404 errors indicate that the user is trying to access a page that does not exist on a website.
The term was rumored to emanate from a group of scientists in Switzerland working on the formative version of what would become the world wide web -- now, more broadly, our internet -- who worked in room 404.
However, there was no room 404 at their CERN laboratory. Instead, "404" originates from Tim Berners-Lee who worked on file transfer protocol (FTP) codes. The initial 4 represents an error code, the 0 suggests a spelling or syntax error, and the final 4 defines which error is happening specifically.
From the user's perspective, the 404 page is one of the most frustrating things to encounter.
If you have your own website, especially for your business, you should monitor whether users are hitting 404 pages and attempt to fill them with content or redirect them to avoid further issues.
What is a 404 error?
On a technical level, 404 errors are HTML pages generated to provide the user with information. They are there to let the user know that whatever page they were trying to access is not loading because it doesn't exist.
404-page errors have existed since the beginning of the internet as it's part of FTP, but over the years, companies have gotten creative with the default 404 page by adding endearing art or directing the user to a usable page as an alternative destination.
What causes 404 errors?
404 errors are relatively common. They used to occur more frequently than they do now, as many website administrators and content management systems enable automatic redirections when a user accesses a page that doesn't exist.
The 404 page comes up when a user tries to access a page that doesn't exist.
A 404 error code can indicate a moved or deleted page that doesn't have a redirect, a missing asset (a piece of script, an image, or any other file that cannot be found), problems with cached content, DNS setting issues at the host level, or a mistyped URL.
How do you resolve 404 error messages?
If you run your own website, 404 errors can be detrimental to your business in several ways.
Firstly, people aren't finding what they are looking for. Your brand could lose authority that way, and if the user is searching for a particular product or service that they can no longer find, you're losing sales.
Plus, Google and other search engines will punish you on the search engine results pages (SERPs) if you have too many 404 occurrences.
Using a website auditing tool like Semrush, you can detect whether your users are running into 404 errors. You should be able to detect why they are getting these errors and where they are coming from. Often, it's from a faulty or outdated link somewhere on the web -- somewhere on someone else's website which is beyond your control.
However, what happens to the user once they encounter your 404 page is something you can control. Fortunately, you have options.
The way you implement these corrections will look different depending on whether you hand code or use a content management system (CMS).
Each CMS has different options for altering this type of information. The error 404 meaning, signified by HTTP error 404, can really slow down or prevent a user from getting to your site.
Even if you have to pay your host extra for assistance, it's critical to get those 404 errors fixed. Without the fix, it's like throwing money down the drain.
Implementing redirects is especially useful if you find traffic coming to your site and hitting a 404 error because of a faulty link. You can code a redirect to specific unreachable URLs, redirecting people to links that match what they might have been looking for.
For example, if you sell matchboxes and your URL looks like www.home.com/matchbox, but people are for some reason coming to www.home.com/matchboxes, /boxes, /matches, etc., you can redirect all of those URLs to automatically point them at /matchbox, the correct page.
To avoid 404s, if you delete a page for any reason, you should always consider implementing a redirect. This prevents major problems down the road.
There are different types of redirects: 301, 302, and 307. 302 redirects and 307 redirects are best for a temporary page move, while 301 redirects represent permanent pages. Most of the time, you'll want to implement a 301 redirect link for a page.
Update broken links
A fast way to fix 404 errors on your internal site and any pages you control is to update your own broken links.
A broken link is a link that results in a 404 error. Start with a crawl or analysis of your own website and see if you have internal or external links. Fix those or send them elsewhere, that will help improve your SERP ranking in theory.
You should have at least a few internal links per blog post or article. This is a great opportunity to add more internal links and more accurate ones. This should correct the "404 error not found" issue.
Modify .htaccess file
What's better than a standard "404 not found" web page? Something fun! You can modify the page that people see when they encounter an error message on your website. Do this by editing your .htaccess file. Google strongly prefers a custom 404 error page to the default, so feel free to get creative here.
This is the line of code you will need to insert into your .htaccess file to make it work:
ErrorDocument 404 "Error 404 Insert Your Very Own Custom Error 404 message here"
Consequences of 404 errors on UX and website performance
Unfortunately, 404 errors have a major impact on how your website ranks online, which is critical for inbound marketing performance and organic search ranking.
Users will get frustrated and will leave your domain, specifically your 404 page, soon after arriving unless you make it engaging and offer another link option. This also negatively impacts your ranking, as well as your ability to keep customers entertained, engaged, and informed.
404 errors also create an erosion of trust from the user. Especially if you're selling any kind of digital service, it looks like you don't know what you're doing when they get an error message; even if the error results from someone else posting a broken link or mistyping the link -- it looks bad on you.
How to identify 404 errors
Using a tool to identify 404 errors is your best bet. Some of them cost money, while others don't. If you're simply checking them, we recommend you begin with a free tool.
Sometimes, kind website users may email you to let you know about internal and external links; pay attention and make sure to respond to these, as they're quite helpful in helping you identify 404 errors.
Tools to detect 404 errors
For a basic, free way to check for 404 errors, consider Dead Link Checker. Dead Link Checker reveals the non-functional web pages people are trying to access on your site.
Google Search Console and other official Google tools should also be your first line of defense when it comes to detecting errors on your site and fixing them.
