Do 404 Errors Harm SEO?

seo

Having 404 errors on your website does sound alarming but once you understand what a 404 error is it may not necessarily be a cause for concern. 404 errors are triggered when a page url is removed from a website and It is important to emphasise URL rather than a web page. A web page may actually still be there but sometimes urls are changed triggering a 404 error when a page is still live. This can happen when a website is migrated or restructured.

More commonly the web page and the url will be removed from a website because the page is no longer useful such as an expired product on an e-commerce website. Trying to redirect these urls can be a waste of time and effort if those pages stopped serving any kind of purpose in terms of traffic, inbound links or keyword ranking.

When dealing with 404s, a lot depends on the history of the urls returning those errors. So next time you log into Google’s Search Console and see that alarming chart showing 404 errors, take a step back and assess what the causes of the errors are before acting on them. You may find that there are hundreds or even thousands of old urls causing 404 errors but as long as they are not important urls, this shouldn’t affect SEO. Over time the url triggering the 404 error will eventually drop out of the search results altogether although this may take quite some time.

When 404s are bad

It would be wrong to say 404s don’t cause any problems. If any of the following cases apply, then you will need to do something about the error(s).

The page had lots of inbound links pointing to it

One of the most important ranking factors for a website are inbound links. Particular web pages may accumulate lots of inbound links over time if they serve useful information to their audience. Blog posts, homepages and useful information pages are the ones most likely to attract links. If any of these pages are returning a 404 then all the rankings for that page may be lost as well as a substantial amount of traffic to the site when this takes place.

A new page has been created covering the same topic

If you have created a new page on the website covering the same topic when a previous one needed updating, then the old page should be permanently 301 redirected to the new one to preserve any benefits the old page might have had.

Following a site migration

Site migrations and redesigns often open up the possibility of an increase in 404 errors. For example, a page may cover the same topic with a slightly different theme meaning the old one is not redirected. This is why it is important to take a record of all the old urls of a website so that checks can be made following a website migration to ensure all urls are 301 redirected to their new homes. More information on SEO and website migrations.

When it’s Ok to Ignore 404s

As I mentioned earlier there will be plenty of cases where 404s are returned and this is ok if those urls have no inbound links and no regular traffic coming in. For example, you may have had a page dedicated to a one-off event but that event has now expired. It would be a bit daft to redirect that url somewhere else irrelevant just to avoid having a 404 error.

Conclusion

When it comes to 404s a degree of common sense is required when dealing with them.

As long as you use Google search console and any of the other paid website SEO tools to identify all urls returning a 404, you should be able to handle any important errors that slip through the net.

Avoiding harmful 404s is all about preparation. Ensure all important urls are recorded prior to a site migration and analyse traffic and links to a page carefully before removing it from your website.

As John Mueller says in this video covering the subject, having 404s will not negatively impact the entire site.

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