Do 404 Errors Damage Your Search Engine Rankings?

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If ever you’ve gone into Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) and noticed that your site or one of the sites you look after has amassed a number of 404 errors, your immediate reaction may be to resolve them as quickly as possible, for fear that not doing so, could have dire consequences for your site’s rankings and subsequent web traffic. Thankfully, this is not always true.

When 404s can be harmful

There are indeed a number of instances where 404s most definitely can hurt your rankings and harm your Seach Engine Optimisation efforts. If any of the below cases are relevant to your errors, then it’s important that you fix them.

1) The 404 page had valuable backlinks directed at it

Along with onpage content, backlinks from external websites are one of the top 2 factors that determine search engine rankings. Certain pages on your site, such as popular blog posts or pages that contain important information for users, may accrue a sizeable amount of high quality backlinks over time. If such pages were to suddenly become broken and display a 404, then you’re going to lose all of the value that those links were contributing to your site and along with it, the traffic as well.

The good news is, once you are able to fix the 404, either by re-establishing the page at its original URL or by redirecting the 404 to its new URL, you will be able to reobtain those links. It’s more desirable to recreate the page at its original URL if possible, as link value (commonly referred to as ‘link equity’) is lost, whenever a link is redirected.

2) A New page is added, that discusses the exact same subject

Sometimes, a new page that discusses the same subject as an existing page – only with an updated and more relevant version, may be added to the site and the old page that contained all of the high quality backlinks, may be inadvertently deleted. In such cases, it’s wise to either ensure that the new page has the same URL as the old one, or redirect the old URL to the new URL.

3) When a site has been migrated or when you have a new website built

In cases where a client has their website migrated over to a different web hosting provider or has a new website built for them, it’s important to both a) ensure that all of the URLs remain the same and b) ensure that the list of all redirects are obtained and added to the newly migrated / newly built site. Failure to do so will invariably result in a minor deluge of 404 errors and along with it, damage to search engine rankings.

When it’s safe to disregard 404s

There are a number of times where 404 errors will appear and where it is safe to take no action at all. If a missing page had no quality backlinks pointed at it previously and it wasn’t a source of important traffic, then it can be dismissed. For instance, your company may have had a page dedicated to a corporate outing, which has since passed. It’s unnecessary to redirect the page elsewhere. All this being said, if you do have a rather large build-up of innocuous 404s being detected in Google Search Console, it can still be a good idea to fix them. Doing so will make identifying valuable 404 pages much easier.

The final word

Making the decision to resolve or disregard 404 errors detected for your website, depends on the value of the page returning the 404. If you know a particular page has proven to yield regular traffic in the past (through Google Analytics results) and the page is likely to have garnered a number of quality links, then it’s important that the page is either is recreated at its original URL or redirected to a new version on your website, to ensure that you don’t miss out on the link equity that the page provided.

Help prevent unnecessary 404s when you’re migrating your site to a new web host or having a new site built by ensuring that all URLs remain the same and by obtaining the list of redirects and applying them to the newly migrated / newly rebuilt site. If you are unsure as to which 404 errors must be fixed and which ones can safely be ignored, get in touch with an experienced SEO specialist.

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