What is a 404 Error Code and How Does It Affect Your Website

You have undoubtedly come across numerous 404 pages while surfing the web. And even if you are unsure how the 404 error code works, you know it stands for “page not found.” 

What causes 404s, how do they affect your website, and how can you quickly find and fix them? Let’s take a look! 

What is a 404 Status Code?

The 404 status code means the requested page can’t be found on the website’s server. It is probably the most common HTTP status code you will encounter. 

The error messages 404 pages usually deliver include “404 page not found” or “this page is not available”, but some websites take the time to personalize and brand their 404 pages, and make even hitting a dead end a more pleasant browsing experience. 

What Causes 404 Errors? 

The most common cause of the 404 response code is that the page in question has been moved or removed. 

It will also be triggered when:

  • The URL has not been written correctly or the wrong URL has been typed into the browser
  • The page has been linked to incorrectly 
  • There is an issue with the server the website is hosted on
  • The domain name server (DNS) is not able to convert the domain name to an IP
  • The domain no longer exists
  • The browser is caching the 404 error page instead of the live content 
  • There is a broken asset on the page, like a CSS or JavaScript file 

What is a Soft 404?  

A soft 404 is not officially a status code. It occurs when a server shows a page and responds with a 200 status code, but the page or its content is actually missing. 

In other words, the server is confused. Instead of returning a 404 error code, as it’s supposed to, it returns a page with an OK (200) code. 

What Causes Soft 404s? 

There are a couple of reasons you might see a soft 404: 

  • If a page is missing, but the server redirects it to the website’s homepage or a custom URL. While the original page is gone, the website has replaced it with something else. Google calls these soft 404s. 
  • When content is missing or thin (i.e. there is very little of it and it’s of poor quality), the server will return it. However, search engines will consider this a soft 404. 

How to Find 404 Pages On Your Website 

Now that you know what the 404 status code means, let’s figure out how you can find any and all 404 pages on your website. 

Use Link Whisper to Find 404 Pages 

Link Whisper will find all 404 pages on your website for you. 

After you install the plugin, you can check its Dashboard to uncover any 404 error codes. There is no manual labor involved on your part: the report will be right there waiting for you, all you need to do is fix the 404s, if there are any. 

link stats report in link whisper

Use an SEO Spider to Find 404 Pages 

You can use an SEO spider Screaming Frog to find the 404 pages of a website.

Just run a crawl, and once completed, look at the overview section on the right. Scroll down until you find the Response Codes section, and locate the “Client error (4xx)” tab. 

When you click on it, you will be shown all 400 status code pages, including all 404s. 

screenshot of 404s in screaming frog

Use an SEO Tool to Find 404 Pages

An SEO tool can also assist when checking for 404 missing pages. 

If you’re using Ahrefs, you must run a site audit for the website in question. Once it’s complete, you will get an overview of all the errors the tool has uncovered. 

If there are any 404 pages, they will be shown here. When you click on this tab, you’ll be given a list of all 404s, where they were first found, and all the pages linking to them. 

screenshot from ahrefs 404 pages

Check Your Search Console for 404 Pages 

Your Google Search Console will highlight pages with the 404 status code. 

When you open your Search Console, go to the Pages tab under the Indexing section. Scroll down to the “Why pages aren’t indexed” section. If there are any 404 pages on your website, you’ll see “Not found (404)” under “Reasons” in this report. 

How (And Why) to Check For External 404 Links 

We’ve gone into some detail on how to check your outbound links already, so do hop over to that guide to learn more about the four different ways you can perform an outbound link audit. 

Regularly checking your external links will help you uncover any 404s among them, which may harm user experience and lower the value of your pages. 

When your readers stumble across a page that can’t be found, they will understandably get frustrated, especially if you’re linking to an important guide or report they were curious about. 

If you are linking out to many 404 pages, search engines will start to think your website isn’t regularly maintained, and they will lower your rankings in time. 

