A 404 not found response, or any 404 response for that matter, means your page isn’t where it’s supposed to be … this is a bad thing! It looks poor to your visitors and makes the search engines think that you don’t care. I know this isn’t the case and you know this isn’t the case, but the SEO isn’t based on what I think or on what you think. There may be a good reason, but having a good reason isn’t good enough to alleviate the inevitability of reduced rankings!
At the time of writing, this website is still fairly new.
The site is comprised of around 80,000 words across 30 posts and 39 pages … and I have a problem.
My problem, and I am sure that I am not alone with this problem, is that ideas for posts are growing exponentially whilst the growth in the number of published posts is little more than a straight line.
There is a good reason for this, other than the fact that I can’t write exponentially! As I write about a particular subject, I start to think about the consequences of what I am writing about, and also the background … and then I start to ask myself questions.
The question pile gets bigger and off I go in search of answers – following the rabbit whilst trying to avoid the rabbit hole. Some of the answers that I find, I find are answers that are deserving of a post in their own right. I don’t have the bandwidth to write the post that is asking to be written, but I don’t want to ignore it.
And there’s the problem …
I am writing and in my mind is an article that I would link to from this article. I would like to continue writing this article as if the article I have in mind is already written. It makes sense to incorporate the link now, rather than to have to come back and re-write the section to include the link later. I feel that this is a valid approach as in most cases the subject of the linked material would be an extension of the current text rather than its foundation.
But the search engines don’t think so, all the are seeing is an error and they will respond accordingly.
What is a 404 response?
A website host server will usually return a 404 Not Found response page when a visitor has attempted to follow a broken or a dead link. Sometimes it will be fairly clear from the returned web page that there was a 404 error.
Sometimes, it’s not so obvious and the 404 status will need to be inferred.
They both mean the same thing, and the reason for the 404 response is the same in both cases: the server has tried to find something … but it can’t.
The HTTP 404, 404 Not Found, 404, 404 Error, Page Not Found and File Not Found response messages all indicate that whilst the browser was able to communicate with the appropriate server, and that everything was working, the server was unable to find whatever it might have been that was requested. The 404 error message is a standard Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) response code that indicates that the target file could not be located.
What is the impact of too many 404 responses?
Too many 404 response codes tell the Search Engine, in no uncertain terms as it happens, that some significant bits of your site are missing. One or two 404 errors are probably not going to make much of a difference but if the Search Engine is constantly being presented with file not found responses to its attempts to follow links, it’s very quickly going to be reassessing your site’s position in the rankings.
Broken Links = Reduced Impressions
I have been creating content for a while, and it became clear early on that most of the articles I was writing were generating ideas for further articles. Not a bad thing but I found that – at least for me – the explosion of new ideas introduced a logistical challenge in the maintenance of potential future links.
The problem was that when I completed an article that had been inspired by a previous article and merited a reference and a link, I needed to go back and insert the narrative and the links. Not too complicated you say … until the number of draft posts passes passed one hundred and the number of published posts is still only approaching forty.
On a positive note, I guess that means that I’m not going to be running out of ideas any time soon …
But I do have a problem if I don’t want to be constantly returning to posts that I have already published to rewrite paragraphs and insert links. It’s not that the paragraphs need changing significantly, I just need to change the tone so that they flow logically into the link.
Post-it notes and Mind-mapping software
Initially, I used post-it notes and some mind-mapping software to maintain the anticipated future relationships between posts and pages, which made it easier to return to the “parent” post and establish the connection.
This works but it still takes time, so I thought I would try a different approach.
It’s an approach that I am not going to recommend, but it is an approach that may well have already occured to you and you may be tempted.
Let me explain …
I was trying to visualise the structure of the site (beginner.beginner.beginner.beginner.beginner.beginner.beginner.beginner.blooger.me) and how it related to its sister site (thebloggingbeginner.com). To help me, I created placeholder pages for all the links I had identified whilst writing, and also for some of the links I had planned that were already represented by the post-it notes and the mind-mapping software.
A placeholder page is a page with a title and a very brief outline of the subject matter, and maybe one or two onward links … and crucially for my purposes, a placeholder page is a live page, which means that it has been published and is therefore in the sights of the Search Engines.
It was good for me because I could check that all the links were working properly and that the page logic was hanging together.
It worked for me, but my placeholder pages usually consist of around 40 or 50 words, which is far from being SEO friendly … if content is king, the placeholder page is a bit of a frog!
There are a lot more placeholder pages that I could have included but didn’t … so I know that I have a lot more writing to do. But here’s the thing: once I had all the links and all the placeholder pages in place, I could see how the website was going to look and function.
Writing a blog about creating a blog … at the same time as creating and writing the blog is complex. I mean … even the sentence describing the activity is complex! However, it is necessary if the blog about beginning a blog is to be written by a beginner, albeit a beginner with experience of building complex systems.
The framework of this blog, or website – I think I prefer “website” – that is devoted to the new blogger is the most complex of the 4 blogging models beginning with The Sequential Diary Blog and ending with The Development Blog, hence the need for the visualisation.
At this point, I was left with a website that was festooned with placeholder pages, with every one of them presenting limited content – not good for SEO.
