User experience plays a big role in my day-to-day. As a user, I want to have a good online experience and as a marketer, I want to deliver one. A good user experience (UX) makes everyone happy, even search rankings. If you want to improve your UX, there is one really simple thing everyone can do today.
What is a 404 error?
404 errors occur when Google or a user comes across a page on your site that doesn’t exist. It may be that you have changed the original link or that a user has an incorrect URL. It happens all the time and is totally normal.
You can check in your Google Search Console under Crawl > Crawl Errors for all the URL errors on your site. All your 404 errors will come up here. These include what Google has found as well as users. BTW. if you haven’t gotten a Search Console Account, get one now. It’s a magic box of fixes to make your website better and to ensure that Google does really find you.
Google says the following about 404s: "Generally, 404s don't harm your site's performance in search, but you can use them to help improve the user experience.” We know, of course, that a bad user experience can lead to pogo-sticking, people jumping right back off your site, spending little time on your site etc. That's all bad engagement on your site and Google's Rankbrain does see engagement as a ranking signal (more on Rankbrain here from Moz).
So please don’t think that a 404 has no effect on your SEO. If a bad user experience has a negative impact on their engagement with your site, then it will affect your search rankings negatively also.
Fixing 404s - Step 1
Some 404 errors are not worth fixing. For example, a person may have copied a URL from a tweet and taken in part of the copy. That’s a once off and you can ignore. Anything, however, that looks like a genuine mistake many people could make or if you have moved a page, you should have a fix in place.
The obvious fix is a 301 redirect. You simply set up that the broken URL redirects to the corresponding correct page. Check in Google Search Console and also get into the habit that every time you remove or change URL on your page that you create a 301 redirect.
But, again, you can make a UX mistake: redirecting every bad link to your home page. I’ve seen this quite a bit and as a user, it’s not great. If I was looking for your documentation, I don’t expect to end up on your homepage. So be sure that you match your redirects up as closely as you can.
Fixing 404s - Step 2
It’s hard to stay on top of all 404 errors all the time and you simply can’t predict what typo people may build into your URL. So there is a really simple fix, a custom 404 page.
Set up in your CMS, this page appears every time someone hits a URL that doesn’t exist. Here’s what the page should do:
1. Acknowledge the fact that the URL doesn’t exist (and, that’s okay)
2. Set the visitor on the right path again through search and / or links
There are some great examples out there. Here my favourites:
These are beautifully designed and add some fun with animation and copy. You can always keep things static and simple, just remember: acknowledge the error and set visitors back on the right path.
Simple fix, great UX
As your site grows, you add content, you redesign and move things around, 404 errors become a very normal thing. With these simple fixes you provide a better user experience and ensure you don’t get hit with the effects of bad UX on your SEO.