By  , ProfitReach Owner

How To Fix 404 Errors – The Simple (But Complete) Guide

How To Fix 404 Errors – The Simple (But Complete) Guide

It’s the hidden website problem that affects thousands of UK businesses.

THIS is the blood-curdling ‘redirect problem’ or ‘404 error problem’.

It harms your presence in Google and it harms the experience for people you’re trying to turn into customers.

As a business owner, director or marketing manager, this one’s for you. It’s your website and it’s your job to make sure its gives your visitors the perfect experience.

This post could save you money AND make you money.

Read on.

It’s time to fix it.

What Is The ‘Redirect/404 Problem’?

Imagine this.

  1. Louise, your ideal customer, is looking to for a product/service like yours. She searches on Google and your website appears.
  2. She clicks on one of the links to your website. She’s eager to get the final bits of information before she buys.
  3. After she clicks, instead of the page she was expecting, she sees an unhelpful message: “404 – Page cannot be found.”
  4. Louise realises there’s no easy way to find the product/service she came to see.
  5. She’s frustrated, but no problem. There are other websites showing in the Google results that offer a similar product or service.
  6. Louise hits the back button and off she goes to another website.
  7. You’ve just lost a sale.

Of course, as a business owner, director or manager, you must avoid this experience at all costs. But all too often, this experience happens and the SME business owner never knows.

How would you know if someone like Louise experienced the above problem on your website?

Maybe you don’t? Yet.

Could it be happening hundreds of times each month without you knowing? It’s time to check.

The Cost To Your Business

If your business gets this wrong, £100s or £1000s could come off your bottom line every month.

That’s not overstating it.

If people can’t get to one or more of your primary pages, they may not be motivated to take actions like buying or getting in touch.

Imagine a Google search result that usually attracts hundreds of clicks, but which leads to an error page.

Disaster.

Worse, having people experience 404 errors on your website could be negatively impacting your ranking/presence on Google.

You could already be losing money due to these problems. But it’s a bit of a secret killer because you might not know about it.

It might be tempting to leave your website manager or web agency to fix this problem. But as the owner, you need a good understanding of this issue.

Make sure ‘the redirect/404 problem’ isn’t happening in your business.

Why Does The Redirect/404 Problem Happen?

This poor customer experience could happen if:

  1. The product/service page was moved on your website to another place.
  2. You physically added/removed words in the URL.
  3. For eCommerce websites, maybe you stopped selling the product, and the page no longer exists.
  4. You launched a new website and the majority of the pages have new URLs.

In every case, the business forgot to redirect website users and search engines from the old page/s to the new page/s.

That results in a poor website experience for your customer.

This Is Why You Must Get This Right

If you delete or move a page on your website, you could lose the opportunity to sell to your site’s visitors.

Your visitors will leave if they’re not automatically redirected to the next most helpful place on your site. That could be the new URL of the existing page, new page, or a category page that sells similar products/services.

The issue is similar to when you move house. How does Royal Mail know where to deliver your post? If Royal Mail doesn’t know your new address, they will simply deliver your post to your old address.

That’s why Royal Mail has a redirection service. You continue to get post, even when it’s directed to your old home.

How To Help Your Visitors & Google Find The New Page

There are lots of easy ways to help users and search engines find the next best content on your website after you delete the old page or move it.

But in all cases, the answer is almost always to put a permanent redirect in place on your website (also known as a 301 permanent redirect).

What Is A Permanent Redirect?

A permanent redirect (aka 301 redirect) is when your website tells the visitor’s web browser that the page they want has been moved. They seamlessly get taken to the new page without them knowing about the redirect.

THE PROBLEM (POOR USER EXPERIENCE)

THEY VISIT THE OLD PAGE:
yourdomain.co.uk/this-is-the-url-of-the-old-product-page

THERE’S NO REDIRECT
▼▼▼
USERS AND SEARCH ENGINES CAN’T FIND THE NEW PAGE AND GIVE UP


THE FIX (GREAT USER EXPERIENCE)

THEY VISIT THE OLD PAGE:
yourdomain.co.uk/this-is-the-url-of-the-old-product-page

THERE’S A PERMANENT 301 REDIRECT IS IN PLACE
▼▼▼
NEW PAGE: yourdomain.co.uk/this-is-the-url-of-the-new-product-page
USERS AND SEARCH ENGINES FIND THE NEW PAGE. YEY!

Why Put A Redirect In Place?

The obvious reason to put a redirect in place is to help a website user find the correct product page. Doing this will mean there’s more chance of a sale.

If they click through from Google and see an error page, then it’s bad news. They’re unlikely to buy from you.

