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404 Errors Getting You Down? 2 Quick Ideas

  |  April 30, 2014   |  Comments

Here are two techniques for prioritizing the cleanup of error pages on an enterprise site, with their pros and cons outlined to help you choose the best one for you.

One of the more challenging aspects of SEO is the screening and correction of error pages across an enterprise site. There are multiple divisions involved in the constant evolution of a site and things seem to be in a constant state of flux. As a result, it can seem like the identification, management, and correction of error pages can be a continuing battle. The question becomes, "Is there a best practice to prioritizing the correction of these pages?" Like so much of SEO the answer is a resounding, "It depends!"

Let's look at two ways organizations can approach the situation and weigh the merits and weaknesses of each technique.

Timeliness Approach: Some companies may be inclined to track error messages via their Google Webmaster Tools account, fixing the errors in a chronological fashion. It's very easy to download a report, sort the errors by date (most recent to oldest) with a secondary sort alphabetically by URL, and in a matter of moments you have a very clear list of the areas of your site that have challenges that need to be corrected.

Pros

  • Free tool
  • Efficient technique
  • Timeliness - tells you how Google perceives your site right now
  • Can help identify specific regions of the site that have issues 

Cons

Incomplete Picture: There are two ways that this technique creates an incomplete picture of the error page situation:

  • Extreme Close-Up: If your enterprise site has an excessive number of error pages, then the downloaded report may not provide you all of the errors. Google Webmaster Tools only exports a fixed number of URLs in these downloads. If your site exceeds that threshold, then you won't be seeing the full picture. 

You might be able to see patterns, in directories that need attention, but perhaps won't see all the challenges within any given area of the site. This may make correcting the errors an iterative process where you have to touch certain regions of the site more than once. That may not prove to be the most effective use of resources.

  • Tunnel Vision: This technique only allows you to see the impact on your site. While good housekeeping and controlling the Internet real estate that you can impact directly is a good rule of thumb, this technique doesn't provide the bigger picture of "how are these errors impacting the rest of the Internet's view of our site?" To get that bigger picture view, let's consider another technique.

Landscape Approach: Another way to think about and prioritize error pages is to consider "What's the bigger external impact of those error pages?" Specifically, "How many broken links are associated with each of those error pages?" If you establish how many broken links (both internal and external) are associated with every error page (every URL that shows up as other than a 200 code) on your site, then you can establish a priority of work that will not only improve the engines' perception of your site by reducing error messages and improving crawlability, but will also improve the overall SEO landscape by recovering mass quantities of lost links. You will be improving the user experience by reconnecting broken links that may be out there on the Internet as well as channeling link equity back to the targeted URL of your own choosing. With an enterprise site, the number of recoverable links could prove to be massive!

For example, what if you saw results like this:
404-error-1If you could recover more than 15,500 existing links to your website simply by initiating 301 redirects to three URLs, doesn't that seem like a good idea and an effective use of available resources? How long and how much time, money, and resources would it take to replace the equivalent number with new links?

Pros

  • Direct Impact: The ability to clean up error pages to your site while simultaneously recovering lost link equity can be very impactful on the overall SEO of a site. 

Cons

  • Cost: For most enterprise organizations this likely won't be an issue, but the tools to capture the necessary data, such as ahrefs, and Majestic SEO are not free. Depending on your company's needs there are different tiers of paid access. 
  • Effort: Compiling the various reports from multiple sources, filtering out the noise in those reports, and developing the clean list of URLs with issues and the number of broken links associated with them is a bit more complex than simply downloading the GWT error report and sorting by date and URL. But it's not overwhelmingly so. 

So there you have it, two unique techniques to prioritizing the cleanup of error pages on an enterprise site. Do you have a technique that you use? Would love to hear how you prioritize this work.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Crispin Sheridan

Crispin Sheridan is the Senior Director, Global Search at SAP. As part of the digital team, he established and leads the search and testing practices at SAP. Crispin is responsible for paid, natural, and mobile search and all online testing. Search and testing at SAP are fully centralized and globally funded and run under a hybrid in-house and agency model.

Crispin has proven that search learnings and keyword insights work hand in hand with social media marketing and together can effectively drive B2B lead generation. Furthermore, the development of the SAP.com Test Lab has contributed significant success to SAP's digital marketing efforts.

A frequent guest speaker at conferences, including SES New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Delhi, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Crispin was appointed to the SES Advisory Board in December 2009. He has also been a guest speaker at the e-Metrics Summit and ad:Tech, and is a member of Google's B2B Technology Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @crispinsheridan and read his monthly SEO column on ClickZ.

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