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Guide to 404 Errors and How To Use Them

404 errors and how to fix them
Joe Martin

It’s frustrating to see "page not found: 404" errors popup on your screen — especially if it’s on your website. Visitors often click away and never return when they encounter a 404 error. Designing a great 404 error page takes a little time and creativity but pays off big by keeping your hard-earned traffic on your site.

After discussing seven tips about 404 error pages, we’ll also take a quick look at five other common errors and how to fix them. Here’s what 404 errors are, how to fix 404 errors, and how to use them to your advantage.

What are 404 Errors?

A 404 error means that your destination page no longer exists or can’t be found. Without getting too technical, there are five status codes governing browser requests to view website pages:

  1. 100 is informational — what you want to see is coming, but it’s going to take a little time.
  2. 200 is success — you get where you want to go.
  3. 300 is redirection — you’re not going to where you want to go, but here’s something similar.
  4. 400 is client errors — what you’re trying to find is a bad request from you and can’t be processed.
  5. 500 is server errors — something is wrong on the server the website lives on.

Ten years ago, 404 error pages were much more common. Today, many professionally created sites use redirection to take visitors to a similar page, instead of showing the dreaded 404 that loses traffic. For example, expert website managers like Scorpion design website traffic retention features.

Common Reasons for 404 Errors

Naturally, we want all our pages to be 200 success. But things can sometimes change on a website, and sometimes requests to view a page go astray for no clear reason. 

Here are the most common reasons for 404 errors:

  • The domain doesn’t exist
  • You typed the URL into the browser wrong
  • Someone typed the URL wrong when creating or redesigning the page
  • The server is down
  • The connection to the server didn’t work

Now that you know what 404 errors are and why they happen, let’s get into how to find and fix them, like the professionals at Scorpion do.

How to Find 404 Errors on Your Site

Finding 404 errors isn’t hard. There are many free tools you can use to do a site check. The first two will find every error. The second two find only broken links.

Google Search Console

Google Search Console is easy to use once you've set it up. You’ll need to enter a code snippet that Google gives you on the server hosting your site. Most hosting providers will do this for you if you contact them through chat help.

Once you've connected your site to the Google Search Console, go to Diagnostics > Crawl Errors and click on Not Found. You’ll get a list of all errors.

Bing Webmaster Tools

Bing Webmaster Tools is similar to Google Search Console. You’ll need to verify your site by entering a code snippet on your hosting server. Then, click on Reports & Data > Crawl Information.

Screaming Frog

Screaming Frog is one of many website crawlers that find broken links. Screaming Frog lets you download and use their app for free to crawl your site if you have fewer than 500 URLs. 

Broken Link Checker

Broken Link Checker is a WordPress plugin that finds and lets you fix broken links on the plugin’s dashboard without needing to visit each page on your site. 

After you’ve installed the plugin, it will show up in the WP admin panel under Tools > Broken Links. You can also choose to get an email when it finds a broken link to save your check. You can go straight to fixing the 404 error.

Scorpion SEO Experts

When you hire an expert SEO company like Scorpion our experts do all the work for you. We use our own ranking software that uses artificial intelligence to quickly identify all of the areas you can improve your website, including fixing 404s. 

How to Fix 404 Errors When Browsing Other Sites

How you fix a 404 error depends on whether the error is on your site or another site.

If you’re trying to get to a page on someone else’s site but get a 404, try these tips:

  • Refresh the page by clicking F5. It might have loaded wrong.
  • Try a different browser. The page may return a 404 error in Chrome but display in Firefox. 
  • Clear the cache in Chrome by deleting your history in Chrome Settings. Click on the three dots in the top right of your browser. Go to History > Clear browsing data.
  • Check for mistakes in the URL. We often make typing errors or copy an extra space when copying and pasting.
  • Try using a VPN if you can’t access an entire website. Sometimes, governments block sites, or the site owner will block access for people in certain areas.

How to Fix 404 Errors on Your Site

Fixing 404 errors on your site can help you keep traffic you might lose. Here are the most common 404 error fixes.

For WordPress sites, install the Redirection plugin to use 301 redirects. You’ll be able to redirect visitors to an existing page easily. With this plugin, you can also redirect visitors, depending on conditions. This is very useful for guiding traffic through your site.

Site owners without WordPress may need to update the .htaccess file on their hosting server to use 301 redirections. This is best done by professionals, like the people at Scorpion, but you could ask for help chat on your site’s hosting platform to do it.

