As marketing specialists, we hear a lot of questions regarding pending 404 errors. "What are they?", "How do we fix them?", and "Will Google penalize our site for having too many?" Whether you're new to ecommerce or you'd consider yourself a seasoned pro, you may not be one hundred percent clear on the answers.
If a long list of "not found" errors has you at a dead end or you’re simply interested in equipping yourself with some additional information to better prepare yourself for the future, here are some things to consider about 404s.
What is a 404?
Let’s start with the basics. Using a tool like Google Search Console empowers merchants to better diagnose their site's overall health and address potential issues with Google search functionality. In the dashboard, you're able to see all previously known URLs where a page can no longer be found. If a mysterious list of not found errors has slowly been appearing on your dashboard in Google Search Console, you could potentially have a problem on your hands.
A Note About Google Search Console: Because GSC displays dynamic URLs such as product details and search results, you’ll likely notice some discrepancies in the numbers of unfound URLs for your site. That’s ok. These dynamic URLs are not indexed and will not display as visible search results.
Are 404 errors inherently bad?
It is easy to associate the often vague messages of 404 errors with some administrative catastrophe demanding immediate and thorough attention. It is also unsurprising that many site owners will wonder whether or not a large number of 404 errors is always indicative of a much larger, holistic problem.
Fortunately in most instances, this is not the case. Errors like this most commonly occur when irrelevant or old content is removed from your site, usually by way of removing products or categories. Since neither Google nor other search engines have penalties for the mere existence of 404 errors, it’s not always necessary to address them. But if you do, they tend to occur in easy-to-manage batches.
When is it important to address errors?
404s are an appropriate way to let search engines know when a page is no longer available and will never become available again. If you've discontinued a brand, moved category content, or deleted a previously indexed blog or article, ask yourself these three questions when deciding whether or not you should implement a strategy to create redirects for missing pages:
Does the missing page affect your link profile?
If so, this error should probably be addressed. You've worked hard to gain high-quality links that improve your site's SEO authority, and a broken link undoes those efforts. If a deleted page results in broken backlinks, use a 301 redirect to preserve some of the SEO value of that link.
Did the missing page previously receive a substantial amount of visitors or produce valuable revenue?
If the URL in question previously belonged to a page that earned a lot of traffic or revenue for your business, the 404 error should be addressed. We advise using a 301 redirect to guide customer traffic to a similar page (if one exists), or create a new page explaining why the product, article or blog post is no longer available.
Is there a comparable replacement available?
If a comparable replacement exists, it's in your best interest to create a 301 redirect for the missing page. A 301 redirect will preserve some of the "link juice" your deleted page may have had, plus it provides a better user experience and allows search engines to index your site more easily.
When to not address 404 errors
It is not imperative to create 301 redirects for 404s that don't fall into one of the three categories described above, because (as previously mentioned) 404 errors are not inherently bad and do not incur penalties with search engines. If you've deleted irrelevant categories, products or articles in order to improve your site's structure or usability, a 404 will simply let search engines know to stop indexing those pages in the future.
But what about the human experience?
In order to provide customers with the best possible experience when encountering a missing or non-existing URL, we recommend uploading a custom 404 error page to your site. Creating and uploading your own error page will ensure that your prospective customers aren't confronted with an ominous default 404 page, and that traffic remains on your site even if an error occurs.
A carefully designed page will work well with your branding, effectively communicating why the error has occurred and offer some alternatives to the user.
**If you still have some questions about how to address 404s for the best possible results, let us know by commenting below!**