404 Page Best Practices: When and Where to Redirect Them? 

404 error codes are a perfectly normal part of the internet. When a page is (re)moved, either by accident or design, the “missing page” error message will let visitors know they have hit a dead end. 

As a website owner, you will naturally be wondering what to do with these pages. Should you keep them as they are, or should you redirect them? If so, where?

Let’s look at 404 page redirection best practices. 

Are 404s Bad For SEO?

404s do not hurt SEO, unless a large percentage of your website consists of missing pages. In fact, search engines want you to tell them a page is missing, so they can remove it from their index and stop ranking it. 

404s can however be bad for user experience, and your visitors can be quite disappointed when they don’t find what they were looking for. You can mitigate this by creating custom 404 pages that will both make them smile, and direct them to another page. 

Which begs the question: wouldn’t it be better to skip the 404 page entirely, and just redirect it somewhere else? As it turns out, it depends. 

When To Keep a Page 404

You should keep a page a 404 when: 

  • The page is actually missing: it’s not a typo or a mistake, and you don’t want it around any more AND
  • The page is still seeing traffic, either from search engines or from backlinks from other websites OR 
  • The page is only temporarily gone 

The key factor here is traffic. If visitors are still expected to arrive on this page, you want them to know that it’s gone, and you want them to either be able to search for something else of interest, or recommend other interesting pages yourself. 

To reduce the number of people who might see your 404 pages, make sure to delete all of their incoming internal links. There’s not much you’ll be able to do about other traffic sources, at least not immediately.  

You can also choose to redirect your 404s to an appropriate page instead: more on that in a minute. 

If the page is not expected to see any traffic, has no backlinks, and you want to get rid of it, you should use a 410 redirect. 

How To Ensure 404 Pages Don’t Cause High Bounce Rates

404 pages can often feel like a dead end to visitors. They are likely to bounce back to the search results page, unless you give them a good reason to stay. 

This is where custom 404 pages can make a lot of difference. They should ideally come with a search bar and a recommendation for similar pages the visitor might want to check out. 

Try to be witty and funny with your 404s. Here’s an example from Innocent Drinks that can give you an idea which direction to go in:

innocent drinks 404 page example

 

When To Use a 410 Redirect 

You should use a 410 redirect when:

  • The page is gone forever 
  • It’s highly unlikely to see any traffic from any source
  • It has no incoming backlinks 
  • You want to get in search engines’ good graces

The 410 status code signals to search engines that you have removed it permanently, and they will de-index it as soon as they come across it. On the other hand, they may keep 404 pages indexed for a while after crawling them, in case they are only temporarily missing. 

How To Establish a Proper 410 Redirect 

To do a 410 redirect, add the following code to your .htaccess file:

RewriteEngine On

RewriteRule ^page-to-be-made-410$ – [G]

You can also use a plugin for the purpose, like Ultimate 410 Gone Status Code

When To Use a 301 Redirect 

Whether you use a 301 redirect or keep a page a 404 will ultimately be a judgment call. If you have a similar page you can redirect it to, use a 301. If there is no appropriate page, you can stick to the 404. 

If the 404 pages has lots of quality incoming backlinks, you don’t want to let any of that value go to waste. Finding an appropriate redirect target will be the best choice. This is again a judgment call: if the page has lots of backlinks from low-quality pages, you can choose to forgo the redirect. 

Should You Redirect 404s to the Homepage?

You should try not to redirect 404s to the homepage, even though this is advice you often hear from SEOs. Here’s what Google has to say about it:

“A soft 404 is when a web server returns a response code other than 404 (or 410) for a URL that doesn’t exist. A common example is when a site owner wants to return a pretty 404 page with helpful information for their users, and thinks that in order to serve content to users, they have to return a 200 response code. Not so! You can return a 404 response code while serving whatever content you want. Another example is when a site redirects any unknown URLs to their home page instead of returning 404 errors. Both of these cases can have negative effects on our understanding and indexing of your site, so we recommend making sure your server returns the proper response codes for nonexistent content.” 

Not only can you inadvertently confuse search engines, but your visitors will most definitely be confused when they land on your homepage instead of the page they were looking for. Not all of them will understand it’s a redirect, and may keep looking for the missing page. This will not make for good user experience. 

Should You Redirect 404s to a Category Page? 

You can redirect a 404 to the missing page’s category page when it makes sense. 

For example, if you no longer plan to stock a specific black sneaker, you can redirect the page to the sneakers category page. This can be helpful if you are going to stock a similar black sneaker in the near future, and are using the category page as an interim redirect solution. 

It can also work if you want the link juice from the 404 page to flow to the category page. Like we said, judgment call. 

How To Choose the Right Page to Redirect To 

There is no specific blueprint for redirecting missing pages. You should always choose a page that makes the most sense from both the SEO and the user experience perspective. What that will be will vary on a case-by-case basis. 

  • If you delete an old blog post but have covered a similar topic elsewhere, it can be a good redirect choice.
  • If you merge several blog posts, all the old pages should be redirected to the new ones. 
  • If a product is temporarily out of stock, don’t delete the page, let shoppers sign up to get notified when the product is back.
  • If you no longer stock a product, you can either redirect it to a similar one, redirect it to its category page, or keep the page 404 and let visitors choose where they want to go next. 

Should You Use a 302 Redirect? 

You can use a 302 redirect when you are only temporarily redirecting a 404. This applies to the above example: if a page is only temporarily going to take visitors to a category page, until you build a new, more relevant one, the 302 is a good choice. 

If you plan on the redirect being permanent, always use a 301. 

How to Find and Fix All Your 404s 

As you may already know, the simplest and most effective way to find and fix 404s is to use Link Whisper. It’s available for both WordPress and Shopify, it’s easy to use and it will automatically keep track of all missing pages and broken links for you.  

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