Manage 404 Errors Elegantly with Smart 404

in Tech

There’s a plugin that you can install which will attempt to match a URL that would normally create a 404 error to a URL that actually exists on your blog.

Try it out on BizChickBlogs:

  • Try clicking on http://www.bizchickblogs.com/plugins. That is not a valid URL here. I don’t have a page with a slug /plugins.
  • You are redirected to my recommended themes and plugins page. It’s very cool.
  • Try http://www.bizchickblogs.com/themes (redirects you to my ‘themes’ tag page) or even http://www.bizchickblogs.com/friendship (redirects you to a post on dealing with mistakes)

When do 404s happen?

  • User-error: You type the wrong URL somewhere – in an article, or guest post, or even internally while writing a post. Or, someone else types the wrong URL.
  • Changed slugs: If you change the slug of a page or post after you’ve promoted it somewhere, an error will sometimes be triggered.
  • Moving: These errors also occur when you move sites or move between sub-domains and do not properly redirect using a 301 redirect.
  • Deleting: Bad blogger, bad! Do NOT delete that post or page. If it’s been indexed by Google, or if you’ve promoted it in any way, or if someone has bookmarked it, it’s as good as permanent. If you no longer want it, you need to use a 301 redirect to a page that you would rather show, OR, bite the bullet and change the content on the page to something you want to keep.

Why These Errors Suck

404 errors negatively impact user experience, and they also don’t bode well with search engines, whose creators pride themselves on putting up links to search results that actually… work. An indexed 404 is like a scarlet letter. It gives you a bad reputation with search engines. So, get rid of them.

The Downsides and Upsides of Smart 404

  • Downside 1: You can’t decide for yourself which page/post Smart 404 redirects to. It chooses the page, because, it’s smart.
  • Downside 2: This plugin isn’t quite smart enough to fix spelling errors. For example, if you tried to pull up http://www.bizchickblogs.com/pluggins or http://www.bizchickblogs.com/pluginns, you’ll still get an error.
  • Downside 3: It’s a plugin. If you’re concerned about site loading time or bad code or the host of other problems related to plugins, avoid installing another one.
  • Upside 1: Fewer options = fewer headaches. The one thing you can control is whether or not to include pages, posts, tag pages, and category pages when determining where to redirect.
  • Upside 2: If you have already made the mistake of deleting a page or post and people have been running into 404 error pages, this will improve user experience there.
  • Upside 3: This kind of plugin casts a safety net for stray links. You take a massive risk when people click on a bad link and land on a page that doesn’t exist.

Is this the best way to handle 404s?

Best Way – Fix Them. The best way to handle them is to nip them in the bud and eliminate the cause of them! If it’s possible to change the incorrect link at the source, do it.

Good Way – 301 Redirects. If you can’t fix the bad link or if this is a case of a deleted page/post, you could use a 301 redirect if you’re tech-savvy and comfortable with editing your .htaccess file. There are also 301 redirect plugins if you don’t feel like messing with .htaccess. Or, you could hire someone. Many of the bloggers in this circle do techie stuff on the side.

See this page on 301 redirects if you’re comfortable doing this yourself. Also, use Redirect Checker to see if your redirects actually work.

Customize your 404 page. Try changing the text of your 404 page so that it’s more user-friendly (or maybe humorous). See this post on creative and effective 404 pages. Some people add search boxes, link to great content, or just tell people to correct spelling errors or try again.

Smart 404 is really not a way to “handle 404s,” in my opinion, as much as it is a way to elegantly enhance user experience when the user (i.e. you or me) messes up and points people to the wrong link or deletes a post.

Does it work with shortened bad URLs?

YES. I shortened the bad URL /plugins, and the Smart 404 plugin successful redirected the page. Try it: http://bit.ly/amkv0u

But it won’t successfully redirect a bad shortened URL. So, the lesson there is to not use bad shortened URLs (i.e., link should say http://bit.ly/amkv0u but instead says http://bit.ly/amkv03).

Wrap Up

  1. Prevent 404 errors from happening by paying close attention when creating links to your site (copy and paste works well). Never just delete something you’ve published, especially if you’ve promoted it in any way. And never just rename the slug. Consider something published as good as permanent.
  2. If you have a Google Webmasters account, pay attention when they tell you you’ve got 404 errors. There are also a zillion and a half other resources to find them, and even a notifier which will email you when such an error is detected.
  3. Correct mistakes in links at the source, if possible.
  4. Use 301 redirects when you KNOW an inbound link is incorrect and cannot be fixed at the source or when you’d like a page to be as good as gone. Redirecting a page is better than deleting it.
  5. Install Smart 404 to handle the cases that you don’t know about (consider it a cushion).

If you have any questions or input, leave it below!

Image Credit: Shutterstock