What is a 404 error and how do you fix it?

The 404 page user experience

A 404 error is a web page that Internet users land on after clicking on a link that no longer exists. These can take many forms.

In some cases, you will come across a page with a thoughtful design, a message indicating that the page no longer exists, and redirecting you to other categories or the website’s search bar. In other cases, 404 pages are displayed as blank pages with a message such as “Warning!” on them, or red messages indicating that you are on a 404 page, or completely blank pages.

Example of an uncompleted page 404

The user experience of your 404 pages is important: you should make sure that your users don’t think they have landed on a spam page by clicking on one of your site’s links. To see how your website’s 404 pages look, simply enter a URL of your website that does not exist, for example: “mysite.com/nonexistantpage”.

My Little Big Web 404 page

You therefore need to pay attention to the design of this page and make sure that it correctly redirects Internet users to the valid links on your site.

Communicating with Google

404 pages exist primarily for Internet users, but also for search engine robots. This 404 page is supposed to give an HTTP 404 code. This code is sent to robots to categorize this page as a server error. However, in some cases, we find that 404 pages don’t have an HTTP 404 code.

What does this mean?

On the web, all pages have a code assigned to them so that they can be analyzed by search engine robots. For valid pages, the assigned code is an HTTP 200 code, which means that when communicating with the search engine server, the page returns an HTTP 200 code, meaning that the page is valid, that it is displayed correctly, that the servers have analyzed it and that it does not contain any errors.

Ideally, a site would only have pages with HTTP 200 codes, but sites evolve or observe changes, and page URLs can change. It is also possible that other external sites link to your site, but the URLs that are linked change or no longer exist. In this case, if the URL no longer exists but the developer is not aware that it has changed, it would be better if the user lands on a page with an HTTP 404 code than with an HTTP 200 code.

SEO specialists and referencers can access all pages that have an HTTP 404 code, which shows at a glance all the errors to be corrected on the website. A page that returns an HTTP 200 code when it is no longer valid will be hidden among the other valid pages of the site and it will be much harder for the developer to find it in order to fix it.

There are a number of tools for detecting 404 errors on a website, including the Google Search Console, a free tool from Google that allows you to work on your SEO. A page with an HTTP 404 code is not expected to remain on a site for the long term. In effect, a site that contains hundreds of 404 errors will be penalized in its referencing with Google since it will be considered as a website with poor quality content. It is therefore necessary to correct them. The fact that these pages return a 404 error code therefore allows the specialist to identify them more easily so they can be resolved.

How to fix 404 errors

You must communicate with Google to inform them that the URL no longer exists and that Internet users should be redirected to the new URL on the same subject, or to another page if none of the other pages on your site are similar to it. To correct this error, we perform a permanent redirection, called a 301 redirect.

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect, meaning that Google is told that the erroneous URL has changed permanently to the new URL. Search engines are given the right path to access the web page they want to display. If your site has hundreds of 404 errors, and you fix them all by doing 301 redirects, Google will assume that the site has been updated and the problems have been fixed.

Be careful, you need to remember that an error page corresponds to a URL that no longer exists. If this URL no longer exists, there should be no link on the site to this URL. In this case, Internet users should not find it and there would be no need to display a 404 error or redirect it.

When you see that 404 errors are generated on your site, it is very important to understand how users ended up on this URL so you can change the URL address where they found it. 301 redirects are additional security features that prevent Internet users from finding themselves on a 404 page and redirect them to the right page.

To summarize, the 404 page is used to first inform the user that the page they found does not exist. It also alerts the SEO specialist that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. Then, the referencer’s job will be to redirect the URL that no longer exists to another URL but especially to make sure that no one can arrive on this erroneous URL when the user navigates the site.

Processus de redirection 301

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In conclusion

Therefore, to optimize your website’s user experience, remember to design your 404 error pages carefully so that you don’t scare off your visitors. Moreover, make sure that your pages return an HTTP 404 code when an Internet user arrives on a URL that does not exist or no longer exists. Finally, it is important to redirect all your 404 pages with 301 redirects and especially make sure that the URLs generating errors are not found on your site. All of this will show Google that the problems have been solved and optimize your SEO.

To perform these actions, all these indications must be provided in the .htacces file. This file allows you to make all the changes on your website and communicate them to search engines. Get help from your programmer, or contact us to analyze the state of your web pages and optimize your SEO.