you need to create personalized pages that will resonate with them, inform them, and inspire them to stay on your site.
Hope this helps!