How To Find & Fix 404 Errors On Your Website

July 22, 2021

Some of the people who visit your website are going to encounter a 404 not-found error page. Maybe that visitor typed in a URL incorrectly or maybe they clicked on a link that took them to a page that no longer exists on your website.

Whatever the reason somebody visiting your website reached a 404 not-found error, you need to know how these visits to error pages are affecting your business. Not-found errors create a bad user experience that causes people to leave your website and that can decrease conversion rates, costing you customers. As well, not-found errors can impact your website’s SEO performance, leading to lower search rankings.

The first step to fixing a 404 error is finding the 404 not-found error. Once found, you can begin fixing the 404 not-found errors visitors encounter on your website. There are different ways of fixing errors depending on the nature of the error and the impact the error is having.

How do 404 not-found errors happen? How do you find 404 not-found errors? How do you fix 404 errors? What tools and data can help you in this process? Let’s answer these questions in four parts:

How To Fix 404 Errors On Your Website

Let’s start with the most critical question is: how do you fix 404 errors? The most common and easiest way to fix a 404 error is to redirect the broken URL to another, related URL. While redirects are often the right solution, redirecting a broken URL isn’t always the right solution. There are four ways to fix 404 not-found errors on your website.

  1. Redirect the 404 error somewhere else. With a redirect, you route people from the error page to a working page on your website. This prevents people from reaching the error. For example, if people are reaching an error page with the URL “/specials”, you can tell your server to redirect people to the working page “/special” instead. The key part of implementing the redirect, though, is making sure the page you are redirecting to is relevant to the page people were hoping to find. For example, you wouldn’t want to redirect an error URL of “/specials” to “/contact” because that would leave people confused about why they are on a contact page when they were expecting to arrive on the /specials page. Learn more about how to use and implement redirects.
  2. Correct the source link. If the broken link sending traffic to the not-found error page exists on your website and is under your control, you can correct the broken link at the source. This is also true for not-found errors on other properties within your control, such as social networks or local profiles. However, most broken links are located on sources you don’t control so in those cases you can’t fix the broken link and can only redirect people to the correct page.
  3. Restore deleted pages. Sometimes, you delete pages from your website and people still come to your website looking for the pages you deleted. If somebody tries to access a deleted page, they’ll get a not-found error. That might be the point and there may be a good reason for the removal (see fix #4 below). However, if there is still a lot of demand for removed content, you may want to restore the deleted page.
  4. Ignore the not-found error. Odd as it may sound, sometimes the right answer is to do nothing and leave the 404 error in place. As one example, if you’ve deleted low quality pages from your website, you would want those low priority URLs to return a not-found error. Those pages were bringing down your site quality and the 404 tells Google (and human visitors) that you removed the low quality content in an effort to improve your website’s quality. In other cases, the 404 error is on a page you removed purposefully and you don’t there is nowhere relevant to redirect the removed page. This often happens on ecommerce websites when you remove a product from your website and there is no new version of that product. Whatever the reason, by leaving the 404 not-found error in place, that broken page will fall out of the search index and stop getting traffic (eventually).

How Not-Found Errors Happen

Not-found errors can occur for any number of reasons, including:

  • Replace/move page: When you move files on your website from one location to another and in doing so change the URL. The same is true when you replace content on your website with newer content located on a different page. When you change the URL, the old URL will return a not-found error.
  • Remove page: Instead of replacing or moving a page, you may simply want to remove a page from your website altogether. By doing so, the URL of that page will no longer return content.
  • User error: It is inevitable that users will occasionally spell a word wrong when trying to reach a page on your website or when they are linking to your website (for example, they might type “/crt” instead of “/cart”). When a link to your website is misspelled, search engines will attempt to access that link and reach the not-found error page.

As a result, you want to find a way to handle those not-found errors correctly, including designing the page correctly for humans who encounter it and returning the right signals to the search engine robots to explain the error.

Finding Every 404 Not-Found Error

The first step to fixing 404 errors is finding the 404 errors. There are lots of tools we can use to help us find the errors. Before we review the specific tools, though, let’s talk about what expectations we should have from those tools and the specific types of data these tools should provide.

