Avoid creating 404 pages

broken linkThere are useful free blogging tools available on the internet that can be used to maintain the links in your WordPress.com blog and keep close track of them.  The last thing you want to do is create “404″ “Page not found”  error pages. It’s a supreme disappointment to visitors, who may not choose to use the searchbox and explore your content to locate what they are looking for.

404 page

By definition a 404 “Page not found”  is an HTTP status code.  It occurs when  your computer makes request for a specific webpage to the server and the server cannot locate that page. This error can be due to deleting a post or page from the site.  It can be created by changing datestamps on posts. It can also be a result of a malformed URL, or by making a typing error resulting in an incorrect URL.

There are many ways that bloggers end up creating 404 pages including these:

  • Publish a post or page and then delete it
  • Publish a post and then change the date
  • Publish a post or page and then change the URL slug (end part of URL)
  • Delete images from your Media Library that have been published in pages or posts
  • Move a post from one category to another
  • Delete a category from a published post
  • Delete a tag from a published post
  • Delete a category from your site
  • Delete a tag from your site
  • Convert all your categories to tags
  • Convert all your tags to categories

Publish a post and then change the date

Google wants to deliver fresh, relevant content, so in 2010  when Google Instant Search was introduced they made datestamps within blog posts a criteria by which they determine freshness of content.  Permalink structure can be changed on WordPress.org self hosted installs and many bloggers with  “News” blogs removed datestamps from their posts.

Ranking in Google News is determined based on a number of factors, including:

  • Freshness of content
  • Diversity of content
  • Rich textual content which would help users searching for information to find your articles

publish module datestampThe WordPress.org news bloggers were not alone when it came to removing datestamps, other WordPress.org bloggers in different niches followed suit. What carried over into the WordPress.com blogging community was (1) the perceived need to eliminate datestamps from posts and (2) a desire to change datestamps on older posts.

The permalink structure, which cannot be changed on WordPress.com blogs, includes  a datestamp embedded in post URLs.  While you can edit the posts and change the datestamps in the Publish module in WordPress.com blogs,  I caution you to think long and hard before you do for three reasons.

1.   Changing datetamps on posts that have been indexed by search engines means when anyone uses a search engine, gets back search results containing links to pages that no longer exist, and clicks those links they will get  404  “Page not found” error.

2.   Changing datestamps also means that all the posts you change datestamps on must be re-indexed by search engines. As search engines do not clear their caches frequently. The result oc changing datestamps after re-indexing will be that the original links which will produce 404  “Page not found” error messages, and the new links will both appear in the SERPs (search engine page results) at the same time.

3.    Changing datestamps on blog posts gives rise to the question: Who do you blog for? When researching it can be important to know the date a post was published on.  Indeed some readers like myself may be annoyed when they cannot determine when it was published.

Note 1:   If you delete the placeholder “Hello World” post on a WordPress.com blog then the front page of your blog will produce a 404 “Page not found error message. In this case all you have to do is publish a post and the error message will disappear.

Note 2:   For the specific 404  “Page not found” error messages as they appear on free hosted WordPress.com blog themes see The 404 error message.

Note 3: “Don’t use the [Google] URL removal tool to get rid of pages [... ] to clean up cruft, like old pages that 404. The tool is intended for URLs that urgently need to be removed, such as confidential data that was accidentally exposed. If you recently made changes to your site and now have some outdated URLs in the index, Google’s crawlers will see this as we recrawl your URLs, and those pages will naturally drop out of our search results over time.”

71 thoughts on “Avoid creating 404 pages

  1. Pingback: Category and Tags Descriptions and SEO | one cool site

    • Hi there,
      You are a diligent blogging student who is skilled at finding what she needs to know and learning it. A few 404′s may be inevitable but we ought to be mindful and avoid creating them.

  2. Wonderful. But I’m having trouble seeing this through in my head. Say I deleted a category from a post entitled Piano. Is it my entire site (the home page without the slug) or just that page that will incur the 404 when readers tap that post? And is it that they MIGHT get the error message or they will for certain?

    • This isn’t a MIGHT or a MAYBE. It’s a guarantee that deleting categories assigned to posts breaks links. When you delete a category you create 404 (page not found) links.
      All the category links assigned to the posts will become broken links in search engine results.
      Every time a person anywhere online clicks that deleted category link they will be presented with a 404 (page not found). The exact error message they see will vary from theme to theme.

