Do 404s Hurt SEO?

404s are among the most common website errors you will come across. And while you already understand they can certainly be confusing and even annoying to website visitors, the question you may also be asking yourself is “how does Google treat 404s”? 

Will having a lot of missing pages on your website impact your rankings? Should you regularly crawl your website to make sure all of your pages (and links) are in good working order? Can you just let deleted pages stay missing until they drop out of search? 

Here’s the actual impact 404 pages have on your website’s SEO. 

What Is a 404 Page?

A 404 page is a missing page, one that can’t be found on the website’s server. The reasons a page has gone missing vary. They could have been deleted or drafted, they may have been moved and redirected incorrectly, or the server itself may be temporarily down. 

example of 404 page text

Whatever the cause may be, the page you are looking for is currently not available.  

How Exactly Do 404s Impact SEO?

In a nutshell, 404s can impact SEO in one of two ways: slow down its indexing and potentially derail its rankings, or not at all. Confusing, right? Let’s explain. 

404s Can Harm User Experience

The biggest negative impact 404 missing pages have on SEO is that they can massively affect user experience. 

Think of it from a visitor’s point of view. They are looking for a product or service, and instead they are served a 404 page. They are bound to be disappointed. They are likely to leave the website and look for answers elsewhere. 

If you have lots of missing pages, visitors will begin to avoid your website. Your bounce rates will rise, time on page will get lower, and this will signal search engines that your pages don’t meet the expectations of your visitors. Sooner or later, they will start to rank you further and further from the top spots. 

This can however be prevented: keep reading to find out how!  

404s Can Slow The Indexing Of Your Website

When a search engine crawler hits a 404 page, it is essentially stopped dead in its tracks. It has nowhere else to go. It has already seen your footer and main menu, so there are no new pages for it to discover. Plus, it doesn’t really like to be stalled. 

These dead end pages can in theory slow down the indexing of your website. You are not only wasting your crawl budget on missing pages, but crawlers only come to your website every so often anyway. If they keep being directed to missing pages, they will not have the time to crawl and index the pages you actually want them to see first. 

404 pages don’t pass on any link equity, or link juice, either, so you are missing out on the opportunity to pass authority down your pages as well, which doesn’t help their indexing or ranking. 

404s Can Impact The Perceived Quality of Your Website 

While we will never fully understand search engine algorithms, we do know that website quality plays a huge role in rankings.

Having lots of 404 pages can negatively impact the perceived quality of your website. It may appear abandoned, neglected, infrequently tended to and outdated. Google is not likely to rank a website it believes is not active and into which little to no effort is being poured. 

Even if you regularly publish content, broken links and missing pages will make you look sloppy and disinterested in the upkeep and management of your website. Not the best picture you could paint. 

Soft 404s Are An Issue 

A soft 404 is when a server responds with a 200 OK status code, but the page doesn’t actually exist, and should in fact be a 404. 

Soft 404s can limit your website’s search engine crawl coverage because spiders keep crawling these pages instead of those that have useful, unique content. 

Search engines want to know when a page is missing, and will appreciate a 404 or 410 status code. These may slow them down, but they will understand exactly how to treat them. On the other hand, soft 404s will waste crawl budget and confuse your visitors. They will bounce quicker, which circles back to the original issue with 404s: subpar user experience. 

screenshot from google about soft 404s

But 404s Are Not Actually Bad For You

However, despite everything we’ve just said, 404s are not actually bad for SEO. Google themselves have said so

“404 errors are a perfectly normal part of the web; the Internet is always changing, new content is born, old content dies, and when it dies it (ideally) returns a 404 HTTP response code. Search engines are aware of this; we have 404 errors on our own sites, as you can see above, and we find them all over the web. In fact, we actually prefer that, when you get rid of a page on your site, you make sure that it returns a proper 404 or 410 response code (rather than a soft 404).” 

In other words, when you don’t need a page any more, it’s perfectly okay to turn it into a 404. It will eventually drop out of the index, and if you remove all internal links pointing to it, your visitors won’t ever find it, and thus won’t be disappointed. 

There is a catch though. Let’s quote Google again:

“If some URLs on your site 404, this fact alone does not hurt you or count against you in Google’s search results. However, there may be other reasons that you’d want to address certain types of 404 errors. For example, if some of the pages that 404 are pages you actually care about, you should look into why we’re seeing 404 errors when we crawl them!” 

In other words: if a page you no longer wish to have is a 404, you’re in the clear. But if a page you want to keep, a page that is ranking okay, a page that is seeing consistent traffic, a page that is important to you is a 404, you need to figure out why that is the case as soon as possible.  Check out our guide on finding and fixing 404s to help you with that! 

Key takeaway: if valuable pages are 404s, your SEO will take a hit. If low-quality, outdated or pages you actually want to get rid of are 404s, everything will be fine. 

How To Use 404 Pages Correctly

While keeping deleted and low-quality pages as 404s is perfectly acceptable and won’t harm your SEO, there are several things you can do to improve them and ensure both crawlers and visitors are able to make the most of them. 

Keep Pages 404 When They Are Actually Missing

The only instance when keeping 404 pages makes sense is when they are actually missing. Ideally, you want them to become 410 status code pages, which will tell search engines they are gone for good. This will speed up their deindexing, and send Google lots of positive signals. 

You also want to make sure you have no leftover internal links pointing to these 404/410 pages. You want to prevent visitors from finding them, so do an internal link checkup and remove them. 

Redirect Missing Pages When It Makes Sense 

If, for example, you have deleted an old post about internal linking, but you now have a new and improved post on the same topic, it will make sense to redirect the old 404 page to the new one with a 301 redirect

Note that you should only be using 301s to redirect 404s when the two pages are very similar. Don’t redirect missing pages to the homepage, as Google will consider them soft 404s. Don’t redirect them to a page you want your visitors to see that has nothing to do with what they were originally looking for. 

Look for high topical matches when choosing your redirects. It’s better to create a quality 404 page than a sloppy 301 redirect. 

Create a Custom 404 Page

Apart from choosing either a 410 or a 301 status code for any deleted pages, you should also improve the quality of all your 404 pages. Whatever CMS you are using, you can create a page that will both help your visitors and put them in a better mood. 

For starters, you want to make sure you offer plenty of other content for visitors to travel to. If the 404 is a product page, provide links to other similar products with a “you might like this instead” copy. The same applies for 404 service pages. 

If the 404 is a blog post, recommend other articles covering the same topic, or some of your most popular content. In short: provide visitors a clear roadmap for engagement, and try to keep them on your website. 

A witty note will also help, instead of the usual “sorry, but the page you are looking for doesn’t exist”. 

custom 404 page marvels pets

Regularly Check for 404s

In order to make sure that only the right kinds of pages are 404 status codes, you will need to regularly check your website for missing pages and broken links. 

The simplest way to do this is by using Link Whisper, our internal linking tool that not only helps you automate internal linking, but also discovers 404s for you. You won’t have to do comprehensive website crawls or rely on a third-party SEO tool or Google’sSearch Console again. Link Whisper will do it all for you, and notify you if any of your pages goes missing. 

Manage Your 404 Pages Easily 

Now that you understand exactly how 404 pages impact your SEO, you know it’s important to keep an eye on them and make sure the pages visitors can’t find on your website are the ones you actually don’t want to be found. 

Take advantage of Link Whisper’s Error Report and stay on top of any missing pages or broken links with the greatest of ease.

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