What is a 404 Error?
When a user clicks a link, which points to a page or post which no longer exists, a 404 error will occur. It is an important aspect of website maintenance, to monitor and fix identified 404 errors regularly. This will avoid a negative user experience on your site and possibly reduced visibility in the search engines.
Checking for broken links (404)
All website owners should be running Google Analytics and Google Search Console (previously Webmaster Tools). Search Console tools and reports help you measure your site’s Search traffic and performance, fix issues and make your site shine in Google Search results.
Assuming, you have set up Google Search Console, login and click on the ‘Coverage’ page. This will highlight any broken links on your website. Once you know which pages are broken, you can set about fixing them.
Exporting data from Google Search Console
Using Google Search Console, it’s really handy to be able to bulk export, especially if you have several links to fix. This can happen if you have neglected to maintain your site, or have just released a new site and failed to redirect the old links.
Once you have the data downloaded, it’s easy to see and map old URL’s to new ones. This data can then be imported into various plugins (like Redirection Plugin for WordPress for example) which will then instantly start redirecting broken links to new pages.
Once the problem is fixed, you can tell Google Search Console the broken link has been fixed and it will update your website reports and hopefully give it a clean bill of health.
Manually fixing broken links
There are numerous plugins which can be used to monitor and fix broken links on your website. The redirection plugin for WordPress highlights all broken links and allows you to manually fix them one by one, or import a list of updated URL’s in bulk.
Basically, anyone visiting www.yourwebsite.com/oldpage will be redirected to whatever new page you define, e.g www.yourwebsite.com/newpage. Fixing this improves the user experience (UX) and tells the search engines, your website is healthy and operating normally.
Measuring 404 page activity
The redirections plugin for WordPress will not only allow you to fix links, but it will tell you how many times the link is accessed. It’s useful to know, as you can work out how much activity occurs on the old link and whether it’s worth your time digging deeper to fix the problem properly. Let me explain a bit more.
Fixing the source of the link
Let’s assume, I have a page on my site called www.mywebsite.com/website-factors-2018/ and I have linked to this on 10 separate pages within my website. In addition, there are numerous external links pointing to this page, from external websites which I do not manage.
If I rename my permalink / URL to be www.mywebsite.com/website-factors-2019/ the following must be considered:
- The original link website-factors-2018 will be broken, so a redirect to website-factors-2019 is needed
- Each of the 10 pages still have links to website-factors-2018 (which is why activity can still occur on the link)
- External websites link to website-factors-2018 which will redirect to website-factors-2019 but ideally, these links should be updated if possible
Monitoring activity, allows us to see how much traffic the original page continues to get. If it’s 0 over a few months, this is great however, in most cases, we see lots of traffic can come into the original page and users are redirected to the new one. If only 1 x redirect occurs, it isn’t such an issue, but if the page changes again, we can end up with too many redirects.
If next year, we change website-factors-2019 to website-factors-2020 and so on, you can see the issue.
- website-factors-2018 redirects to website-factors-2019
- website-factors-2019 redirects to website-factors-2020
- etc etc etc
Name permalinks well and avoid too many redirects
To fix the issue above, consider changing the year within the page name and keep it the same for future years. This will avoid you needing to make regular changes. Instead, use page headings, page text and meta content to inform users about dates.
Fix this by going back over the first page e.g website-factors-2018 and finding ALL pages which have a link to it. Change them! Replace any links with the new, well thought out permalink URL you have chosen.
NEW URL: website-factors *no date used, nice and generic, short and needs no regular change
This is just an example of how a broken link might occur and how multiple redirects can cause an issue. It is important to fix redirects but also keep an eye on how much traffic the original link gets, even if you have a redirect in place.
If you see lots of incoming traffic to the original URL, consider doing a search and replace on your internal content and update all links to use the correct version. This removes multiple redirects and means users are sent directly to the correct page, without one or more redirects. That is a much better situation, so do not rely on redirects to fix everything. They solve a problem temporarily, giving you time to fix all the links throughout your website. The ones you can’t access or get changed, use the redirection as a last resort.