      • I got most of it. But you mean that ghost link can still be out there somewhere? Because on my blog per se it will no longer list on the margin – having been deleted. THANKS, TT.

        • I’m not referring to “ghost links”. I’m not referring to ONLY to your blog.

          When we create a category and assign it to posts we create links.
          Example: http://onecoolsitebloggingtips.com/category/better-blogging/

          My blog is well established and that category has been assigned to hundreds of posts in my blog.

          Not only that but I have, of course, internally linked to earlier blog posts in that category in more recent posts in the same category.

          Not only that but other bloggers have linked to the category itself and to posts in the category in posts on their own blogs and on forums.

          Doing that us called a backlinking and the number of backlinks my blog posts get, as well as, the authority of blogs my blog get the backlinks from determines my blog’s page ranking and authority in its niche.

          All of those links are found in Google’s indexed content and in other search engine indexed content.
          https://www.google.ca/#q=onecoolsitebloggingtips.com%2Fcategory%2Fbetter-blogging%2F

          If I were to choose to delete that category (over my dead body!) I would create thousands of broken links throughout the internet. I would inconvenience ie piss off every person who clicked one of the broken links and experienced a 404 (page not found) error, and despite the fact the post would still exist in the blog we know from research that the pissed off people will usually click right out rather than using search to locate the post they wanted to read. Lastly, my blog’s ranking in search engine page results would reflect that too as it would go down.

          • Just how in the world I would’ve known this is beyond me. So helpful. I’m unabashedly a rookie with the tech end of blogging. I did read that first link you shared on the forum. You’d said editing a category will break links, too. So to change “The Arts” to “Arts” would in fact be deleting the original category? Or is there a safe way to do this? Where I have repeated the category in the tag, is it safe or useful to delete the tag from those old posts? Sorry if I’m not figuring it out. Anything technical is a foreign language to me. I know Latin and Greek better than this. Thanks, TT.

          • You’d said editing a category will break links, too. So to change “The Arts” to “Arts” would in fact be deleting the original category?

            Yes. However, your blog is new and does not have many links so if you are going to do this do it now.

            1. Deleting a category does not delete the posts in that category.

            (a) Instead, posts that were only assigned to the deleted category are set automatically by the software to the default category that you create in your dashboard at Posts > Categories and then set here > Settings > Writing: Default Post Category

            (b) Categories can be selectively converted to tags using the category to tag converter.

            (c) Search engines view and treat categories and tags in exactly the same way. Duplication means you are tag spamming AKA spamdexing.

            2. You have redundant categories and tags. These are redundant categories and Tags you have set up and assigned to posts.
            http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/category/the-arts/
            http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/tag/art/
            http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/tag/arts/

            Assuming you want to retain the “The Arts” category and convert the “Art” Tag and “Arts” Tag to the “The Arts” category go to http://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/wp-admin/admin.php?import=wp-cat2tag&step=3

            Select the required Tags and scroll down the page to the bottom and click the “convert Tags to Categories” button. You will then see “We are processing your conversion and will send you an email when it’s all done. Thank you for your patience!”

          • You can bet I will take a hard look at this when I can. (O for time!!) You meant categories and TAGS, right?

            “Search engines view and treat categories and categories in exactly the same way.”

            I understand you were sharing a lot of info and your mind ran away with u. Just making sure bc I need the ABCs right.

            I will do what is best with the art/s tags on those posts. I just really would like to convert the category “THE ARTS” to just “ARTS”.

            Curious, since you brought up being well established. How old is your blog?

            I can’t resist: big hug.

          • “Search engines view and treat categories and categories in exactly the same way.”

            Yes I meant Categories and Tags

            This blog which has over 900 published posts was launched in 2007 and the forerunner to it was launched in 2006.

          • So instead of re-naming an article is it better to copy it, update the text and title? I write race re-caps and often do not put the year of the race in the post title. Then the next year see people reading my old story, possibly thinking it is on the recent race.
            I think the best practice is to write a new post and have a link to your old post? That way you can have a new more accurate and more SEO friendly title but not create 404s on your old post.

          • TT, sorry I’m not commenting off the original ques. I’m at the end of my comment notifications and it stops just before our dialogue.

