What is a 404 Error Page
Basically, it’s a page which tells a website visitor that the page they tried to access has been moved or deleted. If they clicked on a link from Google or any other search engine, it needs to be fixed! You should regularly schedule time to locate and fix any 404 Pages on your website.
This post will be the first of a series on website maintenance. The series is intended as a guide to things you should check while doing maintenance. We start of with the most basic of all: checking for 404 error pages.
Checking for 404 error pages and broken links
One of the most annoying things that can happen to your visitor is to hit a 404 on your website. Imagine, you have spent ages looking on the search engines for something you need and when you finally find it, the page won’t load and you get the dreaded 404, Ooops Not found!
Search engine spiders don’t like such errors either and it is a negative on your site, so it needs to be fixed.
General rule is this. If you delete or move a page in your website, add a re-direct so the old page re-directs to the new one! We will cover that later on…
Measuring visitor 404 error pages
There are various ways to measure 404 pages. You can find free plugins to add to WordPress or Joomla or you can monitor them through Google Webmaster Tools. If you need some advise on which one to use, take a look at the brief list below or get in touch if you need some advise.
For WordPress we like the basic Redirection tool which includes a 404 monitor and re-direct facility. It’s FREE and simple to use.
For Joomla, Qlue 404 is quite good and does much the same thing as redirection for wordpress.
Whatever tool you use, it will give you a list fo
Whatever tool you use, the objective is to monitor the pages which enter 404 state and re-direct them to the new page. If there is no new page and you have simple deleted it, re-direct the page to your homepage to solve the Error 404 being displayed.
Measuring bot 404 error pages
Next to 404s for visitors, search engines will also encounter 404s on your site that can be quite different. You can find the 404s that search engine spiders encounter by logging into their respective Webmaster Tools programs. There are three webmaster tools programs that can give you indexation reports, in which they tell you which 404s they encountered:
- Bing Webmaster Tools under Reports & Data → Crawl Information
- Google Search Console under Crawl → Crawl Errors
- Yandex Webmaster under Indexing → Excluded Pages → HTTP Status: Not Found (404)
One of the weird things you’ll find if you’re looking into those Webmaster Tools programs is that search engine spiders can encounter 404s that normal users would never get to. This is because a search spider will crawl just about anything on most sites, so even links that are hidden will be followed.
If you are really on top of your game, you might want to find these 404s before search engines encounter them. In that case, spidering your site with a tool like Xenu or (our favorite) Screaming Frog will give you a lot of insight. These tools are built specifically to behave just like search engine spiders and will thus help you find a lot of issues.
Fixing 404 errors
Now that you have found those pesky 404 errors, it’s time to fix them. There are a few different ways the 404 page can occur, as follows.
- An internal (or external) link to a page on your site is mis-spelt
e.g a page in your site somewhere is linking to a file called fics404.html but has been misspelt as the file is infact called fix404.html. In this case, you can easily fix the problem by linking to the correctly spelt file.
- An internal (or external) link is pointing to a page which has been moved.
If you move a page into a new area and the URL changes, you must re-direct the old link to point to the new location. This is easily fixed by making a 301 redirect to the new page, best done at the point of moving the page (but better late than never)
- An internal (or external) link is pointing to a page which has been deleted.
If you delete a page and external or internal links remain active, this will obviously cause a 404 so these need to be catered for. You can fix this by removing any links on your website that point to the removed file and requesting a page link be removed by the search engines e.g using the webmaster tools to request URL removal. In the meantime, while this takes place, create a redirect to your homepage.
Check for image / embed errors
If you’d look at your server logs, you will get 404 errors of a different type too: 404s for broken images or broken video embeds. You might also have errors that don’t show up in your logs, like broken YouTube video embeds. They don’t cause the entire page to not work, but they do look sloppy. These types of errors are harder to find because webmaster tools programs don’t report them as reliably and you can’t track them with something like Google Analytics either.
The easiest method to find these broken images and embeds is using one of the aforementioned spiders. Screaming Frog in particular is very good at finding broken images. Another method is to check your server logs and go through them searching for a combination of 404 and “.jpg” and “.png”.
How often should you check for 404 errors?
You should be checking your 404s at least once every month and on a bigger site, every week. It doesn’t really depend on how much visitors you have but much more on how much content you have and create and thus how much can go wrong. The first time you start looking into and trying to fix your 404 error pages you might find out that there are a lot of them and it can take quite a bit of time… Try to make it a habit so you’ll at least find the important ones quickly.
If you can’t wait and want to make sure you’re doing the best you can right now, why not request a website review?