Your website will throw a 404 error if someone tries to go to a webpage that isn’t there. Also known as “broken links”, 404s are generally considered to be bad for SEO.
However, in a recent update, Google said that SEOs were maybe worrying too much about 404s and it was “fine if 30-40% of URLs in Search Console are 404s”.
Does this seem weird? Well, yes it does… so let’s break it down a little.
Why you might have lots of 404s in your Search Console
Google freely admit that they often come back to old URLs, even if they have been 404-ing for a long time. I’ve personally seen the GoogleBot request URLs on websites that are many years out of date. Of course, this can be because there’s a site out there, somewhere, that’s still linking to that out of date URL but more often than not its just that GoogleBot never seems to quite give up on a URL.
Do you need to fix 404s or not?
It seems like a remarkably large cop-out by Google to say that having such a potentially large number of 404s in your Search Console results is OK and I’d be concerned about working with any SEO who took this figure and ran with it as a reason not to tackle 404s.
Sure, it’s great news that we need to worry less about those random URLs that turn up like Banquo at the feast to spoil our spotless Search Console, but if we turn a blind eye to the 404 report then we take a big risk that we are ignoring URLs that worked quite recently and have been lost. I’d also be concerned about this piece of advice being used as a reason not to do comprehensive redirects when migrating a site from one host to another.
Like many things in SEO, the answer to whether or not you need to fix a particular 404 is subjective and you need to consider things like:
- Have any actual users tried to use this URL?
- Should the URL work? Is something broken?
- When did this URL last work?
- Can the URL be fixed?
- Is there a suitable, meaningful replacement page for this URL on your site?
I’ve tried to prioritise these questions and #1 is almost certainly the most important check here – fixing 404s that real users are seeing is always worth the time and effort. You should be monitoring 404s within your website CMS to achieve this – don’t rely on Google as it won’t tell you the complete answer to this.
Of course, if you have SEO problems then you may not be generating traffic to all of your URLs so you can’t rely on test #1 alone. Test #2 is where we pick this up and, again, I’d always encourage you to fix a problem like this.
The far-from-last word on 404s and Redirects
In short, I’d always encourage you to fix any 404 you reasonably can. The one area where I think we can start to change our advice here is on URLs were there is no logical replacement URL.
Getting a 404 for “big widgets” because you don’t see “big widgets” any more? That’s fine. Let it hit your 404 or, maybe, be super-kind to your customer and redirect them somewhere where big widgets can still be found.