Between a rock and a hard place
I had a choice: let the placeholder pages remain published and suffer the continued wrath of the search engines, or switch them to draft and unpublished … and suffer the wrath of the search engines!
As you can see from the chart, adding a load of placeholder pages had a bit of an impact on the impressions.
I am pretty sure that changing the status of all the published placeholder pages to draft will reduce the number of pages with little or no content, obvious really … but that’s not enough.
Changing the status of placeholder pages to draft removes them from the line of sight of the search engines, but now … following the links to the placeholder pages returns 404 file not found.
A load of 404 file not found responses are just as bad as a load of reduced-content placeholder pages.
Solving the 404 not found challenge
First, I am not talking about technical 404 errors here, I am talking about the ones created specifically by me during one of my flights of curious creativity. I have just looked and I appear to have 27 broken links … all created by me.
I did a little bit of research and discovered that there are WordPress plug-ins capable of picking up and redirecting 404 errors to the site homepage. I dug a little deeper and discovered that some of the plug-ins were capable of much more.
Here’s my plan:
I wanted to retain the links to the now non-existent pages as I will be returning to complete them in the not-to-distant future, but I didn’t want to see them reported as 404 not found. What I needed was a plug-in that would trap the 404 not found error and initiate a 307 Temporary Redirect to an alternative page. A 307 Temporary Redirect instructs the Web Browser to try an alternative URL as the one requested is not available, thereby avoiding the 404 not found error. This improves the user experience and whilst it won’t fool the web crawlers in the longer term, it might just keep them at bay for now.
I would actually like to do a little bit more than simply dump the visitor onto a static page and then run the risk of losing them … I want to drop the visitor into a WORMHOLE.
Let me explain: the WORMHOLE is a static page that can hopefully grab the attention of the dead-ended visitor, potentially keeping them engaged and onsite rather than losing them to the back button. It is a collection of Pinterest Pins, banners and affiliate links – something for everyone! With a little bit of luck, a 404 not found error will manifest itself as an opportunity.
It’s probably fairly clear that 404 not found errors are not good for your site SEO. You now know what I did and you have seen the effect of my actions on the Google Search Console graph. The question is whether my plan will reverse the rather dramatic trend.
Choosing and using a 404 not found plug-in
Initially, I keyed 404 into the keyword search field on the “Add Plugins” page in WordPress. The search returned 37 entries with facilities ranging from simple Home Page redirects to more a number of more complex SEO manipulations. I was only interested in the simple options, though not the very simple options as they didn’t fulfil the requirements, and I discounted the options that stated the software hadn’t been tested with my version of WordPress.
I have written a seperate article on my approach to the selection process as this post is about the usage and effects of the plugin.
I narrowed down the field to one plug-in.
This plugin allows me to assign any page (internal or external) to the 404 not found response.
I am writing this, to a degree, in real-time … so when I say I am doing something, I am pausing the writing and actually doing it. What that means is that I was (as I write “as can be seen below“) going to show you a screenshot of the 307 Temporary Redirect as it was set up in the Custom 404 Pro configuration page.
And … I got this far …
Every time that I tried to set up the redirect to my WORMHOLE page, when I clicked on Save Changes, my new settings reverted back to the previous settings. This was no good!
I checked online and I have now concluded that I am not the only user to have seen this issue. I found some hints and tips that didn’t help and then I found and followed the advice from the authors, which amounted to deactivating all the installed plugins until it worked. I deactivated all the installed plugins, and there was no change. Changing the settings does not appear to be changing the settings!
Now, as it happens, I have more than WordPress site running – TheBloggingBeginner.com and PaymentMonkey.net – and both of these sites are running on the same web host as this one. I tried installing and running the plugin on these sites … and it works on them! So in some degree of defence of the Custom 404 Pro plugin, it works fine on the other two sites, just not on this one.
I saw some comments on one of the forums I was searching – from the author – but after we were told that removing plugins would fix the problem, we were simply presented with a link showing us how it would look if it did indeed work. Very useful!
At this point I concluded that I probably wasn’t going to pursue the matter.
I have no particular issue with the plugin so I’m going to leave the Custom 404 Pro plugin running on the other sites. On this site however, I have essentially gone and picked the next one on the candidate list that fits the bill.
I have now installed it and it appears to be working.
Running the 404 not found Plugin
The initial analysis of the 404 not found redirect plugins revealed that out of several candidates, only a couple fulfilled the original selection criteria. The main requirement was the support of the 307 Temporary Redirect response and there are not that many plugins doing this.
Now there is something that you should be aware of before loading this plugin. If you search the web for 404 to 301 issues, you might find this article about the plugin being considered harmful. This waswritten in 2016 and there doesn’t appear to have been anything since. I am going to continue to run it. If there does turn out to be a problem, I’ll report it here.
Concluding the 404 not found error
I set up the plugin to redirect 404 not found instances to the WORMHOLE page, using the 307 Temporary Redirect. It’s been running now for a couple of days.
Now I can’t say for definite that the upturn indicated by the Search Console graph is a direct result of my actions, but the steep downward trend began the day I began creating Placeholder Pages and 404 not found errors, and the upturn began the day I replaced the 404 not found errors with the 307 Temporary Redirect.