As an SEO consultant, I’m frequently asked, “What steps can I take to improve the ranking of my website on Google?” There are more than 200 “signals” that Google analyzes in its algorithm, and that number climbs constantly. The key to search engine optimization, or SEO, success is knowing which are the most important.
It’s tempting for many to only analyze their sites for what can be improved with regard to body copy, the TITLE tag and the DESCRIPTION meta-tag, for they are all important factors. But equally important is correcting site errors because every search engine will penalize your site if they are present. One such error is the dreaded 404 error, shorthand for “page not found.”
Search engines seek to return relevant results for the search query input by the user. They reward sites with relevant content and sites containing no broken links. A broken link is referred to a 404 error because that’s the code returned to the browser by the site’s host anytime you click on a link for which a corresponding web page doesn’t exist.
When a search engine’s “spider” crawls your site, it follows every link in an effort to index every page of your site. If it encounters a 404 error, your site is penalized because after all, it’s frustrating for the person viewing your site to click a link looking for specific information only to discover the page is non-existent. Remember, Google, Bing, and Yahoo! all strive to reward sites that provide a pleasant user experience.
One of the best tools SEO professionals use to simulate a search engine’s spider is a small program called “Screaming Frog” which is available for both Mac and PC at http://www.screamingfrog.co.uk/seo-spider/. Screaming Frog crawls a site and returns a huge amount of useful information. The free version is a bit less robust than the paid one, but for most users, the free one is adequate.
Enter your site’s URL, and click “Start”. Then click the “Response Codes” tab and you’ll see the results. Response codes of 200 indicate the page was located with no issues. A code of 301 means you have taken steps to let the search engine know a page has been permanently moved on your site. But as I mentioned, any pages for which a 404 error code was returned are problematic. You must locate the page containing the link to that page and either correct the link or eliminate it.
Most 404 errors occur because of site redesigns or major revisions… ask me how I know! After I refreshed my site, I didn’t realize my new home page contained a link to an older page of my site. Unfortunately that page contained many, many links to other pages that had been deleted. Because of that one mistake, I had several hundred 404 errors.
Screaming Frog is a great help in discovering weak points in your site. I use it anytime I change the structural content of my site.
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