            You’d told me how to convert (redundant) tags to categories but what I’d like to do is rename the category “THE ARTS” to just “ARTS” by knocking off that THE. I was asking if there is a way to do that without wreaking link havoc. Unless you just think I can afford the no-no bc my blog’s relatively new. Thank you. I’ve not been online much, for Carpal Tunnel.

          • I am guessing this should be the last of the questions on the topic. The go-to friend I consult before contacting Support (who didn’t catch the duplic and didn’t know why I couldn’t rename categories) is coming over tmrw to help me change THE ARTS to ARTS bc you’d said it’s better to do the terrible deed =) now than later since my blog is relatively young. I might also convert tags/categ. BUT if I hear back from you otherwise by tmrw in light of this ques, I will cancel the appt. My latest post, the Art of War, with “The Arts” for one of the 2 categories, was reblogged and also earned has substantial likes. I am trying to understand how/what will be affected concretely when I edit the category to just “Arts.” Since the post was recorded under another category as well, I am guessing that any reader who happens to seek out that post off the reblog later in the week will have no trouble? I know you advise against doing what I’d like to do but given how much I want to lose the stupid “The” LOL the ques simply is do you still think I can get away with it longterm? Meaning, do the number of likes 70+ (of course some posts earn way more) and the reblog sway your “dang it, quick, do it now if you must!” for any reason? TT, all I have is thanks.

          • I don’t know what you question is. Change any category or tag and there will be broken links – period. Likes are not stats and have only the value you wish to put on them.

          • Here is a related question. I have two pages that I set up each month to show 1) the races I will be in and 2) the races I have been in.
            In order not to lose my whitty comments I have been making the old pages “private” and then publishing new pages each month. Is this causing 404 errors?
            I’m wondering if taking down pages or changing their titles causes the same problems as changing blog post or catagory descriptions.

          • I guess I’ve made some messes then. I’ll have to re-think how I’m going to use these pages. Definatley need to stop renaming them each month.

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  5. TT,
    You are a terrific resource–I plan to go through your stuff–but, your #3 Note 1 solution to a 404 problem isn’t working for me. I deleted the “Hello World” placeholder. Posts made since then are have a dead link, but they are in my Articles of Interest category.
    How do I get a clink on the post to work?

    • Hi there,
      Your blog is a “powered by wordpress blog ie. it’s a wordpress.org install. Click that link in the footer of the blog to see what I mean. If you don’t have a username account at WordPress.ORG click http://wordpress.org/support/ and register one on the top right hand corner of the page that opens, so you can post to the support forums there and receive advice from WordPress.org bloggers.

  6. Pingback: Quick Blog Post Tagging Tips | one cool site

  7. Thanks for the post. I unfortunately deleted a page called welcome, and later on my client wanted the page back. Now, every time I click it shows the 404 error. How do I restore the /welcome to become a real page again?

  8. Hi timethief, I was wondering one thing that maybe it’s not properly on topic but almost. I need to create like 20 posts with 30 photos each, in order to create a grid of photos in a dedicated page, around 600 photos. So, I was thinking to publish all these new posts in a previous date, let’s say 3 months before so they won’t appear as new posts, and they go at the beginning of the archive. This shouldn’t create any 404 pages, right? Is it the correct procedure or you might suggest another one? Thanks.

    • Backdating posts at publication that haven’t been published in the blog as yet will not create 404′s. basckdating at publiscation is essentially the reverse of scheduling a post. See the second image here > http://en.support.wordpress.com/posts/schedule-a-post/ Backdating is not supposed to make posts appear in your RSS feed but in some feed readers they may be sent out to subscribers. I can’t vouch for that.

      • Cool, thanks you :)

        I do have another question that maybe I missed above if I may. What about if I change the name of a category without deleting it? Let’s say I have a category named “flowers”, and then I want to change it in “Flowers and Trees” or in “Nature”. Will this affect all the old posts or not at all because they are still linked to the original category even if the name changed. Thanks :)

  9. Ugh, I’ve done a few of the above :(
    I’ve deleted photos from my media library when I’ve seen the picture isn’t as clear as other ones, and I’ve replaced them. I’ve also changed categories and deleted a post. I don’t think I can do anything about them now though, is that correct? At least I know now!

    • There’s nothing your can do not about deleted images and categories after the fact. What’s key is to do all “fiddling” and/or editing and/or deletions when you have a post in draft. That’s when you can preview it and upload relacement images if you need to. Once a post has been published and indexed by Google and the other search engines — avoid creating 404 pages.

