404 Redirect to Homepage: Why (Not) and Best Practices

As website owners, we know the importance of keeping visitors engaged and on our site. One of the most frustrating experiences for a user is clicking on a link and being met with a 404 error page. Not only does this disrupt the user experience, but it can also harm your website's SEO efforts.

That's where a 404 redirect to the homepage comes in. Instead of leaving users stranded on an error page, this SEO trick tells you to implement a 301 redirect to send them to your website's homepage. This not only helps keep users on your site, but it also sends a signal to search engines that your website is actively managing its content and working to provide a positive user experience.

But is that really helpful? Is there any impact or other things of SEO that we should concern? In this article, I'll dive deeper into the benefits of using a 404 redirect to the homepage for your website's SEO. We'll see an alternative solution for this problem to make sure it doesn't harm your rankings.

Understanding 404 errors

What is a 404 error page?

A 404 page error, also known as a "404 Error" or "404 Not Found," occurs when a user requests a web page that the server is unable to locate. This error is commonly caused by broken links, changes in page URLs, or deleted content. When a 404 error occurs, it is displayed to the user as a message informing them that the requested page cannot be found.

There are different variations of 404 error messages that can be displayed. Some websites have custom-designed error pages that include additional information or suggestions for the user. Others display a generic message with the error code and a brief explanation.

Why does WordPress show a 404 error page?

WordPress may show a 404 error message for several reasons. One common cause is when a post is deleted or moved (its slug is changed).

Another cause is when the permalink structure is changed without updating the .htaccess file. This file helps to rewrite URLs and is crucial for proper page redirection.

If the .htaccess file is missing or its configuration is incorrect, WordPress won't be able to handle requests correctly, resulting in a 404 error. To fix this, you can manually update the .htaccess file or simply go to the WordPress admin dashboard and navigate to Settings > Permalinks. From there, you can choose a new permalink structure and click the "Save Changes" button to update the file automatically.

When a website shows 404 errors, it can negatively impact search engine rankings, user experience, and bounce rates. By promptly addressing these errors, you can ensure that users can easily access the content they are looking for, improve your website's performance, and potentially convert more visitors into customers.

The impact of 404 errors on SEO

404 errors can have a negative impact on your website's search engine optimization (SEO). When search engines crawl your website, they follow links from one page to another, and if they encounter a 404 error, they may assume that your website is not well-maintained or that you have removed important content. As a result, the website's search engine rankings may suffer, making it harder for potential customers to find the site.

Additionally, high bounce rates and broken links resulting from 404 errors can have a detrimental effect on user experience. When users encounter a broken link or a non-existent page, they may leave the site immediately, increasing the bounce rate. This not only creates a bad user experience but also sends a signal to search engines that the site might not be relevant or reliable.

How to fix 404 errors?

To avoid the negative impact of 404 errors on your SEO, it is important to fix them as soon as possible. It is crucial to do the following things:

Optimizing 404 pages

By customizing the 404 error page with helpful information and links to relevant content, website owners can minimize the negative impact on users. On the 404 page, a normal WordPress website can show:

  • A clear message saying that the current request is not found
  • A search form for users to search for other similar content on the website
  • Some suggested links to let users find the content they want. This might be the most popular blog posts, or important pages on your website.

This way, users understand what's happening and they are offered a quick alternative way to find the desired content. This helps reducing the frustration users might have and thus, increase the time on site as well as their trust.

Redirecting users to a relevant page

If you know what content users are looking for, it's best to redirect them to a relevant page on your website, such as a related article. This will not only improve the user experience but also help search engines understand the structure of your website and the relationship between your pages.

In other cases, if the homepage contains all the information that users need, you might use a 404 redirect plugin to automatically redirect all 404 pages to the homepage. This is a popular SEO technique for WordPress and it's widely used in many websites, including Slim SEO.

While this technique is good in general, there are pros and cons of using it. Let's dive into the details.

Redirecting 404 pages to homepage

Why should you redirect 404 pages to homepage?

When a user lands on a broken link or encounters an error message, they are typically frustrated and may leave your website altogether. By redirecting them to the homepage, you can keep them engaged and encourage them to continue browsing your site.

By implementing a redirect like this, users might stay on the website longer, thus reduces bounce rates. That signals to search engines that your website still provides valuable content to users.

And not only for users, redirection is good for search engine bots as well. When bots crawl your website content, it follows all the internal links in the posts to reach to all posts on the website. When it encounter 404 errors, it stops crawling or thinks the content is broken (although the link to the content is still available). That gives the bots a crawl error, a signal of a broken link and thus, might affect your SEO rankings.

How to automatically redirect all 404 pages to homepage?

Automatically redirect all 404 pages to the homepage in WordPress can be done easily with plugins. In this article, we'll use Slim SEO, a lightweight yet powerful WordPress SEO plugin that has a redirection module built-in.

To install Slim SEO, go to Plugins > Add New and search for "slim seo":

Installing Slim SEO in WordPress

Then click "Install" to install the plugin. After that click "Activate" button to activate it.

To make Slim SEO auto redirect all 404 pages to homepage, go to Settings > Slim SEO, select tab Redirection and select Settings sub-tab:

Enable redirect all 404 to homepage in Slim SEO settings

On the settings page, select "Homepage" from the dropdown for "Redirect all 404 to".

That's it!

