404 Errors & Rankings: Myth Busted (But Don't Ignore Them!)

By Adedayo Ebenezer Oyetoke Published on: April 28th 2024 | 6 mins, 1141 words Views: 251

Ever gotten that sinking feeling when you see a sudden drop in your website's ranking? You scramble to find the culprit, desperately searching for the reason your once-proud webpage has vanished from the Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). One potential suspect that often gets thrown around: the dreaded 404 "Page Not Found" error.

But here's the surprising truth: Google's Gary Illyes, a well-known webmaster trends analyst, has stated that 404 errors alone are unlikely to directly cause ranking drops. That's a relief, right? Well, hold on a sec, because while 404s might not be the ranking Grim Reaper, they're still a monster you don't want lurking in your website's basement.

But wait, there's more to the story! 

While Illyes assures us that a few 404 errors here and there won't send Google's ranking algorithm into a frenzy, it's important to understand the different types of 404 errors and how they can affect your website's user experience (UX) – which, in turn, can indirectly impact ranking.

Let's dissect this situation and understand why 404s aren't ranking killers, but why they still deserve your attention.

The Case of the Misunderstood 404:

Imagine you're at a giant party (the internet), and you head towards a specific room (a webpage) based on an invitation (a link). But upon arrival, you find a sign: "404 - Room Not Found." Now, this doesn't necessarily mean the party is over for you. It just means that particular room doesn't exist anymore.

Similarly, 404 errors on your website simply indicate that a specific page can't be found. This could be due to various reasons: a user mistyped the URL, the page was permanently removed, or it could even be a bot probing for vulnerabilities.

Why Google Doesn't Panic Over 404s:

The internet is a dynamic place. Pages come and go, and Google understands that. A few scattered 404s here and there aren't a cause for alarm. In fact, Google itself has 404s on its own website!

Now, let's shift gears to a more user-centric scenario. Imagine a visitor arrives at your website looking for your famous chocolate chip cookie recipe. Then type in "www.wirelesscs.com/idae" instead of "www.wirelesscs.com/idea" (a common typo). Boom! Another 404 error. This time, it's not a malicious bot, but a genuine user who simply made a mistake.

But Here's the Catch: Broken Links and User Experience

While Google might not penalize you for a few 404s, they do impact user experience. Think about it – if a user clicks a link on your website and gets a 404, it's frustrating and disrupts their browsing flow. This can lead to higher bounce rates (people leaving your website immediately) and a negative overall impression.

Here's where things can get indirectly linked to rankings. Google prioritizes websites that offer a good user experience. So, while a handful of 404s might not be a direct ranking penalty, a website riddled with them can signal a poorly maintained site with low user engagement, which could eventually hurt your ranking.

Fake 404s: Bots Behaving Badly

Not all 404s are created equal. Sometimes, automated bots crawling your website might trigger 404 errors for non-existent pages they're looking for. These "fake" 404s don't necessarily reflect actual user experience issues, but they can still clutter your website's health reports.

Imagine this: you've meticulously crafted a blog post on 'the ultimate guide to choosing hiking boots'. You link to a reputable outdoor gear website for further recommendations. But then, disaster strikes! The outdoor gear website revamps their product pages, and your link suddenly leads to a dead end – a 404 error. This, my friends, is a classic example of a fake external 404 error. What happened? The culprit could be automated scanners probing your website for vulnerabilities. These scans might trigger 404 errors for non-existent pages or folders they're programmed to look for.

But Here's the Catch: Why You Shouldn't Ignore 404 Errors Completely

While Google understands the occasional 404, a website riddled with them paints a different picture. Here's why:

  • User Experience Woes: Imagine you're searching for a specific recipe and excitedly click a link, only to be met with a dead end. Frustrating, right? A significant number of 404 errors can create a confusing and unpleasant experience for visitors, potentially leading them to abandon your site altogether. Google prioritizes user experience, and a website riddled with dead ends might not be seen as user-friendly.
  • Wasted Crawl Budget: Google sends out bots (affectionately called "crawlers") to scour the web and index websites. These crawlers have a limited budget, and if they spend too much time encountering 404 errors, they have less time to discover your valuable content.

The Takeaway: Fix 404s for a Smoother Website, Not Necessarily Rankings

Here's the key point: addressing 404 errors is about maintaining a healthy and user-friendly website, not obsessing over a ranking boost. By fixing broken links and redirecting users to relevant pages, you create a more positive experience for visitors, which can indirectly benefit your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) efforts in the long run.

How to Tackle Those Pesky 404s:

  • Use website analytics tools to identify 404 errors.
  • Differentiate between user-generated 404s (mistyped URLs) and bot-generated ones.
  • For user-generated 404s:

    • Implement redirects to the most relevant existing page.
    • Here's where creativity comes in! Implement a custom 404 page that's informative and helpful. Instead of a generic "Page Not Found" message, create a user-friendly page that suggests relevant content or allows users to search for their desired information. You can even take it a step further and add a "Did you mean...?" feature that automatically suggests alternative spellings for the user's search query.
  • For bot-generated 404s:

    • Analyze the user agent and IP addresses to identify bots.
    • Consider using a robots.txt file to restrict access to specific areas for known malicious bots.
    • Keep an eye on your website's crawl logs to identify suspicious IP addresses and user agents generating these errors. Consider blocking such traffic if necessary.

Remember: A well-maintained website with a focus on user experience is always a good SEO strategy. By addressing 404 errors, you're creating a smoother journey for your visitors, which can lead to better engagement and ultimately, a website that thrives in the ever-evolving landscape of search.

While Google's ranking algorithm might not penalize you directly for a handful of 404 errors, they can still hurt your website's UX. A frustrated visitor who encounters a dead end is less likely to return or convert. By addressing these errors and creating a user-friendly 404 page, you can ensure a smooth browsing experience, which can indirectly contribute to better search engine ranking in the long run.

Bonus Tip: Use Google Search Console to monitor your website's crawl errors and identify specific 404 pages. This will help you prioritize which broken links to fix first.

By keeping these pointers in mind, you can turn those dreaded 404 errors into opportunities to improve your website and provide a delightful user experience – a win-win for both you and your visitors!  

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