You Can Use 404s to Boost Your SEO. Here’s How.

The dreaded 404 error page.

We’ve all encountered it at some point.

And in my opinion, there’s no bigger buzzkill than getting hit with a 404 error when browsing a site.

You’re right in the middle of exploring interesting content, and all of a sudden, you’re thrown a curveball.

If you’re not sure what a 404 page is, let’s look at a formal definition.

According to Google,

A 404 page is what a user sees when they try to reach a non-existent page on your site (because they’ve clicked on a broken link, the page has been deleted or they’ve mistyped a URL).

Here’s what an ugly, generic 404 looks like:

image13

Not too flattering, huh?

But you can pretty them up, like I did on Quick Sprout:

image09

You’ve seen 404s. You’ve cursed 404s. And your site might even have 404s.

The problem with 404s

What’s the big deal with 404s?

Are they really that bad?

First off, let me make something clear.

Every site will get some 404s, and it’s okay! 404s happen when people—your potential site visitors— type in the wrong URL.

For example, if I type in “businessinsider.com” in my browser and continue typing gibberish, I’ll get a 404.

image00

It’s not Business Insider’s fault I got a 404. It’s my fault.

You’ll never be able to eliminate 404s completely.

But there are some 404s that are within your control and which you do need to pay attention to.

Here’s why.

If a user encounters a web server issue such as a 404 page, they’re highly likely to hit the back button and return to the search engine.

When your visitors do this en mass, it creates a phenomenon called “pogo sticking,” which looks like this:

image01

This is a problem because it tells Google that your content isn’t adding value for a particular keyword query.

If this happens enough, you’re likely to see a drop in rankings.

Not cool.

The inevitability of 404s

As I mentioned above, 404s are going to happen. It’s not if but when your visitors will encounter them.

Many 404s won’t be your fault. But some will be your fault, and it’s hard to control them. Even if you’re an amazing SEO or webmaster, some will slip through the cracks.

And the bigger your site is, the more 404s you’ll have.

One of the leading causes of 404s is broken links.

Websites change. Links point nowhere. And 404s happen.

In fact, some huge websites can acquire up to 10 new broken links every day.

Just look at the number of broken links found on some of the world’s top websites:

image06

If it happens to behemoths like Cisco and Apple, you can bet it’s going to happen to you.

And as I mentioned earlier, broken links are just one reason behind 404s. Other times, it’s simply due to a visitor mistyping a URL.

The bottom line is that 404s are inevitable, and you need an effective way to deal with them.

What’s the solution?

It’s actually pretty simple.

You need to create a customized, branded 404 page.

Save your 404 ideas in one place across all the document apps you use.

Here’s a good a example of one from MailChimp:

image11

Here’s another from Hootsuite:

image12

Think about it.

Would you rather get hit with an ugly, generic 404 or one that’s well-designed and cleverly branded?

I’d bet most people would opt for the latter.

But that’s just part of it.

Although these 404 pages are cute, they won’t do anything for your SEO.

Use 404s for good

What you want to do is not only stop 404s from hurting your SEO but use them to boost your SEO.

But doesn’t that seem a little counterintuitive? How in the world can 404s be beneficial to SEO?

Here’s what you do.

Create a custom 404 page with a branded design, like the ones from MailChimp and Hootsuite, and add several internal links to it.

I like to shoot for anywhere between 25 to 50 links.

Bam!

Instead of leaving your site in a hurry, visitors will be encouraged to check out more content and keep browsing.

Assuming the links you provide lead to engaging, helpful content, many visitors will stick around for awhile and work themselves deeper into your sales funnel.

In terms of SEO value, this reduces any pogo sticking from taking place and supplies your site with more SEO juice. Rather than 404s being a detriment to your SEO, they actually become an asset.

You’re basically turning a negative into a positive—pretty sweet.

And there are several other benefits as well:

  • You’re far less likely to annoy your visitors
  • It can increase your brand equity
  • You can increase the average amount of time spent on your site
  • You can reduce your bounce rate
  • Visitors are more likely to check out additional content
  • In the long run, this should have a positive impact on conversions and sales

In many ways, a customized 404 page with internal links is like an SEO magic bullet.

It can do much good without much effort on your part.

Specific strategies and examples

Now that we’ve established that adding internal links is the technique you want to implement, let’s get into the specifics of it.

One way to implement this strategy is to link to some of your most popular posts as well as your homepage.

Even Google suggests doing this:

image05

I recommend looking over your analytics to see which posts received the most engagement (clicks, shares, comments, and so on).

Then include these on your 404 page.

Doing so can increase the number of pages on your site that get indexed, boosting your SEO.

And it totally works.

In fact, I used this very strategy a few years back when I was working with TechCrunch.

Within 30 days, I was able to boost their search traffic considerably (9% to be exact).

Add a search bar

This is an incredibly simple feature, but it’s one that can have a tremendous impact.

