What Does Error 404 Not Found Mean?

Alexis Frankel

Oct 31, 202210 min read
What Does Error 404 Not Found Mean?

What Are 404 Errors?

A 404 error is when a website’s server can’t find the page you’re trying to access via a hyperlink or typing a URL in your browser. 

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In these cases, any link to a page that isn’t there, or a link with a typo in the target URL is called a dead or broken link. 

To understand this a little better, this post will talk about Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) requests and responses, common reasons for 404 errors, and how to fix them on your website. 

HTTP is how information passes from your web browser to a server, like a quick Q&A going on behind the scenes. 

Different issues result in different HTTP responses or status codes. 

Here are the status codes and their definitions:

  • 1xx codes: Informational 
  • 2xx codes: Success 
  • 3xx codes: Redirection 
  • 4xx codes: Client-side error
  • 5xx codes: Server-side error

Client-side issues usually happens on your computer as a result of a human error. A server-side error typically means that there is an issue communicating with the server itself. 

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This is what the conversation actually would look like. 

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These are the HTTP responses from the server to Google Chrome. You can see them by opening up the network panel once you inspect a page.

404 errors help us humans understand that the browser and server are working just fine but whatever you’re trying to access on the server isn’t. 

If you’re a website owner, a 404 error is like a leak in the ceiling–you could be frustrating visitors and potential customers that are trying to get to your site but can’t.

So, finding and fixing these errors can be crucial to your user experience, SEO, and bottom line.

But why do 404 errors happen in the first place? 

When Does a 404 Error Happen?

A 404 error happens when: 

  • A webpage was deleted 
  • A page was redirected incorrectly 
  • You’ve reached a page while it’s being edited
  • The URL path is wrong

There are other ways this error could happen, but these are the most common reasons why. 

There are also cases of “soft 404s,” which are pages that won’t have 404 error codes but will be treated by Google in a similar way. We’ll go into those later in this post, but let’s start with the most common reasons for a 404: 

A Webpage Was Deleted

You’ve tried to access a page but it’s not there anymore. Maybe you clicked through from one blog to another and reached a dead end. 

A common reason why this happens is that the page was deleted. A website can be set up to or redirect you to another relevant page. 

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A Page Was Redirected Incorrectly 

There are many reasons why you might want to change a URL: 

  • you’re doing a website migration 
  • you’re consolidating webpages together 
  • you’re changing a URL for SEO optimization 

Sometimes a webpage moved, but it wasn’t redirected correctly to the right URL. This would also result in an error 404. 

Here, you’ve reached a broken link even though the page wasn’t technically deleted. Whoever is in charge of the website would have to manually fix it—hopefully, they know about it. 

You’ve Reached a Page While It’s Being Edited

You might be on the right page, but someone’s working on it. It’s most likely they’re updating the content on it. 

If you’re the one working on a page, check that it’s published when it’s all ready.

The URL Path Is Wrong

An HTTP 404 response could be because of a simple typo in the URL. Either you typed it in wrong or the link leading to another page isn’t typed in correctly. 

If you’re the website owner and you have a broken link on your site, check that it’s not a typo. 

Search Engines Think Your Page Shouldn’t Exist (Soft 404s)

Sounds kind of harsh, right? It’s not personal. 

If Google thinks a page on your site shouldn’t exist, it may report it within Google Search Console as a soft 404. It’s an unofficial way to say this page is live and returning a 200 status—but it probably shouldn’t. 

Even if the website’s server responds the page is good to go, Google may decide otherwise and won’t index your page. Fix up your content if should be indexed. 

Why You Need to Fix an Error 404 

While 404 codes are necessary, it’s not good when pages that should be live return a 404. If there’s a better option you can redirect traffic and web crawlers to, you should do it. 

If not, you’re wasting your crawl budget and potentially losing site visitors as a result. So, it’s important to fix them if they’re not supposed to be there. 

Finding 404 Error Pages on Your Site

Now you understand what it means when your site returns a “Page Not Found” error. But how do you find these pages? There are a few ways to do it. 

Can’t find your 404 error pages? Broken Link Checker can do that for you. All you do is plug in your website and it’ll tell you every instance of broken links up to 3,000 pages per audit. 

Just select the option to report all occurrences of each dead link. 

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This free tool will tell you exactly where to find these pages via the URL or the source code. 

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Google Search Console

This option is for if you already have Google Search Console (GSC) set up and your site is indexed. To find 404 errors start off by clicking on the property you want to work on.

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On your dashboard, scroll down to the index report. Then click to see the full report. 

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Scroll down to where it says why pages aren’t indexed. Here, you can see both hard and soft 404 errors. GSC warns that this list might not be exhaustive.

Clicking on the reason will show you instances of it on your site. 

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Semrush Site Audit

You can use Semrush Site Audit to identify 404 pages on your site. You can crawl up to 100 pages for free per audit. 

If you don't have an account yet, you can create a free one. If you do have a Semrush account, this will create a new Project for you.

Start the audit by clicking on the “add new project” button. 

Type in your site’s domain plus the project name, and then create your project. 

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It’ll lead you to a window that gives you advanced options. Some include the ability to restrict crawling certain pages and the option to crawl your site for mobile and desktop. 

If you want to jump straight in, select your crawl source and start the audit.

