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What is a 404 error and how to deal with it?

Error 404 is one of the most annoying errors when browsing the Internet, which we have certainly encountered more than once. In such a situation, apart from being nervous, we also wonder what is the reason for this and why we cannot view the website we want to visit. Most of the time we don’t know because it’s a complex issue. We can also have a problem with it as website owners, not knowing all the most important information about this error and not knowing – when a 404 error appears, what to do? How to locate them or where do they come from? In this text, however, we provide answers to all these questions and present the most important information about 404 errors.

What is a 404 error?

Error 404 is an error code displayed in response to an attempt to launch a website that does not actually exist. We will encounter it when we try to call a given resource from the server, e.g. a specific subpage, but it is not on the server and displaying the given resource is impossible.

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Error 404 what does it mean? The 404 error is one of the HTTP codes whose task is to send information between the server and the browser about the status of the query that has been asked. Error 404 therefore informs about the lack of resources that we are trying to display, and a related error is also error 410, with the difference that it is information that the server is aware of the problem. The 400 series of codes are related to site view requests and issues on the client side, i.e. the viewer. Not found 404 can have many causes and in small amounts is harmless to the website.

Where do 404 errors come from?

If we already know what error 404 is, we should also answer the question of where such errors come from. They can lie both on the website and on the user’s side. They can also be both trivial errors and signaling serious defects.

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The first reason why a user trying to enter a given website may see a 404 error is his mistake. Often, users typing a www address in a hurry make a typo and, as a consequence, try to display a given resource – a subpage from a server that does not exist. In such a situation, such an error will be displayed in response to the question asked.

The reason why users may encounter a 404 error on our website is also the removal of a particular subpage or resource they are trying to reach. This may involve rebuilding the page or updating it, or simply wanting to remove the content. If we remove a popular subpage that users will try to go to, they will receive the 404 error. A similar reason for 404 errors is the change of the subpage address, which is most often associated with changing the name of products in online stores.

404 errors can also arise when the engine or page template is changed, where the URL structure is modified. This is a very uncomfortable and dangerous phenomenon, because it usually concerns many subpages of the website and is a threat both in terms of User Experience and access to the website, as well as in terms of SEO.

A trivial and temporary reason for the occurrence of 404 errors may be a temporary shutdown of the website, e.g. for service purposes. In such a situation, website owners do not realize the seriousness of the situation, knowing that it is a conscious action. However, it may come as a surprise to users. Therefore, you should complete the work as soon as possible and do not forget to launch the subpage on which it was carried out.

A very serious situation in which 404 errors may arise is, in turn, a hacker attack and infection of the website. In such a situation, the virus creates hundreds of web pages that are not available and that Google tries to crawl. This is usually done to cause damage to the attacked website. If this situation is not brought under control quickly, it can indeed have extremely negative consequences for the site. In summary, 404 errors have many causes and can arise from situations such as:

– user error when entering URL,
– temporary shutdown of the website,
– the actual lack of a page or resource on the server,
– hacker attack.

How to find a 404 error?

Finding 404 errors by website owners can be useful for several reasons. It may be the desire to keep the site in order, to offer users a page of the highest quality or the desire to take care of SEO issues. So if you want to detect a 404 error, what should you do?

Regardless of the motivation, there are several ways to find such errors on the page. The first way is to use the Google Search Console tool, which displays pages with a 404 error in the right place. This is the simplest and most effective way to learn about pages that work incorrectly. To find such a list, you need to register your site with this tool, then go from Index to the Status tab.

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Another – this time a more advanced way of capturing 404 errors is to use external SEO tools. Such tools include Screaming Frog SEO Spider, Sitebulb or Ahrefs. These are both dedicated tools for checking website codes, as well as extensive SEO tools with appropriate functionalities to catch pages with a 404 code. The most advanced way to monitor websites for errors is to check hosting logs. They can also give us the same knowledge as SEO tools or Google Search Console. However, it is worth using analytical tools then, and not checking and analyzing the logs yourself.

A sure way, which will work only with websites with a small number of subpages, is to check them all yourself. As website owners, we can monitor, for example, user activity in the form of comments or check updates added by webmasters. In this way, from the customer’s perspective, we will also be able to capture those pages that for some reason do not work.

A useful hint is also to use several ways to independently search for 404 errors on the page. Sometimes some of them may fail and not show all broken subpages. Using just one, we are often able to catch the vast majority, but not all, of 404 sites.

Are 404 errors harmful?

404 not found errors are not harmful to our website. Indeed, they do not carry any negative events in themselves, as they are only messages displayed in response to a 404 server error in the users’ browser.

In practice, however, the 404 error can have serious negative consequences – especially when there are a lot of them. Therefore, although they are not harmful in themselves, their presence on the website may indirectly reduce its quality. Thus, they can negatively affect users who will be impatient or annoyed and go to the competitor’s website or negatively affect the positioning of the website. To sum up, 404 errors are not directly harmful, but they indirectly carry many threats and negative situations related to their appearance on the website.

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How do 404 errors affect SEO?

According to many specialists, 404 errors have a negative impact on SEO. This is mainly due to two factors. The first is to increase the bounce rate, i.e. entering and exiting the website of users without further active actions on the website. This is logical, and a high bounce rate negatively affects the position of the site in the search engine. It is also bad for Google’s algorithms to have many pages in the index, which, however, are empty and on which there is no information. Site crawlers that keep returning to empty pages of our site may not consider your site to be user-friendly and quality. Therefore, a large number of 404 errors, which would be a significant percentage of all subpages of the website, has a negative impact on SEO.

Error 404 how to fix?

If there are empty subpages on our website, we can fix them in a very simple way. This will add 301 redirects to other subpages of the website, and the 404 code will not be displayed to the user who goes to another page. It is worth adding redirects to similar subpages on similar topics, e.g. a product that is as close as possible to a nonexistent one. If this is not possible, you should set 301 redirects to pages one level higher in the URL hierarchy or possibly to the home page.

Correct looking 404 page

If in some cases the 404 error page must remain and we can’t create a redirect, it’s worth making sure it looks the right way. If it is attractive, it will be able to keep users on the website, as well as generate traffic and positively influence the User Experience factor. So how to create a subpage in response to Google error 404? Certainly, it should be professional and refined, and not just a three-digit technical code that is incomprehensible to the user. The error page itself should have an appropriate graphic design, and the 404 message itself should be presented in an attractive way, e.g. by writing it in an interesting font. Next to the 404 error, we should also include a short explanation in which we will inform users what the 404 error is and why they found themselves in such a situation. Thanks to this, they will be able to consciously go to the next website without fear and many questions. On the error page, it is also worth adding a search engine, thanks to which users will be able to easily find other content and suggestions for similar products, links to other subpages or interesting material if the 404 page was popular in the past.

In general, there are many strategies and ways to build the correct 404 page and good practices that we can use in such a situation, turning a difficult situation to our advantage, although this is a topic for a completely different article.

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