“Oops! The page you’re looking for couldn’t be located.” As website users, we’ve all gotten this or a similar page error on a website before. Maybe this led you to click on the site’s homepage, maybe it led you to use the site search feature, or maybe it made you click off of the website altogether. As content and SEO strategists, we try to avoid as many of these errors as possible for users so that the UX of the site is seamless and so that our websites don’t turn users away and cost our clients leads.
The best way to avoid routing users to jarring 404 errors on a website is to be mindful of your URL structure. 404 errors indicate that the page a user is trying to locate doesn’t exist, which can disorient users at best and turn them away from your site at worst. Whenever a page is deleted from a site or a new site is being created, it’s important to make sure your URLs still bring users to the content they need. If you’re building a new site and changing the URL structure or eliminating any pages, a good redirect strategy should be a part of your website project. We’ve outlined several types of redirects and URL strategies that may be appropriate below to help you keep your URLs and user experience top of mind. This way, your users get to the information they need, your pages will keep their link juice, and search engines won’t get confused.
How Do I Know If Users Are Receiving 404 Errors?
The first step in reducing 404 errors is to find out how many are currently on your site. If your CMS is WordPress, installing the Redirection plugin will give you an easy way to track your 404s and implement new 301 redirects (more on that later). Other scanning tools like SEMrush, Alexa, and ScreamingFrog also offer insights into 404 errors if you need a non-WordPress solution.
Why Do We Need to Avoid 404 Errors?
Excessive amounts of 404 errors have a negative impact on your user experience and potentially your site traffic. When a user gets a 404, it’s telling them that your site doesn’t have the information they need, whereas a redirect tells them “the original URL isn’t available, but here’s a related one that is.” Most websites have some 404 errors, but minimizing the amount of them to the best of your abilities will help users navigate your site more easily. Having lots of 404 errors is likely to increase your bounce rate, decreasing the number of users who are browsing your site and locating what they need. Below are some redirect strategies you can consider implementing if your site is giving users 404 errors.
301 redirects are a way to indicate that a URL has been permanently moved, whether that means that content has been eliminated or moved somewhere else. This is the most common type of redirect that SEO professionals work with directly. 301 redirects transfer somewhere between 90 and 99% of the old page’s link equity to the new one, so they’re a great option for getting your users to the correct page without compromising your link juice.
When and How Should I Use Them?
A 301 redirect should be used when an existing web page that is being indexed by search engines is either eliminated from the website or its URL structure is changed. This commonly happens when a new website is launched; unless your team replicated the old website’s URL structure to be identical to the old one, it’s likely you’ll want to implement at least a few 301 redirects. That way, when users try to access the old URL, they’ll automatically get directed to the new one.
A 301 redirect does not have to point to content identical to what was on the original page, but rather to what will make the most sense based on the content that was there before. This is where user experience is important: If the content from the old page doesn’t exist anymore, where will users want to go next? Is there a parent page of the old page that the redirect can point to? Knowing your users will help make their redirection experience as smooth as possible; data from tools like Google Analytics (if installed) can help guide your best judgment in choosing where users should go.
If you’re using WordPress, there are many plugins you can use to implement 301 redirects without the assistance of a developer. You can implement them individually if there are only a few, or upload the redirects to the site in the form of a CSV file if you have many that need to be implemented at once. In Drupal, the Redirect module offers individual redirect functionality similar to that of plugins in WordPress. If the CMS you or your web team uses doesn’t offer an easy way to do 301 redirects, talk with your development team about your options. They will likely be able to upload a file to the site that will implement redirects for you.
Things to Avoid With 301 Redirects
301 redirects are quick, immediate, and easy to implement. However, there are some things that need to be considered when you are redirecting pages so that your SEO doesn’t suffer and your site doesn’t slow down.
Redirecting to canonicalized URLs
301 redirecting a URL to a URL that has a canonical tag pointing to a different URL has the effect of increasing the page’s load time. Since site speed is an important ranking factor with search engines, this could have a negative impact on your SEO. Redirecting to a canonicalized page also tells search engines that the new URL’s content matches the content from another website, which may not be true if the new URL’s content has been changed. This is likely to prevent the new page from being indexed altogether.
Lengthy redirect chains
If you’re 301 redirecting a URL that an old URL redirected to previously and that URL was also previously redirected (and so on), it may have a negative impact on your website. Similar to redirecting to a canonicalized page, long chains of redirects cause a slower page load. Link equity also decreases with each redirect, so while the first redirect will maintain about 90% of the authority, that number goes down for each subsequent redirect in the chain.
If you are planning the URL structure for a new website and see that some of the URLs have been redirected 3 or more times, it may be time to consider an alternative option to redirect your users to the content they need. If it’s time to scrap redirect chains on your site, speak with your development team about your options.
When to Enlist a Developer
301 redirects can be implemented by a content or SEO professional or someone familiar with WordPress, but a comprehensive redirect strategy may require the consultation of developers on your team, especially if you need to eliminate redirect chains. Here are some of the ways your development team can make sure your URL strategy makes sense when creating a new website.
Eliminating Redirect Chains
You can delete 301 redirects you’ve previously implemented on your site (if done through a plugin or module), but then your users will still be receiving a 404 error. If your redirect chains are getting out of control and slowing your site down, your developers can help you out.
Through the Redirection plugin for WordPress, your developer can set up old URLs to default to new ones without going through the load time of a 301 redirect. Keep in mind that this will not transfer the link equity from the old pages and is more time-consuming than implementing 301 redirects, so this should only be done when you’ve weighed that eliminating a long redirect chain is a better option for your site than transferring some link equity with another redirect.
If the version of your domain that you prefer to have indexed with search engines is changing in any way, a developer will need to implement that change. For example, if you install an SSL certificate on your website and your domain changes from https://www.webspec.com to https://www.webspec.com, your website will need to be force-redirected to the new version so that users who try to go to https://www.webspec.com will end up on https://www.webspec.com. If you do not do this, then some users will land and stay on the http:// version of your site, while others will be on the https:// version.
Additionally, Google sees those two properties as completely different websites, so you will have conflicting rankings that may get flagged as “duplicate content.” Your developer or server admin should be able to implement a mass-redirect in either your .htaccess file or web.config file on Windows servers.
If you have questions or concerns about redirects or URLs on your website, our team is happy to help, whether you’d like to be trained on how to implement 301 redirects on your own or would prefer our team to clean up your 404s for you. Feel free to contact our team with questions!