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You’ll end up on the Overview report which will give you a breakdown of all the factors that could be hurting your technical SEO. You’ll need to click on the Issues report. 

If you have any 404 errors, they’ll be under the Errors section. If you have any the Issues report will say: [the number of pages] pages returned a 4xx status code. Click on the number of pages. 

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Site Audit will show you all the 4xx errors, including 404 HTTP responses. 

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You can set Site Audit to regularly check for 404s by scheduling it on the initial setup. 

How to Fix a 404 Not Found Status

The most common way to fix a page with an HTTP 404 status is by redirecting the page. 

A redirect sends someone from a page that doesn’t exist anymore to a relevant one that does. 

To redirect your broken link to a working page set up your website’s server to respond with a 3xx code instead of a 404. If it’s a page that gets a lot of traffic, redirect it to a similar URL path with similar content. 

How you set up a redirect depends on how your website is hosted. We’ll cover how to create redirects on three popular options: Squarespace, WordPress, and Wix. 

Fixing 404 Errors on Squarespace 

Review your site’s audit to see which pages are causing 404 errors. If it’s your whole site, double-check that it’s published. 

If it’s not, publish it by saving any changes. 

Save your changes by hovering over the DONE button and selecting Save. 

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If you need a walkthrough of how to redirect a 404 page in Squarespace, they created a short video tutorial. 

Youtube video thumbnail

How to Fix a 404 Error on WordPress

Content management systems (CMSs) make it easy to build a website and upload content. WordPress.org is the most popular open-source CMS as of 2022. 

That still doesn’t stop 404s from happening. 

Here’s the easiest way to fix 404s on WordPress without being an expert on PHP, Apache, or Nginx: 

First, back up your site. You don’t want a little error to turn into a big one. 

UpdraftPlus is an easy plugin to back up your website. Install it if you haven’t already and then click Activate. 

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Click on Settings and select UpdraftPlus Backups from the menu. 

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And then just back it up. 

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BONUS TIP: For even more security, you can save your backup on a remote server. 

Now that your WordPress site is backed up, let’s revisit your audit. See whether it’s your entire site or specific pages giving you issues. 

One or a Few Pages Have an Error 404 on WordPress

It’s most likely you’re having a problem with one or a few pages than your entire site. 

There are multiple ways you can fix them. But why not choose the easiest way that’s also free?

Instead of combing through WordPress documentation, you simply:

  1. see which pages are returning 404 errors
  2. check that the webpages are published 
  3. redirect the page with a 301 status via a plugin if not

Three simple steps and your website is looking good. 

The first step is to check out that audit again. Take note of which ones are throwing an HTTP 404 response. Now, go to your admin dashboard and navigate to Pages. 

Look under Drafts:

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Are there any pages under draft that should be published? Mystery solved. 

If that’s not the issue, then maybe you didn’t redirect a page correctly. It’s an easy mistake to make. 

A common scenario is you changed the URL path but didn’t set up the redirect right. 

Let’s right that wrong right now. 

There are plenty of options out there to easily redirect a page, but we’ll use the Redirection plugin for now. 

You’re going to start by installing the plugin and activating it. 

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Using the Redirection plugin is straightforward: 

  1. In the Source URL field: input the old URL
  2. In the Target URL field: enter the URL you want it to redirect to 
  3. Click Add Redirect
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courtesy of neilpatel.com

And that’s it! Double-check to make sure that the 404 page is gone. 

Entire Site Has 404 Status on WordPress

If it’s your entire site, reset your permalinks by going to Settings and clicking on Permalinks. 

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It’ll lead you to a page that looks like this: 

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If you have your permalinks set up as Custom Structure, write it down. Otherwise, just click the save button. That alone should reset your permalinks and fix your sitewide 404 issues. 

If it doesn’t, it could also be a buggy plugin or a new theme. Uninstall anything one by one if you can pinpoint when the issue started. 

Fixing 404 Errors on Wix

Start fixing your 404 errors on your Wix site by looking at the audit that you did earlier. If your entire site is returning as a 404, check to make sure it’s published. 

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courtesy of wix.com

If it’s only a handful of pages that are broken, you’ll want to set up a redirect. Wix gives paid subscribers the option to set up 301 redirects for one page or multiple pages that share the same path. 

Start by going to SEO Tools. Then go to the URL Redirect Manager and click where it says + new redirect. 

To set up a single redirect within your website: 

  • click the single redirect option
  • type in the URL path of the 404 page (for example: /about-me)
  • type in the URL path of where it should redirect to 

Typing in the path on your site will lead to a drop-down of your site’s URL paths. Choose the right one. 

If you want it to redirect to another website, type in the entire URL.

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courtesy of wix.com

Save it and you’re done. Check the page to make sure it has been redirected correctly.

Still confused? Check out Wix’s support page

Conclusion: Making the Best of Your 404 Pages 

Having a Page Not Found is necessary in many cases. We leave you with the routes you can take with one: 

  • Leave them and make them awesome—include links that could be helpful on it
  • Redirect them permanently with a 301 status 
  • Redirect them temporarily with a 302 status 
  • Reupload the content that was there before if it makes sense 

There are pros and cons to whatever you decide to do when a page can’t be found. Either way, do regular audits to stay aware of 404 pages on your site and fix them if you need to.

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Alexis is passionate about two things: SEO and Semrush. She‘s lucky she gets to write about both.
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