Business and user implications of 404 errors


Keir McCarton

Technical SEO

What is a 404 error?

A 404 error is a HTTP status code that appears when the page you’re trying to access could not be found on the website’s server. In simple terms, it’s a page in place of the one you were expecting and they can exist for a number of reasons.


Why do they occur?

404 errors occur when the URL is entered incorrectly or the page has been removed from a website. When a page is moved from one part of the website to another 404s occur if the old page is not redirected to the new page.

As frustrating as it is to stumble upon a 404 when navigating through a website, they are a necessity and ultimately useful to users, webmasters and search engines.

For users they exist as a virtual “dead end” on a website. They are a lot more useful than simply displaying a blank page as users can navigate back through the website. For webmasters they indicate internal site faults which can be addressed, troubleshooted and developed to improve user experience. For search engine bots, it highlights whether or not a website has issues with content and navigation. If a website is consistently displaying 404 errors, search engines will recognise this as usual behaviour and direct their traffic elsewhere.


How do they appear?

Some 404s exist forever if the page has any inbound links. This is due to the fact a resource is being indicated as being present at the link despite the content no longer existing. To eliminate any 404s, all links to the page must be removed.


SEO considerations

SEO professionals must consider 404s when planning their strategies. It’s perfectly normal for a website to contain a percentage of 404s due to the adding and removing of content and site restructures, but keeping them to a minimum is very important. Some sites have thousands of 404s due to their size, and others small sites have very few. It’s the ratio of 404 pages to live pages that search engine bots consider when crawling a website. Search engines may send their traffic elsewhere if a site contains many dead links.

Cleaning up 404s is very important for both SEO and the wider business. Through 301 redirects, repointing links and updating content, flaws can be fixed and potential link stealing from competitors can be prevented. Opening dead external links can have a negative impact on a company’s image, so regularly investing time looking for 404s should be performed to enhance SEO and the overall functionality of a website.

Competitors can use 404s to their advantage through using tools to extract information from the URL regarding the topic of content that originally existed.  They can then create an equivalent piece of content themselves and ask the domain(s) linking to the 404 to redirect to their new resource instead. Quality content that originally acquired links from other websites that becomes redundant could aid competition instead.


International and user implications

Global businesses serve their content to individual markets through subdirectories, subdomains and specific top level domains. In many cases, the site created for the home market acquires a greater level of detail than those created for secondary markets. This results in secondary market websites usually having more 404 errors as SEO budgets tend to be smaller as does the resulting ROI.

Users dislike browsing broken websites, if they have a better experience on a competitors website, it’s more likely that they will buy a service or product from them as opposed to you. If users are bouncing to other sites and those sites are getting more engagement and interaction than yours, search engines will rank them higher and send them more traffic. 404 errors are dead ends that lead to nowhere and ultimately affect these engagement rates in a negative way. Allocating enough time to moderate secondary market sites is vital in developing an international business strategy, especially for established brands.

Condensing the number of pages for a secondary market website so that only core products and services are shown can be an effective streamlined alternative of a home market localised carbon copy. With budget and time constraints, having a smaller, easier to navigate site can be more efficient for moderation and observing 404s. By streamlining a site, less 404s occur which leads to more pages being viewed per visit resulting in stronger engagement metrics.