Other things to check are:

  • Correcting the link if it’s broken.
  • Restoring the missing page if it’s popular.
  • Ignoring the error 404 and seeing if it drops out of search soon. Google recommends ignoring 404s for deleted pages in many cases and says that certain 404s will not harm your site ranking.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to keep from displaying a 404 error page. An outstanding page may be enough to keep visitors engaged and get them back to your content.

Design an Outstanding 404 Error Page

Imgur 404 error page
Imgur 404 error page offering many alternatives.

The best 404 error pages include specific information to help your visitor understand why they're not going where they want to go, present interesting alternatives, and try to lighten the situation to reduce frustration and keep them engaged. You should include:

  • A 404 error message
  • Links to other interesting pages
  • A call to action

Avoid cluttering your 404 page or giving too much information. Your goal is to quickly reengage people who don't want to be there. Making the effort to create an entertaining 404 error page might ease visitor frustration levels and keep them from immediately clicking away from your site. Some entertaining 404 pages also incorporate a popup offer, hoping to get the click to keep the visitor.

Use an Exit-Intent Popup

Exit-intent popups appear when visitors move their cursor towards the top of the page to click away. It's your last shot at keeping them. In your popup, you could:

  • Offer a discount
  • Collect their email by offering a freebie
  • Offer a coupon
  • Give free shipping

Yes, exit-intent popups can be annoying. Yes, they only snag a small amount of traffic. But these people are leaving anyway. Something is better than nothing. 

Other Common Website Errors

Here’s five of the other most common website errors and what you can do to fix them.

403 Forbidden

When your computer isn't on the list of machines the server can grant access to, the 403 forbidden error appears. The only ways around this are to get your computer listed or use a device on the list.

Faulty permissions on the server can also cause 403 errors. The server owner will need to fix them.

500 Internal Server Error

A 500 internal server error could mean anything, as it’s a catch-all for unclassified server errors. You could retry, and it might work, but retrying can also result in duplication. Duplication wouldn’t be good if your order to purchase something doubled because you retried. Contacting the site owner may be a better option in this case.

502 Bad Gateway

502 is often a temporary problem meaning your request can't reach the server. It’s rarely a problem with your computer or local network; it comes from the server. It could be:

  • Bad programming
  • Network error
  • Server timeout
  • A firewall
  • Server overload

There are many things you can do to try restoring the connection:

  • Refresh your browser 
  • Try a different browser 
  • Clear the browser cache
  • Disable your firewall temporarily
  • Check on a monitoring site to see if the site you're trying to reach is down
  • Try a VPN

503 Service Unavailable

503 is dreaded because there's usually nothing you can do but cry for professional help if refreshing the page by pushing F5 doesn’t work. What’s causing a 503 error probably won’t be clear, but it’s usually a server problem, not your computer. Try these fixes:

  • Restart your computer or router to rule out problems on your end
  • Call the system admin

If you own the site and have persistent outages, you may need to change hosts or raise server capacity. 

504 Gateway Timeout

504 errors are exactly as described — the gateway timed out because the server took too long to respond. Maybe:

  • A secondary server took too long to load
  • There’s a DNS issue
  • A server is too overloaded to respond

Retrying your request is usually the answer. 

There are many reasons for frustrating errors to appear while online. Scorpion website management takes care of them for you and keeps traffic flowing smoothly.

Bonus 404 Strategies

A 404 error can be the death of a good website. It will lower your ranking on Google and reduce traffic if not controlled. It can be helpful to have the following strategies to keep your website moving in the right direction and avoiding the dreaded 404s. 

Hire an SEO manager: Managing your website is a lot of work, but essential for growth. Part of an SEO managers job is making sure your site is healthy in Google's eyes. They will get alerts about 404 pages and can find ways to fix the problems before it gets out of control. A lot of times its as simple as setting up a 301 redirect (redirecting the broken page to a new page) if the content is old and you don't want to update the page. A 301 redirect will help whoever clicked on your content get to the right spot. An SEO manager can be in house or many small businesses will hire an SEO marketing agency to manage the day to day. 

Hire a webmaster: A webmaster will also keep an eye on the health of the site and can work with you to identify 404 errors and suggestions on how to fix them. They won't have as much of a mindset on organic search results like an SEO manager, but definitely a crucial part of the team. 

Need help with 404 errors?

If you are having a lot of 404 errors it might mean that you have a bad website management strategy or your website is setup in the wrong way. When you partner with a company like Scorpion, our team takes over all of the management and uses the latest strategies to keep your website running smooth. We have helped thousands of small businesses run their website and marketing and look forward to working with yours. Get started

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