The Importance of Optimizing Your 404 Pages

15 comments

One of the most overlooked SEO techniques is optimizing you 404 error pages. Its a very simple process, especially if you have a formula or a template you build your sites in. Many SEOs today are unfamiliar with optimizing the 404 page or have not put the time and effort into developing this page properly.

A 404 error message is a response delivered via an HTML document indicating that the request was unable to communicate with the server. Usually this is caused by a request not being able to locate a file or a link is broken on a site. Lets say you put up a site and when a spider crawls it, for some reason, the page is not loaded, requested or the link is broken. The unoptimized 404 error page will KILL the potential site spidering causing a site to not rank in the search engines. This can also cause a novice user to get frustrated and abandon your site.

One of the best 404 error pages I have seen created is Searchenginewatch.coms 404 error page. The searchenginewatch.com error page implements their entire navigation, search box, RSS feed, advertisers, links to popular posts, news links and more. This means if a spider finds a 404 error page the spider will continue crawling and indexing the entire site without getting stopped by an unoptimized 404 page.

Some of the ways 404 pages are reached are:

Bookmarked sites that have since been moved
Made an error when typing in a url
An moved page is still indexed in the SERPS
Broken links in your link structure

What are some tips when customizing your 404 error pages?

1. Put a link to your FAQ page
2. Put a link to your top level categories
3. Put a link to your sitemap
4. Create a templated 404 page that blends with your site
5. Add a search box
6. Make your 404 pages look as close to your site theme as possible
7. Add a true navigation to your site.

Optimizing your 404 error page is one of the most overlooked SEO techniques I have seen in the industry. When doing SEO it is easy to become overwhelmed with doing your on-page and off-page optimization but failure to optimize this can lead to problems down the road and more importantly a tarnishing reputation.

About the Author

Joe Whyte has been developing, managing and implementing successful, innovative, bleeding edge digital marketing strategies for Fortune 500 companies for over 7 years.

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15 Comments

  1. Great post Joe. This is definitely an important step. I hired a SEO company to optimize a clients pages. They did not do the 404 page, a link was broken and the entire site did not get crawled or ranked for 2 months. I noticed it and had to bring it to their attention.

  2. Great post! That reminds me, we need to improve our own 404 pages on this site ;)

  3. Joe, Good point. Let's also not forget to make sure the "404 page" actually returns a 404 in the server headers. I have found several websites that do not.

  4. Norm

    I normally just put every single url I have on my 404 page so it acts as a second sitemap version

  5. This reminds me, be sure to check your stats/analytics for any page requests that produce a 404 error. If you site's been around for a while, it could mean either a dead link, or content has been moved. It's a good idea to create a 301 Permanent Redirect so visitors end up on the right page, and search engines update the location of the page in their database.

  6. This calls for a post on 301 redirects. In fact, for those of you who are subscribed to the Search Marketing Standard Magazine, there is an excellent article called "5 Strategies to Preserve Your Website's Link Equity" in the Spring 2007 issue. The article was written by Jaimie Sirovich, a well-respected authority on search engine friendly site architecture. We'll be sure to republish parts of the article on this blog in the near future.

  7. Great point scott!! Everyone made some great comments about their 404 page experience. Mike = You make a good point. Something I have seen is that when a 404 page returns a 200 error in the header your page becomes more vulnerable to attacks. I think a post on 301 redirects is right up my alley. I just encountered a client today that severely needed one regarding canonical issues and the link worth was distributed among 2 incidences of their site which was hurting them in the SERPS.

  8. Tracy Shackelford

    I have only recently heard of optimizing the 404 page. Is this something that is really worth while? Also, how much will it add in the overall optimization of a site? And it looks like your saying that the 404 page can can act like any other page on the site. Please forgive me if this is incorrect, as I am new to the SEO Field and am just now becoming familiar with this fine art.

  9. Tracy, It should not take you very long to optimize your 404 pages and, yes, it is worthwhile. There are two reasons to optimize your 404 pages: visitors and spiders. Visitor can often misspell the URL or click on the dead link and end up getting a 404 page. If you don't show him/her a way out, they will leave your site. Spiders follow links so if they get a 404 page, one of your links is dead. Again, you want the spider to keep crawling and index more of your pages so that's where optimized 404 page comes in handy. Of course, there is no reason for you to have dead links. If you have moved one of your pages, set up a 301 redirect (something we will talk about here as well). Now, how do you know where the spider got the 404 error? You go to Google Webmaster Central and check. It'll tell you everything there. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  10. Our 404 page brings us about 5% of our new customers on a monthly basis. This is so overlooked by most webmasters. There are so many sites out there just throwing away leads by ignoring their 404 traffic.

  11. Good post. It's easy to forget to make good 404 pages. and you can only see the difference once you use them... ! Thank you for the tips about customizing 404 error pages.

  12. the custom 404 pages is an old technique but a nice reminder :)

  13. if you have the 404 perfectly redirected to the right landingpage, nothing is wrong. maybe you can even benefit from it!

  14. Great pointers on creating a custom 404 page. Thanks!