How To Find & Fix 404 Errors

Joel Mesherghi | Published | Updated September 5, 2020

This post will walk you through the easiest ways to find and fix 404 errors on your website. We’ll go through my favourite free tools and show you how to use them GIF by GIF.

404 errors are frustrating for everyone. They degrade the user experience of your website, can hurt conversion rates and having too many of them could lead to search engines like Google questioning the quality of your website.

But have no fear, this guide will make sure you stay on top of your 404s.

How to find 404 errors

There are quite a few solid tools you can use to find 404 errors on your website and each have their pros and cons. Ultimately, you’ll want to use a combination of these tools.

All the below tools are free with some options to upgrade.

How to find 404 errors in Google Search Console

Google Search Console is the holy grail when it comes to discovering technical SEO issues like 404 errors and it’s completely free. 

Sign in to your Google Search Console account and click “Coverage”. If you have 404 errors, the “Error” tab will tell you how many errors a website has and there are detailed reports that you can download just below it. You can see that this Google Search Console account has a total of 200 errors.

The coverage report in Google Search Console highlighting 404 errors

Above: The coverage report in Google Search Console highlighting 404 errors

ProsCons
1) It provides an insight into how many 404 pages Google has discovered for your website.

2) Tells the exact date Google last discovered the 404 error. This can be great for historical analysis.

3) Reports pages that Google thinks are soft 404s. Soft 404s are basically pages that don’t return a 404 status code, but generally lack little or no content. In other words, they provide little value to someone.

4) Using the soft 404 report in Google Search Console is a great way to identify content quality issues.
1) The report doesn’t show you what page the broken link was discovered on.

2) While it’s great for historical analysis, this sometimes means the data in Google Search Console can be out of date.

How to find 404 errors in Screaming Frog

Screaming Frog is a tool that will crawl your website and find things like broken 404 links. To clarify, “crawling” is when a web crawler visits a web page and discovers other pages by following links across a website. And broken links are links found on your site that lead to a 404 page. 

The free version of Screaming Frog will crawl up to 500 URLs. Although, I recommend going all out for the paid version if your website is large and you want to do more technical SEO analysis. Importantly, you’ll also be able to play around with the configuration settings, which can make your crawl a lot more efficient. 

After you’ve downloaded Screaming Frog, all you have to do is change some configurations, paste the homepage URL in the toolbar and click “Start”. If you only have the free version, just paste the homepage URL and click start from the off.

I’m going to demonstrate how to use Screaming Frog to find 404s on NOW TV’s e-commerce website in the GIF below.

Screaming Frog set up:

  1. Configuration → Spider
  2. Untick “Crawl” and “Store” boxes for  “Images”, “CSS” and “JavaScript”
  3. Paste a homepage URL in the toolbar and click “Start”
  4. Bulk Exports → Response Codes → Client Error (4xx) inlinks → Save your report

Above: Setting up Screaming Frog to find 404 errors

To clarify, I only stopped the crawl when Screaming Frog found a broken 404 link to quickly demonstrate how to use the tool. However, if you’re running a crawl yourself, you should let it run until it finishes. 

I deselected “Crawl” and “Store” boxes for “Images”, “CSS” and “JavaScript” for the same reason. CSSJavaScript and images are more about the look and functionality of a site, rather than actual 404 links we’re trying to find. Unticking these options will also make your crawl much faster.

Something to note, if you suspect a website is heavily built on JavaScript, then you’ll likely need to crawl the site with JavaScript enabled to find links. 

Finally, you probably also noticed that I scrolled down to the “Response Codes” tab in the right window before I clicked start. You don’t have to do that. I just wanted to show you guys a handy part of the tool that gives you an overview of all the response codes the crawl has found e.g. 404, 301 etc.

Screaming Frog’s Client Error 4xx Inlink report

Above: An example of Screaming Frog’s Client Error 4xx Inlink report

The great thing about Screaming Frog’s Client Error 4xx Inlink report is that you can see where the broken link is coming from. 

The “Source” column is the page where the broken link lives and the “Destination” column is the actual broken 404 link. 

ProsCons
1) The 404 error report tells you the page where the broken link was discovered and what the actual broken link is. It’s extremely helpful!

2) It’s generally a lot more time friendly than rummaging around in Google Search Console. You simply hit the start button, sit back and wait for the data to collect.

3) The data you get from the crawl is exactly what is live on your website, so it’s super relevant.
1) The free version only crawls up to 500 URLs.

2) There’s no historical context as to when links may have first become broken.

