smart 404 error plugin

Manage 404 Errors Elegantly with Smart 404

November 18, 2010

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:

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

Joe@Social Media Course December 1, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Zhu – You say that you’ll move onto another site when you land on a 404 page. Is this only for dull 404 pages that aren’t helpful or would you continue your search if you hit a 404 that is humorous and helpful?

Udegbunam Chukwudi@Wordpress Blog Setup December 1, 2010 at 7:42 am

Linkpatch and a custom 404 with search button for all my errors does the trick for me. No need for yet another plugin ;-)

Tony December 1, 2010 at 7:23 am

Just design an unique 404 page and people will remember you with that. Right ?

Joe@Social Media Training November 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I’m amazed at the new plugins I learn about everyday. This one seems really helpful! People forget about optimizing their 404 pages and this one seems to take care of it for you.

Thanks Tia!
Joe

Justin@Recipes Club November 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Oh my gosh, I am so glad I found your blog. I’m new to it, but it’s by far the most informative one on blogging information I’ve come across. Thank you for writing it!

Susan November 26, 2010 at 10:05 am

I never really knew what a 404 Error was. I always thought that I did something wrong and when I typed the URL in again and it still did not work, I would go on to something else. It is nice to know how to fix the problem on my end and if others are smart they will follow your advice and fix it on their end too. I always get something helpful from your site. It is nice to have people like you who give quality information. Have a nice holiday season.

zhu@coupons for toys November 24, 2010 at 10:16 am

However a person ends up on 404 page, they are more than likely not going to keep looking. I will admit if I hit one while searching, I say forget that and go on to another site.

Ingrid Abboud November 23, 2010 at 6:55 am

Hey Tia,
This is such an instructive post – thank you for sharing it. I actually came across it a couple days ago but came back to it now for a recap.

I installed a plugin called Broken Link Checker a few weeks ago. It’s great. It’s got a good amount of features and also goes through all your posts and looks for link errors that it allows you to fix. Which is what I’ve been doing now thus my reason for coming back to your post here. I came across about 9 or 10 404 errors and am going through them one by one to change them.

I will check out this plugin because it does seem to be a decent solution for avoiding 404 pages. They are indeed annoying and I wouldn’t want people to not revisit my site because of one of them :(. Either that, or have a kick-ass and ultra creative 404 page designed. I’ve come across some awesome ones in the past that are definitely worth landing on to see lol :).

Anyways – this post was great timing for me. Once again, you have managed to provide us with another super helpful piece here on bizchickblogs :).

Thanks a lot Tia
Have a nice day
Cheers

Andrew @ Blogging Guide November 23, 2010 at 6:51 am

404s are definitely a bad thing. Thanks for sharing the news about this plugin. I’m not really comfortable editing my .htaccess file so I’ll just try this out. Sounds much easier.

Sherryl Perry November 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

Wonderful post Tia! Once again, you’ve identified a potential issue for bloggers, explained it thoroughly and saved a lot of people a lot of time by researching and recommending a plug-in. I’m off to install it now!

Biodun @ UK Webmaster Forum November 22, 2010 at 4:55 am

Good post, there are many reasons you will see 404 errors in your log files. 404 pages can disappointed potential customers, it can cause damage to existing relationships and can show the brand as unreliable

Texas Web Development November 22, 2010 at 12:43 am

Fab post Tia, this is a very common problem we all face now days and your post will be really helpful for the same. Thanks for the round-up!!

Rick LaPoint @ Internet Marketing November 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Thanks Tia,

This is a very throrough and tight post.

There are so many things to keep track of, 404s tend to fly under my radar.

Rick

Tia Peterson November 21, 2010 at 2:26 pm

You’re welcome, Rick! Same here. I have it on my list to go through some of mine that require 301 redirects… there’s always something to do!

John Garrett (honorary bizchick) November 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm

It’s good to get on top of this sooner rather than later, no doubt.

I started moving things around and making ill-advised (in hindsight) changes, but when I checked me Webmaster tools I saw all these 404′s. Crap.

It sucks when you think of all the lost views that a decent customized 404 could probably have saved for you. I still don’t have a good one in there, that’s why it’s great you mentioned this plugin!

I know it’s very lazy to not have this set up yet, but I really am a lazy bum. It’s kind of what I do…or actually *don’t* do, I guess. That’s why they call me John “lazy bum” Garrett.

Other bums gave me that nickname :(

Tia Peterson November 21, 2010 at 2:27 pm

LOL Well we definitely have the lazy thing in common, then. :)

DiTesco November 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Hi! I’ve been using permalink finder which was suppose to perform the same job as this one you recommend. Sadly, it is not working as it is suppose to and I had to uninstall the plugin as there is no point of being there. I will try this one and see if it does the job. I have been having some 404s due to my move from blogger to wordpress and I have not been able to tackle them all completely. Thanks.

Alex@jocuri November 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm

301 Redirect pages that existed at some moment in time it’s the best way but making new pages out of thing air like any word you as part of the url to be seemed as a new valid url is bad. So the plugin is pretty good redirecting only those pages that match certain tags and let the pages that don’t match anything to be 404.
Google checks to see if your website is validating all kinds of urls and if they don’t get a 404 error message you might be penalized.

Tia Peterson November 18, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Hi Alex,

Exactly! 404s are a pain. And Google does do a good job of finding them; the good thing about it is that they find them before most other people do.

Daniel Sharkov@Blogging Tips November 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Hey Tia,

Another great resource on this blog! Great work! The 404 error is definitely one of the worst things for a website, since you might lose a good amount of potential readers. Judging by myself, I totally agree that those types of errors can ruin a site’s reputation. When I get a 404 on a site, I rarely revisit. Maybe I’m a bit too exacting though. That plug-in definitely offers an elegant solution to the problem. Getting redirected to a page that actually exists might even get unnoticed by visitors.

Tia Peterson November 18, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Hey Daniel, I actually think you are like most people. No one likes 404. They are majorly annoying.

I just checked my webmasters account and there are 11 places that were throwing 404 errors. Some of these will be addressed with the plugin, but most will need a 301 redirect. I use a plugin for that.

Anyway, enough about me. Thanks for your comment!

Tia

Omer Greenwald November 18, 2010 at 2:39 am

Hi,
I use Google webmaster tools to keep track of access errors that Google finds. Until now I entered 301 redirects in my htaccess file (per your example – “Redirect 301 /plugins/ /recommended-wordpress-themes-and-plugins/” ).
However, as my post count grows, I find it hard to keep track of all the changes and do it manually, so that plugin you recommend comes just in time for me! it seems excellent.
Thanks for the review :-)

Tia Peterson November 18, 2010 at 7:39 am

Hi Omer!

It’s been awhile since we connected. I hope you are doing great!

Glad you think the plugin may be helpful. It’s great as a catchall or an in-between; like you, I believe in 301 redirects whenever I can!

Thanks for your input.

Tia

Omer Greenwald November 18, 2010 at 8:28 am

I’m doing fine, thanks :-) I see you are doing well with blogging and post often. Keep it up!

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