Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO expert Jenny Halasz. Come up with your hardest SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!
Welcome to another edition of Ask an SEO! Here’s our SEO question for the week:
Can an ever increasing number of 404 errors lead to negative impact on Google crawling and indexing? Can it also lead to Google taking longer time to rank a content?
It can, yes. But there’s more to it than that.
404s Have Varying Degrees of Importance
I categorize 404 errors into four different categories. (Note, this is my own categorization; it’s not anything official.)
1. Errors Encountered on the Live Site
These are the worst 404s in my opinion, because they occur on the live site when a page is linked to either with a malformed href or the page has been removed but the link to it has not.
These are bad because they interfere with user experience and usability of the site. If my clients ever have these, I insist they get them fixed as soon as possible.
2. Errors Caused by Old Links
These can be really bad too, because there may be links from other sites that point to pages that no longer exist, or users might have bookmarked a page that no longer exists.
Again, they cause a poor user experience, but these errors are even worse for SEO because often they are as a result of a quality link from another site.
If the link destination is a 404, it doesn’t count. And everyone knows that you want links to your site to count!
3. Innocent Malformation of URLs
This happens all the time. Someone either fat-fingers (mistypes) a URL in a link, tries a link that doesn’t exist, maybe clicks on a link in an email that has broken across two lines, or arrives at an invalid URL by accident.
These aren’t a big deal.
Google reports these when they come across them, and if the URL is one that never existed, and isn’t referred by a quality link source, you can usually just ignore it. If you look at server logs for any website, you will see tons of these. They are a basic error and are not a big deal.
4. Systemic 404 Errors
If you see an ever-increasing number of 404s, there’s a systemic error somewhere in your code. It could be you have an XML sitemap that is somehow messing up your URLs; or it could be that something in your code is creating invalid URLs that Google’s finding when they crawl.
Either way, this usually points to something in your code that is broken and needs to be fixed.
So with those four types of 404 errors defined, your question makes it sound like #4 is your situation. Use the Google Search Console error report to find the source of these 404s and get them sorted out.
The good news is that when there are very high numbers of 404s that seem to multiply continuously, the fix is often an easy one once you find the source of the problem.
From experience, I suggest you check your XML sitemaps first. Then look at any shortcodes or other code-based hrefs. They’re probably not visible on the site, only in crawl. Feed (/feed) links are notorious for this in WordPress especially.
Screaming Frog is a great tool to find and sort out crawl issues.
But you need to fix it because any time Google is going down a path where they’re being forced to crawl more invalid URLs than valid ones, you are essentially wasting the crawler’s time. This means that the crawler may not be getting to your valid and important content. This can definitely have a negative impact on indexing and ranking over time.
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Featured Image: Image by Paulo Bobita