There are also many paid tools that provide more assistance in finding, monitoring, and fixing your dead links. They are:
- Screaming Frog
Symptoms of 404 errors
Lower search engine ranking generally can be a symptom of 404 errors.
If you migrated your web page to a new domain and didn't do redirects, for example, your search engine optimization (SEO) could be impacted negatively. Even with a perfect redesign and migration, you'll still see a dip in your search engine ranking for a time.
Should you regularly monitor your website for 404 errors?
When choosing a tool to help you monitor your website for 404 errors, make sure to choose a tool that will automatically audit and report 404 errors and broken links to you. We recommend you set your tool to run this weekly.
How can you prevent a 404 error?
Only some of the factors that create 404 errors are in your control, but you can create a regular schedule to check on your website to minimize 404 issues:
Perform regular website audits
A website audit can reveal any links leading to "404 not found" on your site. You can fix those broken links as soon as you finish running an audit report with your software.
Conduct regular website maintenance
Just like you need regular checkups at your doctor or your car needs regular maintenance at the mechanic, your website needs regular maintenance.
After you've performed an audit, you'll want to update any plugins (especially important for security on platforms like WordPress), redirect, redo, or remove any underperforming content, and ensure your website is optimized for mobile to avoid major penalties in the SERPs.
You'll want to monitor site performance and troubleshoot any issues during your maintenance phase.
Update website content regularly
Don't forget to include your 404 error page in your website content updates. Failure to do so could lead to even more broken links. Google prefers websites that update their content regularly; it's a known ranking factor.
Test your website after any changes
Always back up your website before you make changes; once you're done, test it after you hit publish. To prevent problems such as 404 errors, use the "preview" option frequently to test your changes before you commit to them.
Ensure your DNS settings are properly configured with your host
If one or more individual pages don't have the proper configuration, your users will get "404 not found."
Double-check file permissions with your host
This is done differently on every type of hosting panel (usually a "cpanel"), but sometimes during updates, file permissions get changed. That means a user could encounter a 404 error when your web page is simply trying to load an image after these permissions mysteriously changed.
If you're comfortable with it, and also want to improve your site's security, you could disable your .htaccess file. This ensures a core file of your website is not accessible to the public.
Utilize custom a 404 error page
Make sure you also create a fun and engaging default 404 page for your visitors. You can't prevent all 404 errors, but this is your final chance to get them to give you a second chance.
Remember, your 404 page can lead them back to the main page of the site, or provide a few popular options for the content they might be interested in by providing some valuable internal links.
Make sure your 404 page carries your brand voice and is oriented towards the tone you present as your brand online. Go for consistency and resourcefulness.
Every browser has a default 404 error page, and users become numb to those quickly. They're more likely to follow your instructions to go elsewhere on your site if you provide thoughtful suggestions and engaging content on the 404 page itself.
Consider asking the user to email you to let them know how you got there, too. Not only is that helpful (so you can fix the 404 not found page), it potentially starts a conversation with the customer.
Your 404 page may instruct users to resolve their own 404 issues, which may have nothing to do with you or your website. You could instruct them to:
- Clear cache: Some 404 errors are caused by cache issues, which are on the user end. Instructions vary per browser, but make it easy for them by giving them links to instructions for each browser. You can use Google Analytics to determine which browsers people use to most frequently access your website.
- Restart browser instance: Instruct users to completely close out of their browser and restart it, loading your page fresh.
- Try incognito mode: Especially in Google Chrome, the simplicity of incognito mode solves some problems. The user might not have an issue with a 404 not found page if they open your site in incognito mode.
- Try accessing the page on another device: Sometimes it's as simple as loading the page on another device instead. Most people have a phone or laptop handy; if they aren't having luck on one device, they can always try another.
- Check the typed URL again: Especially if they typed the URL, they might have gotten it wrong. Did they mistype the subpage URL? Ask them to check.
You can also set several 404 pages and allow them to be randomized, so someone who encounters an error message more than once will at least get served a different page.
How often should you look for "404 not found" pages on your site?
This depends heavily upon how automated your website process is: some services automatically update security and other plugins; some people prefer to do all of this manually.
At the very least, you should audit your content once every quarter. Make sure you take a good look at whether your UX is accessible and matching current usability and aesthetic trends -- and don't forget to look for those 404 error listings on your report.
Businesses should consider performing audits at least once per quarter. If your current webmaster isn't aware of the 404 error, they should definitely learn to ask the question "what is a 404 error?"
Double-check before publishing blog posts and emails
Users often paste incorrect, faulty, or invalid links into their blog posts or emails. This usually happens by accident. You can prevent this by proofreading your content, and better content is more optimized for success.
404 error resulting from hacked website
Nothing is more frustrating as a webmaster than getting a 404 error as the result of a website hack. Hackers can hold your page hostage and do all sorts of things, often resulting in timeout or 404 errors when people try to access your site. Even your cute custom 404 page may be lost.
To remedy this, you'll want to restore your last saved version of the site in sandbox mode, perform security updates, disable .htaccess file access to the public, and republish. Once you do, don't forget to test; hopefully, you'll be free of the pesky error message on every page!
404 errors can be extremely frustrating. Fortunately, Mailchimp offers tools, thorough blog posts, and many tools to help you evaluate links, stay on top of your website, and promote your site, services, and products.
Stick with Mailchimp, stay 404-free, and perform regular maintenance to catch a 404 error before it becomes a prob.