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The Truth About 404s and 301 Redirects

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People holding signs of 404 Page Not Found versus 301 Redirects made by Global Reach, the first real web developer in Iowa.

Posted on 02/02/2017 at 08:00 AM

We find a lot of misinformation floating around the internet about 404 errors, 301 redirects, and how they impact SEO. In an effort to set the record straight, we put together an explanation of both status codes, along with some common misconceptions about their SEO impact. 

What is a 404 Error?

Websites are ever-changing. Content moves, links break, and pages get renamed. Any of these items can cause a 404, or ‘Not Found,’ error to occur. A 404 status code indicates that even though your browser was able to connect to the server, it was not able to locate the requested page. Usually, when a page is removed from a website, it takes some time for Google’s index to be updated. Since the page will remain accessible through Google’s search results for a time after the page is removed, clicking on it will trigger a 404 error.

Will 404 errors will hurt your SEO?

That depends on the nature of the 404 error. 

If a webpage is delivering a 404 error because it was intentionally removed from a website (a product was discontinued, or you are removing outdated content), then a 404 error is a completely appropriate response. 

In these instances, the 404 response serves to inform Google and other search engines that the page does not exist anymore and hints to crawlers that they should cease attempts at indexing its content. After a URL repeatedly delivers a 404 status code, search engines will take the cue and remove the page from their indexes. This is exactly what should happen when a page no longer exists.

When a page exists but has moved, a 404 status code is not a proper response. In these instances, it is important that we instead inform crawlers where the new content is located, otherwise, the default status returned to crawlers will be a 404 and they will treat it as such, meaning the old URL will eventually be dropped from search indexes. Google cannot index content that it does not know about, so to prevent this behavior from happening, we need to communicate where content has moved via a 301 redirect.

What is a 301 Redirect? 

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect. Think of it as a USPS mail forwarding request that you would make in the event of a change of address. When your web content moves from one URL to another, a 301 redirect can be used to signal to search engines the new address of the page content. The real SEO magic of a 301 redirect is that it allows between 90-99% of link juice (ranking power) to be transferred from the old URL to the redirected page. Without a redirect, you’re essentially starting from scratch when it comes to getting that page indexed and ranked.

Why can’t we just 301 redirect everything to the homepage?

Many times, when a website is redesigned or is moving to a new content management system, the URLs change in the process. Web developers and even some “SEO Experts” that do not have an accurate grasp on how Google crawls and indexes a website, might suggest that you redirect all old URLs to the homepage. While this seems like a quick and easy fix, the approach can cause a slew of SEO problems.

It all boils down to semantics. 301 redirects should only ever be used between pages that are semantically equivalent or very similar. If used in any other way, Google will pick up on the discrepancies and disregard the redirect. In some cases, this will result in a reduction in the transfer of link equity between old and new pages. In fact, Google may go so far as to treat ‘bulk homepage redirects’ as soft 404’s, dropping all of the old URLs from its index without transferring any link equity at all.

In short, make sure the link equity accumulated on your previous URLs is not wasted; invest time in mapping out redirects for equivalent old and new URLs.  

The bottom line? 

404’s are a normal part of the web. New content will always be added and old or outdated content will always be removed. Just be sure that your 404 errors are justified, and that any redirects implemented are done so with semantics in mind.

If you need help or have any questions about how to do 301 redirects, contact us today!

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