Debunking the Myth: Do 404 Errors Hurt My Site’s SEO?

Last Updated: December 19, 2023

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If you’ve ever clicked on a link only to be greeted by the dreaded “404 Page Not Found” error, you know how frustrating it can be as a user. For website owners and digital marketers, another pressing question emerges: Do these 404 errors negatively impact my site’s search engine optimization (SEO)? In this article, we’ll delve into understanding 404 errors and their effect on SEO.

What is a 404 Error?

A 404 error occurs when a web server cannot find the page you’re trying to access. This can happen for various reasons: perhaps the page has been deleted, the URL has changed, or there’s a typo in the link. Regardless of the cause, from an end-user’s perspective, reaching a 404 page is often a dead-end, leading to a less-than-ideal user experience.

How Do 404 Errors Impact SEO?

There’s a common misconception that 404 errors directly harm a website’s SEO. Let’s set the record straight:

  1. Google’s Standpoint: Google has stated multiple times that 404 errors don’t directly hurt a site’s rankings. Their algorithms understand that the internet is dynamic, and pages can come and go. So, just because you have 404s, it doesn’t mean your site will be penalized. From Google directly:

    404 errors are a perfectly normal part of the web; the Internet is always changing, new content is born, old content dies, and when it dies it (ideally) returns a 404 HTTP response code. Search engines are aware of this; we have 404 errors on our own sites… In fact, we actually prefer that, when you get rid of a page on your site, you make sure that it returns a proper 404 or 410 response code (rather than a soft 404). The fact that some URLs on your site no longer exist or return 404 errors does not affect how your site’s other URLs (the ones that return 200 (Success) status codes) perform in our search results.

    Google Search Central, Do 404 errors hurt my site?, May 2,2011.
  2. User Experience (UX): While 404 errors may not directly hurt SEO, they can have an indirect impact. If users frequently encounter dead-ends on your website, they may leave in frustration, leading to increased bounce rates. Over time, a poor user experience can send negative signals to search engines about the quality of your website. Google does suggest that you “help them find what they were looking for“. This is exactly what NotFoundBot does.

    You can also make sure that, when users do land on a 404 page on your site, you help them find what they were looking for rather than just saying “404 Not found.”

    Google Search Central, Do 404 errors hurt my site?, May 2,2011.
  3. Lost Link Equity: If other websites link to a page on your site that now returns a 404 error, any ‘link juice’ or equity from those links gets wasted. This can be a missed opportunity, as high-quality, authoritative backlinks can significantly boost your SEO.

How to Handle 404 Errors for Better SEO?

Acknowledging that 404 errors can arise, the next logical step is to manage and mitigate them effectively. While you should review our 404 Error Best Practices, here are a few key tips:

  • Regularly Check for 404 Errors: We recommend using the free analytics tool provided by NotFoundBot for monitoring 404 errors. While you will want to use tools like Google Search Console to monitor crawl errors, it is limited to 404’s that Google encounters via crawling which are not necessarily the 404’s that visitors are encountering. Regularly checking these tools will help you quickly identify and address any 404 errors.
  • 301 Redirects: If a page has been permanently moved or deleted, set up a 301 redirect to a relevant page. This ensures that users and search engines are directed to the right content, and any link equity from external sites is preserved.
  • Custom 404 Page: Create a custom 404 page that provides users with a clear message and helps them navigate to other parts of your site. This improves the user experience, even if they land on a non-existent page. Leverage tools like NotFoundBot which work with the stated purpose of helping visitors find what they were looking for.
  • Update Internal Links: Ensure that all internal links on your site point to live pages. A website audit using a variety of tools can help identify broken links that lead to 404 errors.
  • Reach Out for Backlink Corrections: If other websites link to pages on your site that no longer exist, reach out and request that they update the link. This is especially valuable for high-authority backlinks.

Final Thoughts on 404 Errors Hurting Your Site SEO

While 404 errors don’t directly harm your SEO, they can indirectly influence user experience and the effectiveness of your backlink profile. By proactively monitoring and addressing 404 errors, you can ensure that users have a seamless experience and that your site continues to send the right signals to search engines.

Remember, in the world of SEO, both the big things and the small details matter. While 404 errors might seem like a minor hiccup, addressing them is an integral part of maintaining a well-optimized, user-friendly website.

FAQ on 404 Errors and Do They Hurt Site SEO

What is a 404 error and why do I see it?

A 404 error is an HTTP response code indicating that the web server couldn’t find the page you’re trying to access. There can be several reasons for this, including the page being deleted, a changed URL, or a typo in the link. Encountering a 404 page usually results in a dead-end for the user, contributing to a poor user experience.

Do 404 errors directly hurt my website’s SEO ranking?

No, 404 errors do not directly harm your SEO rankings. Google has clarified multiple times that having 404 errors won’t lead to penalties for your site. However, while they might not affect your site’s rankings directly, 404 errors can indirectly impact user experience. For instance, if visitors frequently run into 404 pages, they might leave your site out of frustration. Additionally, if other sites link to a page on your site that now displays a 404 error, the valuable ‘link juice’ from those links is lost, potentially affecting your SEO.

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