  10. Hopefully quick question, TT. I hadn’t seen this post before.

    If we can’t change categories or remove tags, does that mean we just have to be very, very careful about tags and categories before publishing, because we can’t really change them later without problems? Or am I misunderstanding? I thought if I saw something that would fit better in a different category, I could just zap it over to the other category, but it sounds like that’s a problem.

    • Every time you delete a catgory/tag from any post that has already been indexed by search engines you are creating a “404 (page not found)”. I don’t do this for theat reason.The useful purpose Tags/Categories serve is to direct readers to content found deeper than the front page (or main page for posts) on your blog.

      Tags/Categories are not required for SEO purposes. These days search engines pay more attention to your keywords in your content than they do to your keywords in Tags/Categories. http://onecoolsitebloggingtips.com/2012/03/01/revisting-keywords-and-tags/

      • Thank you for the answer and the link. Very helpful.

        So the problem only arises if someone searches on the old category? And it will go away once the search engine reindexes? Seems like if it was the wrong category, the change might be worthwhile because you will only annoy someone if they were searching for a category that didn’t apply. Is a 404 worse than someone hitting a post because I’ve mis-categorized it, and reading the whole thing and wasting their time?

        I love your new background…

      • yep, I learnt that after I had done useless categories. So now I have quite a few 404 for deleted tags but in 6 months it will be ok. I’m patient and I build the most for content not only for strategies. I now have only 30 tags and I think I will stick with that. I consider them as subcategories. But as I read that it shouldn’t be appropriate to have both categories and tags cloud on the sidebar, I might think to not use tags at all anymore (but I don’t double categories and tags – they are all independents).

        Thanks for your great blog, btw

        • Hi David,
          If I were to start a blog from scratch knowing what I know now there wouldn’t many categories and tags used. However, I’ve already gone over the top in this blog and I won’t be deleting and creating 404′s. Thanks and best wishes with your blog.

  11. Pingback: Revisting Keywords and Tags | one cool site

      • I’ve actually got quite a lot of problems with the blog re search engines at the moment (trying to decide what to do) but I won’t bore you with all that. I’ll sort it out in due course. I might actually decide not to open it to search engines after all, it seems a lot of hassle.

        • Meh … I have crawl errors and broken image links in my personal blog I moved back here from self hosting last spring and still no time to fix them. I do a little whenever I can and I avoid creating new “problems” to fix. It’s open to search engines and I don’t fret about it. I have so much else to do I don’t have time to fret.
          SHRUG … meh

    • Hi Julie,
      I haven’t published an August 10th post so I’m not clear on which link you clicked that produced a 404. Please post again and provide the link you clicked.

    • I’m not surprised to hear you have also made that mistake. Eventually we all do and then we look for rocks to crawl under before reminding ourself “it’s only a blog”. Once we do that we can LOL :D and edit.

  12. Great article. I once un-published something that I had published in error (I had meant to click to save the draft) – and I saw that Google had indexed the post almost immediately – so that I once I un-published, I had an error page showing.

    Changing the datestamps on already published pages in order to force the spiders to read their content again and see it as new – what a lot of effort that could be put into actually writing some content…

    • When I first began to blog I was unaware of the impact that deleting a post or a category or a tag had. Since on a few occasions I have accidentally clicked “publish” rather than “save draft” and had the same experience you did. As for the observation you make in your last paragraph I agree with you. Time and energy are better spent of creating new content than the playing counter productive change the date stamp game.

  13. Fascinating post ! I knew nothing about any of this at all. I have received the odd email 404 when someone has clicked publish and then changed their mind and deleted the post but never thought about the search engines ramifications. That is really interesting.

    I agree that when researching it is really important to know when something was written. I wonder idly what happens to people who migrate their blogs to WordPress from another platform, do the original dates come with their posts? I am not planning on doing that, but I know from transferring old files from old wordprocessing progammes to new ones that the dates of the new files are always the date you save the new version. I leave the datestamp alone and having read this I will hesitate before I ever consider playing around with it. Thank you TT!

    • Hi there,
      I’m glad this article provided you with information that was news to you ie. leave the datestamps alone! I think we can become “insular” and forget that we are publishers and what the role of search engines play is. When people move content to WordPress.org unless they have purchased a domain mapping or site redirect upgrade all the original links will not redirect to the new domain links. My next article will be on that.
      You’re welcome.

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