One of the big problems with 404s is that visitors reach not found errors in waves. One day or one week you may have only a handful of visitors reaching your site's not found error page. Then, unexpectedly, there is a large increase in the number of visitors reaching your site's not found error page. Worse, you usually can't predict when there will be a large increase in visits to your site's 404 error page.
The sudden increase in visits to 404 errors can be caused by many different factors.
For instance, maybe one of your visitors shared a link on a popular social network. Unfortunately, that visitor copied and pasted the URL incorrectly. When their friends clicked on that shared link, they were taken to a 404 error on your site. A few of those friends might have even reposted that broken link to their network driving even more visits to your site's 404 error page.
As an another example, a blog might write an amazing post about a new product or service you are selling. Unfortunately, the author of the blog post linked to an invalid URL (for instance, they linked to
yoursite.com/new-cool-product.php instead of
yoursite.com/a-new-cool-product.htm). If the blog talking about your new product or service is incredibly popular, this could lead hundreds or thousands of visitors to your 404 page.
Meanwhile, your content management team might remove a few old articles from your site. After all, removing pages is a natural course of action for managing a website and keeping it fresh. However, if no preventative redirects were added, those removed pages will return a 404 error when a visitor attempts to access that old page. If those pages were linked to from popular websites or ranked highly in search engines, that removal could easily cause hundreds of visitors to reach your site's 404 error page.
As you might have guessed, all of those examples are ones we've witnessed here at SpringTrax. Ultimately, it is really easy to cause an increase in visits to 404 errors. In fact, the question isn't "will I have an increase in visits to 404 errors?" but instead, a question of "when will I have an increase in visits to 404 errors?"
An increase is inevitable. So, what can you do about it?
At SpringTrax, our solution is alert emails. We monitor your website and when more of your visitors begin to reach a 404 not found error page, we send you an email telling you about the problem.
Our hope is that the alert emails give you sufficient warning so that you can fix the broken page before more visitors arrive at that broken page. The fewer visitors that reach a not found error, the fewer visitors (and customers) you will lose due to not found errors.
Unfortunately, though, you have a short window in which to fix that 404 error. If you don't fix the 404 within that window, the damage to your website and to your business is done.
For example, after a short amount of time, that link shared on a popular social network will be buried under other updates. When this happens, people on that social network will no longer see the update containing the broken link to your site. At that point, it won't matter if you fix the link because nobody will click on the link once that status update containing the link is buried. You have to fix that broken link while the status update containing the broken link is active.
Meanwhile, that popular blog will write more posts and the visitors to that blog will read the new posts. That old post about your new product or service will largely be forgotten and no visitors will click on the broken link to your website. To prevent visitors from reaching your site's 404 error, you have to fix the link while that blog post is still popular and lots of people are clicking on the broken link leading to your website's 404 error page.
If you removed pages from your site, search engines will eventually stop ranking those pages that were removed. Other websites will likely remove links pointing to those pages as well. This loss in links to your site and this loss in search rankings will cost you future visitors (and future customers). Unless, that is, you fix the broken pages before search engines stop ranking those pages and before other websites remove the links.