GOAL: You need to redirect them to the next best, most relevant page.

A successful redirect will eventually remove your old page from the search results and replace it with the new page.

After a time, your listing in the Google search results will appear up to date. You will see the new page’s title and meta description.

Are 404 Errors Happening In Your Business?

Below I’ve outlined the two main scenarios when 404 errors happen. And how to identify them.

Fix Your Internal Broken Links

On your website you have links which point from one page to another page. These links may be located in the main menu, in the footer, in the main body of text, or elsewhere on the site. Sometimes these links break – this can happen for a number of reasons.

When a person clicks on a broken link, instead of the content they want, they’re usually presented with a 404 error page. The 404 page might have links to other primary site pages or a search box. The goal here is to make it easy for people to find the content they came for. But often people give up without going any further.

  • PROBLEM: The result is a poor experience for visitors and it can harm your search engine performance.
  • SOLUTION: The easiest way to find these broken links is to download the free Screaming Frog software. The Screaming Frog SEO Spider is a small desktop program (PC or Mac) which crawls websites’ links, images, CSS, script and apps from an SEO perspective. For the free version there is a limit of 500 pages. Once you’ve crawled the website, go to the Response Codes tab and then filter for Client Error (4xx). This will give you a list of the broken links. You could also import a custom report to Google Analytics.
  • ACTION: Armed with a list of internal broken links on your website, you can go off and fix them.
  • RESULT: The result is that your site visitors have a smooth experience. It’s much easier to find the content they came for. And you’ll also gain an advantage in search engines like Google.

Fix Your External Broken Links

The other type of broken link are those that point to your website from other websites. These can be harder to fix, but you should make the effort because these links when fixed can help you a lot in Google and other search engines.

IMPORTANT: Fixing external broken links has the potential to really help your presence in Google, especially if you have an old website with lots of externals broken links pointing to it.

If your website is setup correctly and you have Google Analytics installed, visitors will leave a trail when they follow external broken links. To find out whether people are experiencing an error page, follow these steps:

  • SOLUTION: The easiest wayFix to find these external broken links is to import a custom report to Google Analytics.
  • ACTION: Armed with a list of internal broken links on your website, you can:
    • Create a 301 redirect on your website so that people are automatically redirected to the next most relevant piece of content on your website.
    • Or, if it makes sense, create a page that uses the broken link URL, so that the link suddenly works again.
    • Or you could ask the owners of the other website to update the broken link. Be careful with this. It does work, but I’ve seen instances where the link is completely removed instead. That’s not a great outcome.
  • RESULT: The result is that your site visitors have a smooth experience. It’s much easier to find the content they came for, and you’ll also gain a lot of benefit in search engines like Google.

Why ‘External Links’ Are Critical

One of the big factors in how Google judges the position web pages appear in the search results is the quantity/quality/relevance of external links.

A key route to Google success is to get a good number of external links from other websites. This benefit is the one that many miss.

An external link is a link from another website that points to a page on your website. You will gain a bigger advantage from Google if the page that links to your website is relevant in some way.

eg. Let’s say your webpage sells flowers. Get a link from another website that reviews florists and it will give you more weight in Google because it’s relevant. If you get a link from a spammy page that contains links to lots of random products, then that’s not quite as relevant. You’ll get less ranking power from Google.

If another website links to a specific page on your website then Google sees it as a vote for that page. That helps to give a boost to how Google judges your webpage and website.

What happens if you have lots of links from other sites to a page on your website and then you move that page…without a permanent redirect? The URL changes, but you don’t tell Google. eek.

Make Sure Your External Links Always Work (even the old ones)

If you don’t have a correct permanent redirect in place, then when someone clicks on the external link, or when Google follows it, then they will hit a dead end.

That’s terrible for your visitors, Google or your business. Google will find it harder to transfer all the ranking power from the previous link. There’s a real chance that your Google rankings will plummet.

The websites linking to you could even see that their link is no longer working, and then remove it. A double disaster.

There are SEO specialists out there who will be looking for your dead links and asking websites to change the link to their client’s website.

It’s a potential SEO disaster.

A correct redirect would stop all these problems and help to carry over the link’s ranking power from the other website to yours via the link.

That is a beautiful thing.

What Is NOT A Permanent 301 Redirect?

When I say redirect, we’re not talking about putting a notice on your webpage saying “This webpage has moved, please click below to go there….”. That used to happen a lot 10-20 years ago. I still some websites do that today. But make sure you don’t do it.

The 301 permanent redirect needs to be automatic so the visitor is redirected from the old page to the new page without them lifting a finger.

