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How To Make a 404 Page for SEO, Usability

Posted by fusionbox on March 28, 2011, 6 p.m.

404 Error Pages play a very important role in search engine optimization and website usability. Here's a quick Q&A of the most commonly asked questions we get from clients. Click on any of the following questions to get the answer, or contact Fusionbox for more information.

What is a 404 error?
How/when do 404 errors occur?
How are 404 pages useful?
Are 404 errors good or bad for search engine optimization (SEO)?
How should a 404 Page function?
What are the most common improper setups for a 404 page?
What are the SEO implications for an improper setup on a 404 page?
How can I make my 404 page more user-friendly?

What is a 404 error? “Page Not Found” - The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent. The 410 (Gone) status code SHOULD be used if the server knows, through some internally configurable mechanism, that an old resource is permanently unavailable and has no forwarding address. This status code is commonly used when the server does not wish to reveal exactly why the request has been refused, or when no other response is applicable. (via w3.org)

This response code essentially tells search engines that the resource (or page/URL) being called does not exist and should be removed from the search engine's index.

How/when do 404 errors occur?

  • When pages have been moved or deleted
  • When a user or webmaster mistypes a URL on the web, or a copy-and-paste mistake
  • When broken or truncated links occur on web pages or in an email message

How are 404 pages useful? A 404 error tells search engines, website visitors and webmasters when page URLs are broken, or never existed in the first place. When we can see where these errors occur, we can fix the problem for future website visitors (via a 301 redirect), as well as preserve the power of the page that existed OR the incorrect link to a page that never did. I like to call this "lazy-man's link building".

Are 404 errors good or bad for search engine optimization (SEO)? There is some dissent online debating this issue.

  • In theory at least, 404 errors are bad because they represent errors on your website (or on the web, but relating to your website).
  • A user that comes across a 404 page is  less likely to return to the site. Learn how to make this less likely.
  • However, we'd argue that the 404 issue will occur regardless. A properly functioning 404 page will notify the webmaster, either through an email or via Google Webmaster Tools, that the error occurred and where. Then, we can go about 301 (permanently) redirecting the incorrect link to the correct page. The user, and search engines, never need come across the issue again.
    • Takeaway: If we don't know where the error is, we can't fix it. That's bad for SEO and the user.

How should a 404 Page function? While remaining at the URL that was called, (for example: http://www.fusionbox.com/i-made-this-up/) a 404 error should be issued from the server. A 404 message (and resources to help the user find their way again) should display on the page.

What are the most common improper setups for a 404 page?

  • Redirecting to a 404 page. This hurts everyone. Users are lost, search engines think everything is honky-dory when it's not, and since you don't know when it's happening you can't fix it.
  • Automatically redirecting to the page you assume search engines and users want. A risky solution, and can easily go wrong. It's best not to assume. Find the issue and fix it.
  • Serving 404 content on the page, but not delivering a 404 server error. This hurts everyone (same explanation as the redirect to a 404 page.)

What are the SEO implications for an improper setup on a 404 page?

  • If there are many 404 errors occurring on the website, this page can actually start ranking (an issue that occurs when you combine a redirect to a 404 page with a page that doesn't issue a 404 error).
  • Users see a 404 page instead of the page they should be seeing, causing them to leave. They are not likely to return.
  • 404 pages have a high bounce rate – i.e., the percentage of visitors who visit this page first (found from a search engine most likely) and immediately leave without going to any other pages.
  • 404 pages have a high exit rate – i.e., the percentage of visitors that find this page from clicking a link on the website, whereupon they immediately leave.
  • Pages on the website that should be benefiting from the link are not, lowering the overall search engine ranking potential. This results in less traffic to the website overall.

How can I make my 404 page more user-friendly?  There are several things you can do to improve your website's 404 page - and the likelihood that website visitors will stick around and check out the rest of your site - including:

  • Explaining, in plain English, what happened. This is for the user's benefit.
  • Include a link to your contact page so users can attempt to solve the issue with your help.
  • Include a simplified HTML sitemap and/or implement site search so the user can find their own way. Track what's being searched most often and make those resources easier to find.
  • Find and correct 404 errors using Google Webmaster Tool's "Crawl Errors" tool, or setup automatic emails to the webmaster upon 404s being found. Do this often.
  • Have fun with it! Extend your brand's personality. Examples of great implementations of this include the Twitter Fail Whale (an error page, albeit not a 404 one) and Blippy's 404 page: http://blippy.com/404/

Check out the Fusionbox 404 page:

And contact us if you need help fixing or improving the 404 page on your website.