According to Econsultancy,

…conversion rates through site search can be up to 50% higher than the average. Visitors converted at 4.63% versus the websites’ average of 2.77%, which is 1.8 times more effective. Consequently, visitors using search contributed 13.8% of the revenues.

In other words, “People who use search are more likely to purchase.”

Try to put yourself in a visitor’s shoes for a second.

They arrive on your site and are looking for information on a particular topic or product.

They stumble upon a roadblock with an unanticipated 404 page.

Rather than leaving annoyed, they can simply look up whatever interests them in the search box.

Voila! They instantly find other valuable content to quench their thirst.

Twitter pulls this off well on its 404 page:

image10

So does GitHub:

image04

Add links to products

Let’s say you run an e-commerce store.

One way you can improve the customer shopping experience is to link to other areas of your website.

More specifically, you can create links based around different product categories.

Here’s a really good example from ModCloth, a women’s fashion store:

image02

Not only does this improve SEO and keep visitors happy, it facilitates a smoother shopping experience and should improve conversions as well.

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

Include a link to your sitemap

I’m sure you’re at least somewhat familiar with sitemaps and how they affect SEO.

If you’re not, here’s a screenshot of some of the key benefits of SEO according to OnCrawl:

image08

Why not include a link to your sitemap?

That’s what Starbucks did:

image03

And its 404 page turned out looking great.

Here’s one last little tip

Be sure to explain what went wrong.

I’ve found this helps reduce user frustration.

I know I feel some sort of relief when I simply know what’s going on.

This 404 page from X-Cart does a great job of this:

image07

Notice there’s no crazy jargon.

In plain English, it explains some of the possible reasons for the 404 error you’ve encountered on their site.

How to create a customized 404 page

Now that we’ve established just how beneficial a personalized 404 page can be for SEO, this brings us to one important question.

How the heck do you create one?

As you well know, I’m a huge fan of WordPress.

It truly is a godsend for anyone who wants to create a beautiful, professional looking website but doesn’t know much about coding.

I suggest using the 404page plugin for WordPress.

It’s a one-stop-shop for creating a basic 404 page.

You can customize it and include whatever information you’d like to share with visitors who encounter your 404.

The best part is you don’t need to have any programming skills to use it.

However, if you want your 404 page to be super specialized and brand-centric, you may want to shell out the cash to hire a professional developer.

If you’ve got the budget and want it to look uber-professional, this is usually the best route to take.

You can find skilled developers through sites such as Guru and Upwork.

Many are more affordable than you might think.

Conclusion

The way I look at it, 404s are an unpleasnt yet unavoidable part of running a website.

Of course, you can use tools like the Online Broken Link Checker, but you’ll still have issues at some point.

And even if you somehow manage to catch all the broken links, visitors will still mistype URLs.

The best way to handle 404s is to customize them and incorporate relevant internal links.

A customized 404 page will not only protect your SEO from harm but also improve it.

Not to mention that it makes for a much more satisfying user experience.

To learn more about the broad spectrum of 404 pages, check out this post I wrote on NeilPatel.com.

Are you persuaded to keep exploring a site if it has a helpful 404 page?

Comments

  1. J.Ustpassing :

    I remember covering this many years ago (and some of the G tips are more than a little familiar :D).

    Having pretty 404’s is cool and all that – but it isn’t the important bit.

    People need to understand what causes the 404’s, and react appropriately;
    a) If the 404 originates from an external source – try to reach out and get them to correct it.
    b) Failing (a), setup a redirect on the server (or via php/a plugin etc.) from the incorrect URL to the correct one.
    c) If the 404 occurs from internal links, fix the link(s)!
    d) For both External and Internal 404’s : If there is no longer such a page – do you have a page that has replaced/superceded it?
    If so – setup redirects from the old URLs to the new URLs
    If no – is it worth your time creating one (look at the quantity of traffic to that URL, and the likely link value etc.) and if it’s worth while – get to it!

    Please note, there is a preferred priority here!
    Fix it so the right URL is gone too >> failing that create relevant pages >> failing that setup 301’s.
    The reason is that it is far better to collect link value on a page than it is to redirect it (in most cases). The reason is that redirects lose a little value (about 1/6th (16%)). That can have a surprisingly negative impact on rankings.

    Only when the above has been done should you be investing time/effort into pretty 404’s.
    And remember – functionality first!
    1) See if you can provide a list of “likely relevant” pages (you can progmattically scan your sitemap for URLs that contain the same words etc.).
    2) Provide a site-search function
    3) Provide a collection of useful links
    4) Consider including a site-feedback form
    5) Link to your visitor sitemap

    Running in the opposite direction – many of you probably don’t even realise the number visitors that should get a 404 and don’t.
    Between questionable hosting defaults, shoddy CMS/E-commerce development and general misunderstandings – many sites do not return real 404’s.
    a) Instead they may display a page that says “404 error” – but still give a 200 response.
    b) Alternatively, some clever “”person”” has decided to setup a 302 redirect and display a different page (sometimes even loading the real 404 template via a redirect!).
    c) In a few situations, the code of your site may default to loading a parent page (if the child page isn’t found, it will display the child URL but load the content from the parent – and still give a 200 response (who can say “internal duplication”?)), or load the homepage instead (again, duplication!).