From now, all your 404s are redirected to your homepage!

If you don't want to redirect all 404s to your homepage, you can redirect them to a custom URL from the dropdown. This allows you to send users to a custom page on your website, where you can show some message, or offer other links or content for them. And this is very useful as well.

What does Slim SEO do?

Besides redirecting 404s to homepage, Slim SEO's redirection module can help you:

  • Create custom redirects for each URLs (we'll see it in the section below when implementing custom 301 redirects for 404 pages).
  • Redirect non-www to www an vice-versa
  • Auto redirect empty pages (like author pages or empty category pages) to the homepage
  • Auto redirect attachment pages to the attachment files

Learn more about Slim SEO's redirection feature.

Slim SEO is lightweight, fast but it has everything you need for WordPress SEO. It automates most of your SEO tasks with minimal effort configuring things. It's one of the best SEO plugins for WordPress that you should try right now!

Why and when you should NOT 301 redirecting all your 404 pages?

While 301 redirecting all your 404 pages to the homepage may seem like a quick and easy solution, it may not always be the best approach. There are certain scenarios where it's not advisable to implement this redirection method.

User experience

Redirecting all 404 pages to the homepage can provide a seamless user experience by guiding visitors to relevant content. However, if the redirected pages had specific and valuable information, users may feel frustrated and confused when they land on the homepage instead. It's important to consider whether redirecting to the homepage truly benefits the user experience in each case.

SEO effort and ranking

301 redirecting all your 404 pages to the homepage can impact your search engine rankings. When search engines detect multiple 404 error pages, they may interpret it as poor website maintenance or low-quality content, potentially affecting your search engine ranking. Instead, it is advisable to fix broken links, update outdated content, or create custom 404 error pages to help retain and satisfy visitors.

Broken internal links

If you redirect all your 404 pages to the homepage, it becomes challenging to identify and fix broken internal links. By not addressing these broken links, you miss the opportunity to improve the overall site structure and user experience. Regularly monitoring internal links can help ensure proper navigation and avoid frustrating users.

Incoming users and link juice loss

When a user follows a link from another website or search engine and encounters a 404 error page, they may leave your site entirely. By redirecting all 404 pages to the homepage, you risk losing potential customers or readers who were specifically interested in the content they were expecting. Additionally, this method can result in a loss of link juice that would have flowed to the redirected pages, potentially impacting your website's overall authority and ranking.

Because of these reasons, it's essential to carefully consider why and when to implement 301 redirects for your 404 pages. Below is an alternative approach to proper address this problem.

A better solution to address 404 errors

While redirecting all 404 pages to the homepage may seem like a quick and simple solution, it can result in a poor user experience and potentially harm your search engine rankings. Instead, focus on tracking 404s, redirecting broken links individually to their appropriate destinations.

Logging 404 pages

The first and the most important thing to deal with 404 pages is to log them. This way, we'll know which URL causes the 404 error and provide a proper fix.

To log 404 URLs in WordPress, we'll use Slim SEO. The redirection module in Slim SEO allows us to log all 404s. Go to Settings > Slim SEO, select tab Redirection and select Settings sub-tab.

Then enable the 404 log as follows:

Enable 404 logs in Slim SEO

Save the changes and test if the logging is working by intentionally accessing a non-existent page. You'll see the "404 Logs" sub-tab, where you can see all 404 pages.

Viewing 404 URLs in Slim SEO report

Create 301 redirects for 404 Pages

The next step in managing 404 pages in WordPress is to create 301 redirects for those pages. By redirecting these pages to relevant and functional URLs, you can provide a seamless user experience and preserve your search engine rankings (and don't loose your page link juice).

Fortunately, Slim SEO is a great redirection plugin for WordPress that can help us to create custom 301 redirects.

To create a redirect for a broken page, click the Add Redirect icon in the Actions column:

Create a redirect for 404 pages

A popup will appear that helps you to create a redirect with some options like type, accept query string. The From URL is auto filled by the 404 URL.

Redirect options

Enter the To URL and click Add Redirect button to finish.

From now on, when users visite this page with incorrect URL, they'll be redirected to the new URL.

Fix broken internal links

A 404 page can be caused by a broken internal link. When users read a blog post, they see a link to another related post on your website. But clicking on that shows the 404 error page. That's a broken internal link and is one of the major causes of 404 errors.

To find and fix broken internal links, it's a must to use a link manager plugin like Slim SEO Link Manager. The plugin gives you an insightful report of all links with their status code in WordPress:

View URLs with status codes

And you can see the full list of all URLs with the corresponding status code:

View list of URLs with a status code

Then you can edit the source post, update the URL to ensure it's correct.

Besides, you can use Slim SEO Link Manager to bulk update links on your website. For details, please see How to Find and Fix Broken Links in WordPress?

Another important feature of Slim SEO Link Manager is when a post slug change, it will automatically update all internal links to ensure they're correct and don't cause a redirect! This saves you a lot of time managing links across your posts in WordPress.

Choosing the best method for redirecting 404 pages

Choosing the best method for redirecting 404 pages depends on your specific needs. If you need a quick solution to address 404 issues, then redirecting them to the homepage is fine. However, if you want to provide users with the best experience, and keep a heathly link structure between your pages, it's recommended to track 404 log, implement proper redirection and fix broken internal links in your WordPress site.

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