Find Errors From All Sources

People can find a 404 error on your website in lots of different places—they can click on a bad link in a search result or find a broken URL in an old email newsletter. In other cases, people are responding to an offline advertisement but type in your URL incorrectly. Regardless of the error source, the error monitoring tools you use need to help you identify every place your visitors encountered not-found errors. You can’t fix 100% of your website’s 404 errors if your error monitoring tool only is only finding 20% of your website’s 404 errors.

Report On Loss From 404 Errors

Any broken link checker or error monitoring tool you use needs to tell you what the 404 error is costing you. When visitors encounter broken pages, they leave your website without engaging or converting. In other words, potential customers are clicking away from your website. Or, if Google is encountering lots of not-found errors when crawling your website, that could be costing you rankings in key search results. You need to know how many visitors and how many conversions you are losing due to 404 errors. This helps you prioritize fixing the 404 errors alongside the thousands of other things you have to do.

Sporadic & Continual Nature Of 404 Activity

The error monitoring tool you use also needs to understand that visits to 404 errors are sporadic. One day, nobody will encounter your website’s not-found error page. The next day, one hundred people might find a broken link taking them to a not-found error on your website. Any tool you use needs to constantly monitor your website and alert you when visits to 404 errors increase so that you can fix the problem immediately. A tool that only checks for broken links on your website once per month isn’t sufficient.

Help Fix 404 Errors

Finding errors is one thing. What you really need though is help fixing 404 errors—and not all error monitoring and link check tools will do that. Ideally, you want to find tools that tell you where the broken links are located on your website or elsewhere on the web. This makes correcting those broken links considerably easier. Other tools might suggest places to redirect the error, which can save you from having to spend time identifying the redirect destinations. In short, the more help the error monitoring tool provides, the faster you can fix the 404 error.

Data You Need About Your Site’s 404 Errors

A lot of the help error monitoring tools can provide is in the form of data. What data should tools tell you about your website’s 404 errors? What data do you need to make informed decisions about your website’s 404 error activity?

  1. How Many Visitors Reached A 404 Error? You need to know how many people see a 404 not-found error on your website to help you understand how big a problem 404 errors are for your website and your business.
  2. Where Did Visitors Find 404 Errors? Most people find your website’s 404 errors from somewhere other than your website. That might be from another website, an email newsletter, a search result, a social network, or a visit from an outdated bookmark. Regardless of where people found the 404 error, you need to know about it.
  3. What Did People Do After Encountering A 404 Error? Did people stay on your website after encountering a 404 not-found error? Or did they leave (as most people do)? If they stayed on your website, what pages did people look at next?

Easy To Install & Configure

Finally, whatever tool you use to check for 404 errors on your site, you want it to be easy to use and easy to install. Time spent configuring a tool is time you could be spending on other tasks. Check if the tool requires you to add tracking code to your website or adding plugins within your CMS. Some of these tools are very invasive while others have little to no impact on your website’s performance. Other tools don’t require any installation and run purely external to your website.

Reviewing Broken Link Checkers & Error Monitors

Now that we understand what to expect and what data we need to find not-found errors, let’s talk about the different types of tools we have available.

Crawl Tools

How Crawl Tools Work

One of the more popular tools for checking broken links that lead people to 404 errors on your website is the broken link crawl (or scan) tool. Crawl tools, like Screaming Frog or SiteLiner, check every link on your website to determine whether the link leads to a 404 error. (Side note: crawl tools can do a lot more than check for not-found errors.)

These types of tools can be incredibly helpful to quickly evaluate the health of the links within your website. Running a crawl can help you identify which links on your website are broken, which does help you identify the source of the error making it easier to know what to correct. Plus, these tools tend to be easy to install and configure.

Two Problems with Crawl Tools

However, there are two problems with crawl tools.

