When pages go missing – the world of 301s and 404s

Over time, your website will change. You’ll add pages and you’ll take pages away. You will move pages and you will restructure. You may even rebuild, changing out your CMS for something new and better (and hopefully not WordPress).

And that’s a problem for search engines.

Search indexes maintain a list of all the pages that they’ve ever seen – that is, of course, effectively what the index is – a massive list of pages and information on what they contain that people then search.

As a consequence, search engines are rather touchy about the topic of pages going “missing” – probably because this reflects on them more than it does on you.

Imagine opening up an old-fashioned telephone directory, looking for a plumber and, when you call, finding that the number in the directory is out of date. You’re not going to blame the plumber, are you?

The SEO implications of missing pages

When a web page can’t be found, your web server returns what is called a “404 error”. Google Search Console records the number of 404 errors your site has; e.g. the number of pages that have gone missing; and this is believed to be a key metric in terms of search engine optimisation – the lower the better.  

Even if Google weren’t counting up your missing pages, there’s another good reason to redirect missing pages, and that’s to pass on the benefits of any links or general SEO “goodness” that page had accrued on to its successor.

Imagine you had spent a year building backlinks to pages all through your website. Then, you get a CMS upgrade and your URLs change. All of those backlinks are pointing to pages that don’t exist and therefore have little (or probably absolutely no) value. Your site may just be about to tank.

The UX implications of missing pages

SEO aside, a 404 error is still something you should deal with – why would you leave a visitor to your website sitting on an error page when they could be looking at your product, your story, and engaging with your brand?


What You Should Do About Missing Webpages

Here are the things you should be doing to deal with missing pages:

1. Use 301 redirects

If you change the URL or a page, make sure you create a 301 redirect pointing to the new version of that page, or a replacement, to preserve SEO value and avoid losing customers.

If you don’t know how to do this on your current website/CMS then learn – as quickly as humanly possible. It’s vital that you are able to do this. 

You will often need to create multiple redirects at once, so check to see if there is an option to import multiple redirects at once as well. It’s not vital that you can do this, but it will save you a lot of time if you can.

2. Use 301 redirects properly

Don’t redirect everything that you can’t find to your homepage. It’s lazy and Google will record it as a “soft 404”. If you genuinely don’t have a replacement for a page that’s gone walkabout either create one or …

3. Learn how to fail gracefully

404 pages are like noses – most people have one and most people wouldn’t pick theirs if anyone else was watching.

Joking apart, the 404 page is the “last chance saloon” of retaining a visitor to your website. You’ve already let them down – the thing they wanted is no longer there – the more gracefully, and usefully, you can do this the better.

“This isn’t flying – this is falling with style”
– Buzz Lightyear

Good 404 pages have even become a category in web design all of their own, with their own awards and frequent “Top 10 404 Pages” blog articles popping up across the internet.

If you’re stuck for inspiration, here are some things you can try on your 404 page to make it a little less… useless.

Give it personality and make it your own

Make sure your 404 page actually carries your branding – there are sites out there that either use the default 404 page for the CMS or the web server that they are hosted on. Disgraceful.

At the very least, say sorry that your visitor isn’t able to find the page that they wanted. It’s not an error – you’ve dropped the ball.

Give the user a chance to find what they wanted

Your 404 page should be topped and tailed with your normal site navigation.

Think about including latest or top selling products, most popular blog posts, and prominent links to pages where visitors can contact you, engage on social media, and find any terms and conditions or policy pages that site contains.

Over and above that, offering the customer a search option is a great way of keeping them on your website rather than sending them running back to wherever they came from.

Remember that the user has been there

A good CMS will keep its own record of 404 errors, giving you a chance to create a redirect before the search engines have the chance to notice that there is a problem.The simplest place to do this is on the 404 page itself – make sure yours either records missed opportunities or passes this information on to your analytics platform (more on those later!)


Migrating URLs to avoid 404s

At the start of this section, I said that one of the events that can generate a lot of 404 errors is a change of CMS or website construction.

I wrote this down because it happens, not because it has to happen.

If you’re changing your CMS and your URLs are already clean, keyword rich (this is discussed in the Content section) and indexed – do not change them.

Take it from someone who has used nearly every CMS available and has written more than three of his own. There is no good technical reason that you can’t copy your URLs from one system to another.I’m not saying that there’s not a reason – you just won’t convince me it’s a good reason.

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