Sign up for weekly recaps of the ever-changing search marketing landscape.
What’s A 404 To Do?
Have you ever written a blog post or an article and after publishing it, gotten an email telling you that one of your links is broken? It happens to all of us once in a while. But what happens to the links that slip through the cracks and remain broken? They become unused link juice to the site they’re aimed at, and in an algorithmic era that treats links as its largest form of currency, unused link juice is like throwing money on the ground.
Some might argue that a broken link or two here and there won’t really affect things much… much like picking up a nickel or two that you find on the ground isn’t going to make an impact on a person’s income at the end of the week.
But what if you could find a way to have every nickel, dime, or silver dollar someone ever dropped near you automatically deposited to your bank account without ever having to look on the ground or bend over to pick it up? Would you do it? Unfortunately, we can’t do that in the real world, but lucky for us, we can do it in search engine optimization.
First things first and to be clear, a 404 is never a solution for a moved page. If you move any webpage, you should create a 301 redirect to transfer the old link juice (and users) aimed at the old page to the new page.
But, what if you didn’t move the page and simply deleted it and don’t have a page that carries the same information as the old one? Or what if the page never existed in the first place and the broken link was simply the result of someone else’s error during a copy and paste? You have a few options you could choose from, and the top three are:
Option 1: User-friendly error (404) page
You create a page that explains the page the user is looking for no longer exists. You ensure the page serves a 404 header to the search engines to make sure the search engine doesn’t think your error page is the new version of the missing page, and instead knows that the missing page no longer exists.
Option 2: Relevant Redirect (301)
You redirect the user and search engine utilizing a 301 redirect to the homepage of your website, or the homepage of the section that page used to exist within.
- Pro: You transfer all the of the link juice aimed at the old page to the home page or the closest section page.
- Con: The user isn’t sure why they are being redirected and get confused. Now, you could also cloak the page you redirected them to in order deliver a message to anyone coming from a 404 error explaining that their page can’t be found and that they’ve been taken to a different page as a result, but then you have to worry about tripping some type of filter in Google since cloaking is something they typically frown on and is difficult to find intent algorithmically in (good cloaking like this and bad cloaking as in spam).
Option 3: Custom non-404 error page You redirect the user and search engine using a 301 redirect to an error page that serves a 200 header to the search engines and shows users a custom error page that has a message explaining that the page can’t be found, and offers them the ability to search the site or/and see a selection of the more important pages on your website. This non-404 error page serves as a sort of net, catching all of the broken links aimed at your site and transfers their link juice to one single page that can then take that collective link juice and “redistribute” it through to the important pages of your site.
- Pro: Great usability and transfers the link juice aimed at the old page to a single page that you can then use to redistribute to the pages you most want to have it.
- Con: If you have a lot of broken links pointed towards your site, you could end up with an error page that begins ranking in the search engines (though, if your “catch-all” page for broken links has more links than your “real” pages and begins to outrank them, you might consider getting a better link development strategy for your main site pages).
Which method you choose will depend on your top priority (usability vs. SEO vs. safety vs. a little bit of aggression). As of this moment, I can’t see any reason option three would be objectionable to the search engines, as in my opinion, it is no different than siloing/sculpting, a practice that Google Engineer Matt Cutts has gone on record saying that Google doesn’t frown upon. However, since this would also prevent some companies from hijacking your 404 pages since they wouldn’t serve a 404 header, you never know if they might change their mind. ;-)
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.