If done well, this whole experience should be seamless. The visitor won’t even notice that they clicked on an old URL. If it’s done poorly, then it could be an SEO disaster for your website and business. Visitors and search engines like Google will have no way to find the new page and will stop looking for it.

Are your website’s visitors victims of this redirect problem?

If you’re doing this wrong, fix it. It could be one of the quickest ways to get more Google visitors.

If you need help creating 301 redirects, contact us and we will help.

The Broken Link When You Move A Webpage…

When I say “moving a page” I mean when you change the webpage’s URL.

That happens a lot more than you think.

Think of a page’s URL in a similar way to the address of your house.

If you give someone the wrong home address, they will struggle to find your house. It’s the same with a URL that you change. If site visitors follow your old product/service page URL and you haven’t put a redirect in place, they could just see an error page or your home page.

What a horrible user experience.

Do you want them to spend money with you? Then please make life easy for your site visitors. They’ll secretly love you for it and show their thanks by spending.

If you ever change a URL on your website, delete a page, or move a product, make sure you redirect your site visitors to the next best place.

It sounds simple doesn’t it. But can changing your product’s URL really kill your online sales?

Yes it can have consequences for your business if you get it wrong.

Don’t miss this chance to increase online sales, instead of killing them.

The Broken Links When You Get A New Website…

The most common time when the URL of a page is changed is when you get a new website. Ideally the majority of the pages on your new website would have the same URLs as the previous website. But sometimes the structure and appearance of the URL need to be changed.

If you have a new website, with new URLs and don’t have permanent 301 redirects in place, you will cause a potential disaster for you, your site visitors and for your presence in Google.

Make sure all your old page URLs still work. If the URLs have been changed then make sure you create permanent redirects to redirect people and search engines from old to new.

HOW TO CHECK: Install the Link Redirect Trace chrome extension to check whether your old pages have a 301 redirect to the new URL with NO 404 errors. If you only have a single 200 response code, even better.

What’s The Impact On Your Google Rankings?

It’s hard to say what the impact could be on your Google presence and rankings.

It could take £100s or £1000s off your bottom line because organic traffic from Google that engages with your website could plummet in the short term. And rankings could plummet. Sales could tank.

As a business owner you must be aware of the redirect/404 problem to make sure your presence in Google is unaffected.

It Happens More Than You Think

I’ve worked with clients who didn’t realise that during a previous website move, many of the links to their site were not redirected. I worked with them to get permanent redirects in place to the most relevant content on their site.

This exercise usually results in significant boosts to my client’s Google organic traffic.

If you’re unsure about the SEO health of your website then consider my comprehensive (easy-to-understand) SEO Audit. Do you have links to your site that wrongly point to 404 error pages? My audit could be a good option to check the status of external links.

If you don’t put a redirect in place then:

  1. Google will no longer give that product on your website the boost it deserves. There is no specific content on your website getting a boost/vote from the link in the eyes of Google.
  2. The linking website could see that your webpage doesn’t work and stop linking to you. That’s bad news.

If you put a permanent redirect in place then:

  1. You will give Google more reason to give a boost to your page.
  2. The website that links to you will continue to link to you.

How Do I Create A Permanent Redirect

This is the one you’ve been waiting for. 

A permanent redirect can be created using many different techniques.

Let’s focus on the easy methods.

1. The automatic permanent redirect

The perfect way to fix the redirect problem is for a permanent redirect to happen automatically without you having to do anything. Thankfully automatic redirects are becoming the case on more and more website CMSs and eCommerce stores.

But you should still have a seperate redirect manager plugin in place to make sure everything’s working. What’s a redirect manager? It’s an easy-to-use part of your website where you can redirect users from an old page link/URL to a new location.

Let’s look at WooCommerce on WordPress, one of the world’s most popular eCommerce platforms.

  • If you update the URL of the Woocommerce/Wordpress product page: then WordPress will automatically put a permanent redirect in place. Problem solved. You don’t have to do anything. That’s the same for WordPress pages and posts too. Magic. But all websites are different. Make sure you check that this is the way your website works.
  • If you move a child WordPress page to different parent page: Wordpress will automatically update the URL and put a permanent redirect in place. Problem solved.
  • If you want to delete a page then you should redirect traffic to a different page – that way you still make the most of the traffic the old page has been getting. At the time of writing this is a manual process in WordPress. (see below). But there are WordPress plugins that will prompt you to do the redirect when you move a page to the trash can.

DON’T ASSUME AUTOMATIC REDIRECTS ARE WORKING: It’s nice to think you can sit back and relax while these automated systems take care of redirects for you. But their accuracy is not guaranteed.