When and Why Should You Fix 404 Pages 

SEO experts can’t quite agree on the best approach to 404 pages. Some say it’s perfectly fine to leave a 404 on the website if the page in question actually no longer exists. Others believe it’s better to redirect all 404 pages

Here’s why you should be fixing all of your 404 error code pages:

  • They are bad for user experience
  • They will harm your SEO
  • They can increase bounce rate

You can leave your orphan pages 404s, as no human will likely see them, and search engines won’t pay them much attention. The best choice is to make them 410s, as this status code will clearly signal to crawlers that the page has been deleted, and they will remove it from the search engine’s index. 

Ideally, you want to have no 404 pages on your website. If you no longer stock a product, it’s better to clearly say so (and recommend something similar), as a 404 page will only confuse your visitors. If you’ve deleted a blog post that is seeing traffic, redirect it to a similar post. 

How to Fix 404 Pages On Your Website 

When you come across a 404 error code page, your first order of business is to discover why it’s missing. 

  • Has its status been changed to “draft”? 
  • Has the URL been changed?
  • Has it been deleted? 

If the page has been moved back to draft status, republishing it will solve the 404 issues. If you plan on keeping it as a draft for a while, make sure you remove any internal links pointing to it. 

Did you know Link Whisper can help you find all internal links

If the page’s URL has been changed, correcting it will fix the problem. Again, make sure you also fix any internal links if any have been created using the incorrect URL. 

If a page has been deleted, find an appropriate replacement page and 301 redirect the deleted one to it. To avoid redirect chains, make sure to yet again, change all internal links. 

How Do 404 Errors Impact SEO?

404 errors will negatively impact your SEO. If you have too many missing pages, crawlers will believe you are not maintaining the website regularly, and they will start to rank you lower. You may even lose pages from the index. Consequently, you will also start losing traffic. 

Note that having a couple of 404 pages from time to time won’t do too much harm. As long as you notice the issue and correct it, search engines won’t hold it against you. If you for some reason start to churn out numerous 404 status code pages, they will start to drag you down though. 

How Do 404 Pages Impact Website Reputation?

Visitors will start to lose their patience when they come across numerous broken pages on a website. They won’t trust it, they will try to avoid it, and this low click-through rate will negatively impact rankings over time. 

If you make an effort to have as few 404 status code pages as possible, and go the extra mile in creating a custom 404 page, visitors are more likely to stay and explore the website further. 

Custom 404 Pages and Why You Need Them

While there is nothing wrong with having a standard 404 page, creating a custom one can significantly improve the user experience of your website. 

While visitors will certainly be disappointed that they haven’t found what they were looking for, if you make them smile with a witty page not found message, they are less likely to leave. 

Align it with your website’s overall style and tone of voice, and keep it short and punchy. Aim to cause a lighthearted, positive reaction, and keep visitors interested in the rest of your website.

Here’s an example of the kind of effect you are going for. This website writes about pets, and they have rather whimsically blamed the missing page on their dog, using a variation of the familiar “the dog ate my homework” joke. 

custom 404 page marvels pets

How to Stay on Top of 404 Pages 

The simplest way to stay on top of your 404 pages is to let Link Whisper do all the hard work for you. As long as you periodically check your link stats, you’ll be able to notice any missing pages on time, and handle them appropriately. 

Build A Powerful Internal Link Strategy Today

Enter your email & we'll send you 8 tips to build an internal link strategy.

And 3 things you should avoid doing with internal links.

    We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Content Optimization in SEO: A Complete Guide

    Contents1 What Is Content Optimization in SEO?2 Content Optimization vs. Search Engine Optimization3 Why Is Content Optimization Important?4 How to Optimize Content for SEO4.1 1. Write for humans first and SEO second4.2 2. Include engaging subheadings4.3 3. Implement SEO basics4.4…

    Read More

    301 vs 302 Redirect: How to Choose the Right One

    Contents1 What is a 301 Redirect?2 When to Use a 301 Redirect?3 What is a 302 Redirect?4 When to Use a 302 Redirect?5 301 vs 302 Redirect Impact on SEO6 301 vs 302 Redirect Impact on UX7 Final Thoughts There…

    Read More

    Get Started with LinkWhisper

    Speed Up the Process of Internal Linking and Help You Rank Better in Google

    Get LinkWhisper Now