  1. Limited Scope. The biggest problem is that crawl tools only check your website for broken links. What about all the other ways people find not-found errors on your website? That includes broken links contained on social media, email newsletters, offline marketing, and more. Because crawl tools aren’t designed to crawl these sources, crawl tools can miss out on a lot of errors.
  2. No Sense of Priority. Crawl tools also typically don’t offer any type of priority regarding your website’s 404 error pages. That is because crawl tools do not look at visitors to those pages. Without visit information, crawl tools cannot tell you about the spikes in 404 error activity that are costing you business. Crawl tools are also unable to tell you how many customers you are losing due to 404 errors.
Limitations of Broken Link Crawl Tools
Limitations of Broken Link Crawl Tools

Recommendations On Crawl Tools

A crawl tool is useful and should be used to evaluate the health of the links and pages on your website. However, a crawl tool should never be relied upon exclusively to help you find and fix the 404 not-found errors your visitors encounter.

Web Analytics Tools

How Analytics Tools Track Not-Found Errors

Tracking 404 not-found errors in a web analytics tool, like Google Analytics, is possible and one common method is tracking errors via event tracking. The events appear under the Events report in Google Analytics. For example, you could trigger the following event onload of the error page:

ga('send', 'event', 'error', '404', location.pathname);

You can also track error pages by using a specific page title on your error page then query page reports in Google Analytics to look at pages matching that title. To do this, make sure your not-found error page has a distinct title entered in the <title> field. You can then go to the All Pages report, change to view “Page Title” as the primary dimension and Page as the secondary dimension. After changing dimensions, search the report to find any page with a Page Title that includes the title of your error page. For example, on this example website, the not-found error page has the title of “Page Not Found”.

An advanced search for pages with the title “Page Not Found”.

The event tracking is more advanced but the page title is typically an easier option. Either way, once configured, analytics tools can give you an accurate picture of the impact errors have on your website’s performance. For example, you can segment your analytics reports by people who encountered a certain error and see what those people did differently than people who didn’t encounter an error.

Two Problems with Analytics Tools

There are two pieces of information no analytics tool can provide.

  1. No Preventative Error Checks. Analytics tools can only tell you what happened—past tense—on your website. You may have 200 broken links that could lead people to a 404 error but if nobody clicks on those broken links, then your analytics tool wouldn’t tell you about them. As a result, only relying on this method puts you in a situation where you are can’t prevent an error from occurring.
  2. No Help Fixing 404 Errors. Analytics tools don’t provide any help fixing the 404 error. For instance, based on the nature of the 404 error, should you redirect the URL to a working page on your website? Or, can you fix the broken link that is leading people to this error? Relying on this limited information, you will need more time to dig into the error in order to fix the 404 errors on your website.

Recommendation On Analytics Tools

An analytics tool should be configured to help check for errors. The extra data can provide a clearer sense of priority and a clearer sense of what 404 errors cost you. Of course, you want to find errors before they are a problem, so this method should be used in conjunction with a crawl tool. As well, using analytics tools to track errors will require some configuration.

Web Log Analysis

Finding 404 Errors In Your Web Log

Provided you have some means of accessing and reading your website’s log file, your log file can provide a wealth of information about the inner workings of your website.

Among a lot of other data, log files can provide a list of which URLs returned a 404 error. Like with analytics tools, you can use logs to get data about how people found the error, including 404 errors that come from different sources.

Another advantage is that log files look at every user that visited your website, including automated programs (like robots from search engines). In contrast, analytics tools actively remove bot traffic—for many of the questions analytics reports answer, this makes sense. But, with 404 errors, you want to know how humans and robots are impacted so that you understand the cost to customers and the cost to search engine activity.

Viewing 404 Errors in Apache Web Log
Viewing 404 Errors in Apache Web Log

Two Problems With Web Log Analysis

  1. No Soft 404s. If your website returns soft 404 errors, web log files will not work. If your website returns soft 404s, broken pages on your site will look like every other page on your website in your web log (because they will all return a status 200). As a result, you would be unable to find every 404 error on your website.
  2. No Help Fixing 404s. Web log files are, at best, only going to give you a list of the 404 errors robots and humans encountered on your website. Web log files will not help you fix those 404s. Plus, getting the data you need out of your website’s log file to help you fix the 404 errors can be challenging (and your web log may not even have the data you need). As a result, it will take longer to fix your website’s 404 errors. The longer it takes to fix, the more business you will lose due to 404 errors.