I’ve relied on WordPress’s ability to automatically redirect, only to find old urls still going to 404 pages. Make sure you have someone at your company to regularly check/audit your redirects regularly – it’s an important job for your website. At ProfitReach this is something I offer clients with my monthly web care plans. Send me an email if you need help with your redirects and managing your website each month.  To do this yourself I’d suggest putting in place suggestions in  points 2 & 3 below.

2. The Semi-automatic Permanent Redirect

Sometimes a semi-automatic ‘permanent or manual redirect’ is a better option.

Semi automatic means when you have a plugin or add-on on your website that prompts you to put a redirect in place. This is one of my favoured approaches.

  • If you delete a page then you will be prompted to select an alternative page by the plugin. It’s essential you redirect users to the page that’s most related to what they’re looking for.
  • Checking your 404 errors – if you have a WordPress website and install a free redirect manager like the Redirection Plugin it will give you a list of all visits to your website that resulted in a 404 error. You can also do something similar in Google Analytics. You can then tell the website using the plugin to redirect anyone looking for the old URL to the correct page.
  • If you have AMP pages (Accelerated Mobile Pages project): (this point is a bit techie) redirect manager plugins like the one mentioned above could be priceless when you have AMP web pages. Your redirect manager should also take care of AMP URLs for AMP mobile friendly pages if you have them. AMP pages are alternative versions of your primary page that have become popular in recent years to speed up the user experience for mobile users. You can check if you have a valid AMP page using Google’s AMP checker. The URLs often have /amp added to the end but the page is only seen when you’re on mobile. If those AMP URLs aren’t redirected when you changes URLs then things can get messy. This is one to get your inhouse web expert, or web agency to check.

3. The Manual Permanent Redirect

  • If you delete a product then you will may need to do a 301 permanent redirect manually. It’s essential you redirect users to the page that’s most related to what they’re looking for.
  • If you’ve just redesigned the website: and your pages have new URLs then you must manually create redirects. This is the time when a lot of redirect mistakes can occur, so make sure you do the migration well. These types of redirects are often carried out in the .htaccess file – I talk more about that below.

How Do I Prepare For A Manual Redirect?

It’s essential that you find the most relevant pages on your website to redirect to. A common mistake is to redirect to the homepage.

That’s just not helpful to your user. Don’t create more work for them. Make their life easier and you will sell more.

Have a good think about what the most similar page to the old page is on your website.

Example

I sell flowers on my website. I delete a specific bunch of flowers because I no longer sell them. I decide that the best page to send people and Google to is the main Spring Bloom category page that contains all the other spring blooms that we sell. When someone clicks through from Google they won’t find the bunch of flowers that they’re looking for. But at least they will find other spring blooms that we sell on our online florist shop.

|How To Create a Manual 301 Permanent Redirect

As a business owner, there are some straightforward ways to redirect, and some harder ways. The hard ways may be better if done by your web agency or website manager.

The easier ways.

If you’re lucky then when you change the URL of a page your website might automatically take care of it for you. We’ve covered that above. But often you need the manual touch.

If you add a plugin or app to your website than it makes it easier for you to manage redirects on an ongoing basis. There are paid and free plugins and apps. You really should have such a solution in place on your website.

The harder ways.

The simplest way for web professionals to create 301 permanent redirects manually is to add the redirects to a .htaccess file on your server. But leave this one to the professionals. Get in touch and I’ll be happy to help.

That’s the common way to redirect if you’ve just had a new website. Your web agency will redirect all your old pages to your new pages in bulk. And it means they’re unlikely to get mistakenly removed.

Take Action With Your Redirects.

If you’re serious about making money online then you must take redirects and existing external links seriously. There are some good tools out there to help analyse external links. Get in touch and I’ll be happy to point you to the best one for your situation.

As the business owner you need to understand how your website works. You need to make sure that your web agency or inhouse website manager has a close eye on your webpages. When your pages move or get deleted, make sure someone is on the case with permanent redirects.

Make sure your website has one of the solutions above so you can manage your redirects regularly.

My SEO Audit will also help you keep your website ‘SEO Healthy’ and identify any permanent redirect issues on your website. Or if you have any questions then please get in touch.

‘Permanent redirects & 404 errors’ are one of those serious issues that can fester beneath the surface and be ignored by many business owners, directors and marketing managers. It’s easy to forget about, because it’s easy to miss all these problems on your site. But don’t worry, I’m here to help.

Don’t sweep it under the carpet.

Your customers deserve an excellent website experience and you deserve higher rankings in Google.

It’s time to take action.

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