In this in-depth how-to article, I’ll uncover two ways you’re unintentionally wasting your hard-won SEO efforts, and I’ll show you exactly what to do about it.
But first, let’s you and I play a little game together: pull out your wallet, grab a $20 bill, rip it up into tiny pieces, and toss them into the air like confetti. Now get out another and do it again. Do it one more time – Feels great ripping up cash, doesn’t it?
Okay, I’m onto you – you didn’t play along because ripping up cash is just silly or even crazy, am I right?
Well, then why are you okay with your website ripping up your cash? What if your site is doing the equivalent of tearing up $20.00 bills All. Day. Long? (All night too, because your website doesn’t sleep.)
Don’t believe me? Read on…
The Undeniable Impatience of You & Me
You love sitting there patiently waiting for websites to load, don’t you? (Don’t get ahead of me thinking this is all about site speed and page load times; it’s not).
Admit it – you and I are both impatient on the interwebz – but wait, what about when you click on a link expecting to arrive at some piece of content you hope to see post-click, but instead of getting what you expected you get something like this:
“Please check the link you followed and try again”? – Yeah, no. I don’t think so.
If you’re reading some article on Forbes’ website (or wherever), and the article links to something that compels you to click and then you get a “page not found” message, you go berserk, don’t you? You scream obscenities at the top of your lungs while you toss your laptop or mobile device out the nearest window, just like I do, am I right?
Maybe I’m exaggerating to make my point (maybe), but seriously – I’m not going to click on a link from Forbes (or whatever), and then get a not found error page, and then start rooting around that site looking for the content I was promised… unless I’m really, really, really interested.
Most of the time I’m not that interested; I’m just going to shake my head and move on because I’m busy or lazy and just don’t have the time for playing “where’s Waldo” with some piece of content I was hoping to get post-click. I’d say it’s a safe bet that you just move on, too.
And it’s a safe bet that so do your potential clients and customers if they reach an error page on your website.
That’s the first way you’re wasting your SEO efforts; you’re doing all this great SEO content marketing and earning links, and people (prospective clients and customers of your business) are clicking through to your site but they’re reaching an error page.
And it’s irritating and annoying to reach error pages. For the most part, people are going to abandon that task and move on. You lose money. Or leads. Hear that sound? It’s the sound of cash being ripped up.
The Second Way You’re Wasting Your SEO Efforts
If you know anything at all about SEO, then you know that hyperlinks on other websites that link to your website are important.
And not important in the way we just talked about, where someone clicks a link to arrive at your site – links are also important because Google uses them as ranking signals for their organic (non-paid) search results listings.
If you’re reading this, I have to assume you already know that Google and other search engines have widely and successfully used links in the past to surface search results that satisfy users. If not, feel free to check out some info on Wikipedia here, Search Engine Land here, and Moz here. And yes, due to past abuse and ongoing algorithm changes, links are not the end-all be-all they used to be for organic rankings, but they’re still important organic ranking signals because they pass Link Authority (also known as “PageRank”) to your site. Those signals help Google determine how they should rank pages on your website compared to your competition.
So those links pointing at error pages we already talked about that annoy people? Those links do not pass any Link Authority because they’re pointing at a page returning an HTTP “not found” status. It’s as if the pages don’t exist (because, well, they don’t exist) so there’s no reason for Google to pass PageRank / Link Authority to non-existent pages.
Let’s recap what we know so far:
-Broken external links annoy your prospective clients and customers, making them less likely to convert
-Broken external links do not pass Link Authority, harming your SEO
And those, my friend, are the two ways you’re wasting your SEO efforts because you just didn’t know you had external links pointing at pages on your site that no longer exist.
You may wonder how and why that happens: In most cases it’s because you made changes to your site – moved pages to a different section or otherwise changed the URL structure and path of certain pages or sections of pages during a website redevelopment, or after several reorganizations of your site large or small in scope. Or maybe a page or pages simply got deleted for whatever reason. There are lots of reasons websites wind up with 404 not found errors for pages that used to exist or exist at a different URL now.
How Bad Can This Problem Be?
I’m glad you asked. This is where things get fun.
Take a look at this screenshot taken recently from a certain website via Google Analytics (blurring is to protect identity of the business). In this screenshot, you can see the results of a custom report I created showing referral traffic (people clicking links on other websites to arrive at this client’s website) but arriving at one of those annoying non-Link-Authority-passing 404 error pages:
And that’s just the top 10 referrers, but wow, the visitors hitting 404 pages here add up to more than 1,000 in just one month alone! Ouch!
See what I mean about wasting your SEO efforts? If this is your B2B or B2C site, can you see how you’re ripping up leads and conversions?
Let’s look at another example:
Look at those red arrows pointing at the referrers. Visitors are clicking links on web pages on Quora, in Gmail (E-mail marketing gone horribly, horribly wrong), Forbes, Verizon Wireless… ouch! Oh, the humanity! Hundreds and hundreds of visitors clicking links on those sites only to arrive at an annoying 404 error page… and of course, the wasted Link Authority from those high-quality sites… are you getting the picture now?