    The point here is – test your site for proper 404 errors.
    Use a header response checking tool (no shortage online if you search), check a good URL from your site – then make it erroneous (add a few letters to the end, change the case of a few letters etc.).
    See what the header code returned is.
    If it’s a 200 (or a 304) – then there are technical issues.
    If it’s a 302 – then there are likely technical issues.
    If it’s a 301 – check the destination – if it’s not to the new location, or to a valid substitute, you have technical issues.
    If it’s a 404 – congratulations, you have a correct error page and correct error response.

    Now go test URLs for each module/plugin you have on your site (as different programmers may have implemented different responses!).

  2. Hi Neil,

    Your blog is truly amazing.Your H1 tag is so attractive which made me to read your whole blog.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Hey,

    You are amazing. What a blog and what a style of writing.
    Impressed from your way of writing.
    Thank you

  4. Thomas Ratner :

    …or , you know, you could just 301 every broken link to the homepage.

    • J.Ustpassing :

      Which can lead to;
      a) potentially wasted link value if G decides the relevance isn’t high enough
      b) annoying visitors who expect to see X and instead see Y

      From an SEO, CRO and UX point of view – proper redirects when possible, failing that, proper 404’s (or 410’s) when appropriate.

    • It is about the user experience but that can be a short term fix.

  5. Hello Neil,
    When I started blogging I did not know about custom 404 page. So every time there is a broken link, user tends to bounce away from my site. My traffic was also decreasing day by day. I googled it and found your post. Thanks to your epic case-study, now I have implemented Error 404 page and it’s doing wonders for me. I would also like to tell you that I visit your site regularly and also bookmarked it. Keep posting awesome stuffs!!! Thanks and cheers.

  6. I was searching for that.
    great
    and thanks for sharing

  7. Wow.. that’s amazing! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Emma Williams :

    That’s a really cool use of 404 page and SEO.

  9. Very helpful for seo of my business website. Thanks for Sharing.

  10. I Never Think 404 pages can also be use for SEO in this way. Neil you always amazed me with your tricks. I am new aspirant in this industry and your blog is always helpful for me.
    Thanks
    http://insightinfosol.com

  11. I must admit, having always gone down the route of trying to avoid 404s it never occured to me to actually use them for good SEO practice. I hardly have any 404s on my site (I track them), will it sill help my SEO?
    https://rhysturton.com/

  12. Thanks for sharing……….I loved your write -up

  13. Eli Ivanova :

    So, useful, thank you! As soon as I came across this article I changed the 404 page of my blog http://www.drumivdumi.com to show a search field together with a short list of my most visited posts.

  14. Rylee William :

    Thanks for sharing……….I loved your write -up

  15. Hi Neil, thanks for a great post. I have a question – running an audit a site has over 1100 404s – should they all be left or should some be 301s? What’s the best way of deciding on which to 301? Thanks a million.

  16. Photo-cliping-path Services :

    Hello Sir,

    Great post you upload in some best topic for 404 case in website error boost to seo website make here to how use to user in this write you post.

    Thank You.

  17. Hey Neil,
    Good post. I’m trying to figure out the best option for my situation. On our Shopify site we sell mostly one off product. Every listing gets a page created and when it sells or is removed the page turns into a 404. As of right now we have 450 404’s for old products no longer available.

    Should I leave them or do a 301 direct. I’m thinking google may not like too many 301’s either. ??? ?

  18. B2B marketing partners :

    Great post. I was not aware of this 404 error concept but after reading this article it has helped me a lot and i wanna thank for submitting this article.

    thank you
    Neil

  19. Hey Neil,

    Thank you for sharing such a succinct about the 404 Page.

  20. Hey Neil, awsome information thanks for sharing. Never thought of 404’s error in that way.

  21. How to remove 404 error form my website and do you know best seo agencies in delhi

  22. @Neil,

    I have a quick question in my mind. If I have custom 404 page, but it redirected (301) to the home page after few seconds. Is it hurts my seo ranking and all? or any other effect by doing this? should we stop redirection for the better outcome?

  23. Hey Neil, I hope you are doing great, I have been following you for years and have learned most of the stuff from you :). Alright, I have started a blog on one of my expired domains https://iriveramerica.com, It had hundreds of pages in the past but right now, it only has 20 or so posts, when I check it with MOZ, I find 404 pages with highest PA and most of the backlinks.

    If I redirect these pages with great PA to the homepage or some of the posts, will it benefit the rankings by passing the link juice and authority or should I create customized 404 pages with links to the homepage and my posts. What do you suggest?

Speak Your Mind

*