Recommendations On Web Log Analysis

Website log files can be incredibly useful to understand how your server is handling your visitors if you have a tool to help you parse the log file. As a result, this tends to only make sense for larger websites where the impact of errors will be worth the greater amount of work to find and fix those errors.

External Link (or Backlink) Tools

How Do You Find 404 Errors in Backlink Tools?

One way to find 404 errors on your website is to see if any other websites are linking to broken pages on your site. When other websites link to you, that link is referred to as an external link (as in, external to your website) or a backlink (as in, a link linking back to your website).

For example, a tool like Moz’s Link Explorer can help you identify what websites are linking to your website. You can then use that data to find which websites are linking to 404 errors on your website. (To be clear, Moz’s Link Explorer and other backlink tools can help you find a lot more than broken links too.)

Helpful for SEO

Looking for broken links that lead to 404 errors on your site can be especially helpful for search marketing purposes. Within search marketing, links from external websites help improve your rankings within search results. A link from an external website that takes people to a 404 error on your website, won’t help search marketing efforts. But by fixing that error you can reclaim that backlink and reclaim the benefit the backlink provided.

Helpful, But Still Not A Complete Picture

At best, external link tools will never provide a complete picture of the 404 errors visitors encounter. Because these tools do more than look within your website for broken links, external link tools offer more information than link crawlers discussed above. So, with a backlink analysis, you will find more 404 errors than you would when using a crawl tool.

However, there are still lots of other ways people can find 404 errors on your website that are missed by external link tools. For instance, people can find broken links leading to 404s on your website on social networks, in email newsletters, from old bookmarks, and more. Backlink tool can’t find 404 errors resulting from those sources.

This is an important tool to use, but one to use on a less regular basis. Instead, I’d recommend looking for these errors as part of quarterly tech SEO checks.

One final pro-tip for external broken links is that you can find external broken links for your competitor’s website too. This can provide you with new opportunities to acquire links to your website.

Google Search Console

What is Google Search Console?

Google Search Console is a free tool provided by Google and provides detailed information about how Google sees your website. This includes what errors Google sees. Once in Google Search Console, under Coverage, select Excluded, and then scroll down to see if there are any not-found pages listed. If so, click this to see the full list of errors Googlebot has found related to your site.

Not Found Errors in Google Search Console
Not-found Errors in Google Search Console

Google Search Console is a fundamental tool and provides a wealth of data. The error report is certainly no exception. With this report, you can find a wide range of errors that other tools were unable to surface simply because those tools can’t search the web on the same scale as Google.

Drawbacks to Google Search Console’s 404 Report

Of course, Google Search Console’s error report—like all the tools discussed in this post—is far from a complete picture of your website’s errors. For all of Google’s crawling power, they can and do miss broken links that lead to errors. As well, like with external crawl tools, errors can exist in places away from Google’s purview—such as in email newsletters, social media sites, or offline marketing.

If you haven’t already, you need to set up Google Search Console for your website and you need to look at the reports in Google Search Console on a regular basis. This includes looking at and using the Coverage report. But, again, don’t use this tool in isolation. Instead, use Google Search Console alongside the other tools discussed for the best results.

Conclusion

Running a website for your business requires a lot of work. You must invest a lot of time, money, and effort to get people to notice, visit, and use your website. The last thing you want is to lose visitors as a result of 404 errors. You need to find and fix every 404 error that is costing you business. This requires using a multitude of tools to get a complete picture of the errors on your website and what those errors are costing your business. As well, you need to regularly use different tools to monitor for 404 errors since 404s can resurface in sporadic intervals. If you need help, please contact me today, and let’s talk about what errors (404 or otherwise) are holding back your website performance.

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