The sharp SEOs out there might call me out and say it’s the page’s Link Authority that matters more than the strength of the referring domain (hey, I’ll take a link from high-quality websites like Forbes or Quora or any of these sites no matter what the Page Authority is any day!), so let’s look at the actual Link Authority of the linking pages that lead to 404 pages:
All in all, I’d want to recapture that lost Link Authority. All of it. Every bit of it. And I’d want to stop annoying people arriving at my site (who do you think they’re going to blame for reaching my website’s error page? Yep, my site, not the referring site. That annoyed feeling is likely going to get transferred to my site, eroding trust in my potential clients and customers. Not good, not good at all.)
How Do We Fix These Problems?
The first step is to identify and verify the existence and extent of your problems. If you’re lucky, you won’t actually have any problems (yes, that’s possible) or your problems may be minor. You won’t know until you check and find out for sure.
If you have Google Analytics running, simply create a custom report. I’ll show you how. But first, you’ll need to find out what the Title Tag is of your 404 not found page. An easy way to do that is to open your favorite web browser and navigate to a page on your site that you’re sure does not exist.
Example: http://www.mysite.com/djfalksdjflasjdflkjlasjdflk (replace mysite.com with whatever your domain is).
You should now be looking at your 404 page.
Note: If you have configured your server to redirect non-existent URLs to your home page or to return a 200 found status (a “soft 404”), you have a different problem and now have more work to do. Pages that do not exist should return a proper 404 not found HTTP status (there’s fodder for a future blog post; let’s set that aside for now).
At your 404 page, press and hold down the CTRL button on your keyboard and then press “U” to view the HTML source code of that page. Now, hold down the CTRL button and press “F” (for find) and type <title.
You will see something like this:
Copy the text between <title> and </title> to a notepad or something; you’re going to need that in a couple of minutes.
Armed with your 404 page Title Tag, open Google Analytics and create a custom report:
Use the screenshot below as your guide to configuring the report. Remember that Title Tag text you copied? Use that here:
After you press “Save,” you’ll be greeted with the bad news (or hopefully for you, no bad news) – you should now see a report populated like this:
Gosh, 144 visitors this month from Trip Advisor hitting a 404 page… ah, I love the sound of ripped-apart cash in the morning!
With this report configured, you can fix your wasted SEO efforts. Here’s what you can do now:
1. Visit each page under “full referrer”. Look at the page and/or in the HTML for the link pointing to your landing page, and in most cases you’ll find that sure enough, there’s a link on the referring site pointing to a page on your site returning a 404 error. In this step you can verify what you’re seeing in your Google Analytics report.
2. You can also try to visit each of the pages noted under “landing page”; this also a verification step to check that indeed the URL is returning a 404 not found HTTP status.
3. If you want to get fancy or just like being expedient, you can export the custom report from Google Analytics and run your landing page URLs in a crawler like Screaming Frog; you can also run a separate crawl for all of the full referrer URLs using a custom setting to verify that yoursite.com exists in the HTML. How you want to verify all this stuff is up to you.
After your verification efforts are complete, you now have choices about how to fix the problems you found:
1. If the page being linked to has been deleted, you can restore or rebuild the page that no longer exists.
2. If the page being linked to has been moved, you can set a 301 permanent redirect from the old URL to the current URL.
3. You can contact the referring websites and ask them to change the link (that’s a lot of work that might not pay off, but it is a choice available to you).
4. If the referring site created a hyperlink and they mistyped or misspelled the destination URL of your page, you can do any of the above, but a 301 permanent redirect will likely be your fastest and easiest solution.
Note that in most cases, doing a 301 is likely going to be your most expedient solution because it’s faster than creating a new page or restoring a deleted page and a ship-ton faster ’n easier than contacting webmasters. Plus, you’re in control of setting the 301 on your timetable – or, in some cases, your IT department’s timetable. Don’t use 302 temporary redirects as they may not pass the Link Authority (I’m looking at you, IIS servers).
Sure, the 301 redirect is likely not going to pass full Link Authority, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff for speed of fixing all these problems and recapturing that wasted external Link Authority. The SEO community at large seems to feel that about 85% should get passed based on Google’s previous communications on the topic.
Moreover, all those people clicking on those external links will arrive at the correct and intended page faster, meaning you’ll recapture those lost leads, sales, or other desired actions more quickly than otherwise.
Lastly, and this is more important than you might estimate at first glance, put some serious care into the destination of the 301 redirects. If someone is clicking on some external link expecting to land on a specific piece of information, then you should provide that information to them. Resist the temptation to just 301 all external broken links to your home page because that may frustrate people just as much as the 404 not found error page. Give people what they expected. Don’t make them think or work – keep in mind how impatient we all are on the Web. Seriously, give people post-click the info that they were promised pre-click; don’t try and be slick or lazy about that last step.
Summary & Conclusion
Now you have a foolproof plan to uncover and fix the two ways you’re destroying your SEO efforts. Now you can recapture that extremely important external Link Authority you were previously wasting. And, you’re no longer annoying people who are clicking external links, only to arrive at a “page not found” error page on your site. Now your website can stop burning leads and sales and ripping up $20 bills all day long, and you can sleep better at night. And maybe even ask for or give yourself a raise.