You would think that we would have something really great as the twelfth day of Christmas, like 12 new positive reviews on your site, 12 new likes on your Facebook page, or maybe even 12 new followers on Twitter. Sadly, having Google show you 12 404 page errors on your website is kind of like waking up on Christmas morning with a lump of coal in your stocking.
What is a 404 Page Error?
A 404 page error simply put is an error that is generated when a page cannot be found. It can happen for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most common.
Typo in a link
We’ve all done it before…we’re working at such a break-neck pace that we inadvertently misspell the name of a website or page name on a website. The easiest way to avoid this is to use your internet browser tabs. Tabs are one of my favorite improvements in the internet browser experience in the last five years. They allow you to have multiple sites open in a single “window”….but I digress.
In most browsers, if you press CTRL+T (Command+T on a Mac) your browser will open another tab. On this second tab, browse to the page to which you would like to link your page and copy all the text in the address bar. You can use CTRL+C (Command+C on a mac) to copy the link. Now go back to your page where you are placing the link and in the link field type CTRL+V (Command+V on a mac) to paste it.
Changing a website page name
Every page on your website should have a name. If you have an older site or if it wasn’t built by someone who understands search engine optimization, chances are your page names may be something like services.html, products.html, or contact.html. If you are working with a search engine optimization company, such as Turn the Page Online Marketing, one thing that will be suggested is optimizing your page names.
Instead of calling a page products.html, if you sell kitchen faucets at killer prices for example, a better page name would be affordable-kitchen-faucets.html. Or if you install faucets locally, you may want your services page to be called something like faucet-installation-kansas-city.html.
However, when you change the name of a page, even if you update all your menus and links within your own website, you never know who may have an external link to that page floating around on the internet. The best thing to do to avoid a 404 page error, is to add a 301 redirect that points your old page name to your new page name. You will mostly likely need to contact your website host for help in adding a 301 redirect, unless you have advanced access to a control panel for your website.
Changing your website domain
Although we don’t often recommend changing your website domain because of the authority that comes with the age of a domain, sometimes it is unavoidable. So if you are going to change it, you could end up with a lot of 404 page errors floating around out there with links to pages on your old domain.
Similar to a page name change, if you change domains, you will want to initiate 301 redirects. Don’t make the mistake of adding just one 301 redirect from your old website to the new website domain. Best practice is that you add a 301 redirect for every single page on your site.
When a website page is deleted
Lastly, if you feel the need to delete a page on your website, users will also receive a 404 page error for any links that were going to that old web page.
I know I sound like a broken record (similar to the 12 days of Christmas song), but the answer once again is a 301 redirect. Even if you aren’t replacing the deleted page with a similar page, you should still redirect users to another page on your site. It’s best if you can add a 301 redirect to a page that has similar information as the deleted page, but if all else fails, redirect it to your home page.
Accidents happen, so make it look pretty
Even though Santa checks his list twice, I’m sure he’s made a mistake from time to time and you will do the same when it comes to 404 page errors on your website. So in the event that you do end up with a 404 page error on your site, you can at least be prepared for it by make a “pretty” 404 page error.
You might be wondering what the heck that means, but I’m sure you have seen it before. A standard 404 page error sort of looks like a blank page and when most users see it they immediately respond by hitting the back button on their browser due to fear of the unknown.
If you have a savvy web developer, they will have already created a “pretty” or custom 404 page error for your site. This will look like the rest of your website with possibly a link to your sitemap. That way, when users come across a broken link, they still feel like they are on your site and they have a quick way to find the page they are looking for.
To test your website to see if you have a custom 404 page error, simply go to any page on your site and type some additional gibberish into the address bar before the .html (or .php, .aspx, etc.)
Google Webmaster Tools is ready to help
Just one of the many great things about Google Webmaster tools is that once you are logged in, you can quickly see on your dashboard if you have any 404 page errors, referred to in Webmaster tools as “crawl errors”.
So here’s to hoping you don’t wake up with coal in your stocking or crawl errors on your site on Christmas morning. We hope you enjoyed our 12 Days of Google Christmas!