Preventing 404 Not Found Errors, Part 1

Not found errors are commonly caused when you remove pages from your website. You delete a page from your site, but people continue to visit your site looking for that page. Since your website no longer contains that page (because you deleted it), the person looking for that page will see a not found error saying that the page they wanted couldn't be found.

One ecommerce site removed a number of old product pages from their site. However, hundreds of visitors continued coming to the site looking for those old product pages. As those pages had been removed, the visitors now encountered a 404 error indicating the page couldn't be found. As a result, the ecommerce site lost hundreds of dollars per month because of the 404 errors resulting from the removed pages from their site.

In other words, removed pages can cause 404 not found errors and that, in turn, can cost you customers.

However, you will inevitably need to remove pages from your website. As your business changes, your website must change as well. For example, if you no longer carry a product or provide a particular service, the page referencing that product or service should be removed from your website. The question becomes how do you remove pages without causing 404s and losing customers?

Reviewing Pages To Remove

Preventing not found errors begins with carefully reviewing the pages you are about to remove. You want to determine which of those pages would cost you customers if that page became an error page.

There are two indicators that can tell you if removing a page (causing a not found error) would cost you customers:

  1. Number of visitors reaching a particular URL.
  2. Number of websites linking to a particular page.

Let's work through both of these indicators by way of an example. In this example scenario, we'll say that you want to remove the Blue Widget product from your website and there are five pages on your site that discuss that Blue Widget product. To get rid of this product, you'll want to remove all five of those pages. But, which of those five pages could become a 404 error that costs you customers?

Step 1: Review Visitors

The first indicator to review is visitors to that particular page. Using a web stats program, like Google Analytics, you can see how many visitors reach a particular page on your site. In general, it is best to look at visits to each page for at least the last 3-6 months so that you understand just how many visitors reach these pages. From that, you'll understand just how important each page is on your website.

Example Scenario

In our Blue Widget example, we'd want to look at how many visitors reach each of the five pages discussing the Blue Widget product. In looking at the data from Google Analytics, we might discover the following visit pattern:

Page URL Total Visits
blue-widget-overview.html 1,837
blue-widget-details.html 674
blue-widget-photos.html 367
blue-widget-faqs.html 12
blue-widget-terms.html 7

In this example, the blue-widget-overview.html page gets the largest number of visitors. So, if we removed this page, there would still be around 1,837 people looking for this page. If all those 1,837 people suddenly reached a 404 error and left the site, that would cost this company a significant number of visitors and customers.

On the other hand, blue-widget-terms.html only had 7 visitors. If this page were removed, there would only be around 7 visitors looking for this page. If all 7 of those people suddenly reached a 404 error and left the site, that would still cost this company visitors and customers, but not nearly as many as removing the blue-widget-overview.html page would cause.

When removing these five pages from your website, you would need to worry most about preventing a 404 on the blue-widget-overview.html URL and worry less about preventing a 404 on the blue-widget-terms.html URL. Obviously, if you can prevent the 404 for every removed page, that's great. But, if you are removing hundreds of pages at a time, it may not be practical to prevent every 404 error.

Advanced Tip

Along with looking at total visits to a page, you can also evaluate conversions resulting from a particular page. For instance, 4.7% of the visitors arriving on blue-widget-overview.html might end up purchasing the Blue Widget product. However, only .7% of the visitors arriving on blue-widget-faqs.html might end up purchasing this product. In that scenario, blue-widget-overview.html is a more important page (and more important to prevent a 404 from occurring).

Next Steps In Part 2

The next step is to review links. Links give you another way to determine if the page you are about to remove will become a costly 404 error. We'll continue discussing those steps in next week's blog be continued...

UPDATE: Read part 2 about reviewing backlinks.


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