How to find 404 errors in Google Analytics

Most 404 error pages use a title tag that includes the words “not found”. You can use Google Analytics to see the number of times someone came across a page with that title tag.

Google Analytics All Pages report set up:

  1. Behaviour → Site Content → All Pages
  2. Secondary dimension → Search for “title” and click Page Title
  3. Search for words found in your 404 page title tag

Above: Using the “All Pages” report in Google Analytics to find 404 pages

You’ll see from the GIF that two pages were flagged with titles tags that contain “not”. I typed a couple of made-up URLs for my website, just so that it could filter through to my Google Analytics account for JUST JAM and show you guys what to expect in this report. 

ProsCons
1) An easy way to quickly identify the 404 pages people are finding for your website.1) Google Analytics will only show you 404 pages when people come across them. You could have a bunch of broken 404 links on your website, but if no one clicks them, then Google Analytics won’t report them.

2) Google Analytics won’t tell you the source page of the broken link.

How to create 404 Custom Alerts in Google Analytics

This section is a bit of a bonus. It’s not always possible to keep on top of your website’s 404 errors. 

And that’s fine because you have an ace up your sleeve. You can create custom reports in Google Analytics to get automated alerts when there’s an increase in 404 pages. Your job suddenly got that little bit easier! And it’s super easy to set up as well. 

The report I’m going to set up in the below GIF will send me a daily email if more than 5 pages with the title “Page not found” are triggered. Let’s set it up.

Google Analytics 404 Custom Alerts report set up:

  1. Customisation → Custom Alerts
  2. Manage customised alerts → New Alert 
  3. Create a name for your alert → Select a period → Select “Send me an email when this alert triggers”
  4. Change the applies to condition to “Page Title”
  5. Change the “Condition” to “Contains”
  6. Add whatever words are used in your 404 title tags.
  7. Change the alert conditions metric to “Page Views”
  8. Change the condition to “Is greater than” (or customise it to your liking) → Create a value → Click “Save Alert”

Above: Setting up Custom Alerts In Google Analytics to automate 404 tracking

A triggered Google Analytics 404 Custom Alerts report

Above: A triggered Google Analytics 404 Custom Alerts report

ProsCons
1) An automated way to keep on top of 404 errors.1) Custom reports will only alert you to 404 errors when people come across them. They’re not preventative.

2) Custom reports won’t tell you the source or destination page of broken links.

How to fix 404 errors

Now you know how to find 404s, let’s fix them! 

This is the most common way to fix 404 errors. Simply update broken links on pages that 404 and point them to pages that are still live.

Download Screaming Frog’s Client Error 4xx Inlinks report to find pages that have broken links on them as well as the actual broken links themselves.

2. Set up a 301 redirect

Again, another common way to fix 404 pages. You can 301 redirect a 404 page, to a page that’s still live. 

In brief, a page that 404s still might hold some value that can be passed onto the page you redirect to. I’ve written a guide that covers the steps you can take to identify if a page holds value.

3. Restore deleted pages

If a page was accidentally deleted or the page is still receiving some traffic, then you can restore the deleted page. This can be a good stop-gap until you reassess the situation and your options.

4. Ignore the 404 error

Although, not all 404 errors are bad. If a page no longer serves a purpose, then deleting a page is perfectly acceptable. 

However, you’ll want to make sure that these deleted pages aren’t discoverable on your actual website. Nothing is more disappointing than seeing a 404 page when expecting to see something else. A Screaming Frog crawl will identify 404 pages that are discoverable on your website.

5. Stop Google from finding your soft 404s

To recap, soft 404s are pages that don’t return a 404 status code, but may as well be one due to the lack of value they provide to a user. They generally apply to pages that have very little content.

There are a few ways to deal with soft 404s:

  1. Delete the page if it no longer serves a purpose, which will return an actual 404 status code
  2. Block the page in your robots.txt file to stop Google and other search engines from crawling them
  3. Create a 301 redirect to a suitable alternative page

A word of caution, though; some of the options to deal with soft 404s can have unforeseen results. So make sure you know what you’re doing or seek specialist help.

Summary

You should now be able to find and fix 404 errors on your website with a range of tools that are free and easily accessible.

For the most part, I combine Screaming Frog and Google Search Console to find actual 404s as well as soft 404s. They strike the perfect combination in finding actual broken 404 links and pages that may as well be. Ultimately, both types of 404s will be hurting your website in one way or another.

To sum up, no single tool provides all the answers and you’ll have to test to find out what tools work best for you. But combining some of them makes keeping on top of 404s a breeze.

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