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404 Error Pages and How to Hunt Them Down Using Google Analytics

While looking at the list of client pages Google had in its index, I noticed the URL of a page that I knew no longer existed.

Our main goal as advertisers is always to put our best foot forward. We want our customers to visit product pages that provide value, and the last thing we want is for them to land on a not-so-good-looking 404 error page while browsing through search results.

I wanted to know if there was a way to use Google Analytics to see URLs of 404 pages that still appeared on Google. After a little trial and error and some creative workarounds, I have found a method. Here’s a step by step.

  1. First, we must trick the internet into giving us some valuable information. To do this, append a random combination of characters to the URL of your homepage: https://www.sitename.com/abcd1234. Visit that page and make sure it generates a 404. Which it should.
  2. Visit the source code of the page, and copy the value of its "Title Tag." For this example, let’s assume it is: "404 Not Found - Site Name."
  3. In Google Analytics, go to Behavior > Site Content > All Pages report and select "Page Title" as a primary dimension. Use the Date Range selector to data for the last 30 days. What you see are the Title Tags of pages that generated pageviews.
  4. In the search filter, type the Title Tag of the 404-page that you took note of. In our example, it begins with "404 Not Found":Google Analytics Filter: Page Not Found
  5. Hit that search icon, and you will see something like the image below. It’s also important to note that this will only show up if this 404 Error page has generated a pageview in the time frame that you have limited.Google Analytics - Pages with Page Title Not FoundIn the above example, you can see that our custom 404-page generated 78 pageviews. That means 78 times people searched for something, and Google delivered this error page, and they clicked on it. That’s 78 impressions you missed.
  6. Now go ahead and click on that Page Title. Once you do that, Google Analytics will continue showing you only pages with a Page Title of "404 Not Found": But the primary dimension will be changed to "Page":Google Analytics Content Reports PageviewsThese are the exact results we were looking for. What this shows us is a list of site URLs that generated 404 pageviews. Please keep in mind that among these URLs might be those that site visitors could reach through internal links. What we are after are direct visits from Google search.
  7. Click on "Secondary Dimension" and select "source/medium":Google Analytics secondary dimension source / medium

This report alone can help you identify traffic sources that send visitors to non-existent pages of the site. It is not the best investment to send paid traffic to pages that generate 404, as shown in the following screenshot:


google / cpc

However, let’s not get bogged down in paid and focus more on SEO since that is the scope of where we began this journey. To see URLs of landing pages that serve traffic from Google, filter the results by "Source / Medium" dimension. The value to search for is "google / organic":Google Organic

Visit the URL of one of the pages returned by the filter to see its response code. Most likely, it will be "404 Not Found". Now use Google’s "info:" search operator to see if the page in question is in Google's index:

info:https://www.sitename.com/YOUR_URL.

If it appears in Google search results when you search for the above query (make sure to replace it with your actual URL, not the placeholder I used), it is on Google.

Now that you have a list of 404 error pages driving Organic traffic to your site, it is time to fix them.

The 404 Page SEO Best Practices

According to Google, 404 errors won't affect your site's search performance, so you might as well do nothing. Yet at Slicedbread, we suggest the following:

  • If other websites link to your page, set it to 301-redirect to another relevant page. "Top Linked Pages" report of Google Search Console references URLs linked from external pages. See if your page is among those URLs and if yes, set it to redirect.
  • In Google Analytics, go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search, and set Landing Pages to be your first dimension. Consider redirecting your page if in the last 90 days it generated a significant amount of traffic to your site.
  • You can safely ignore the page if the above rules are not met, and you're sure that the URL should not exist on your site. Alternatively, you can submit a URL Removal request in Google Search Console to eliminate its Google Search listing.
  • Update your site's internal links that point to non-existent pages. Doing so will keep visitors to your site happy.

The moral of the story is two-fold. First, you should always stay vigilant in finding paths along the internet superhighway that lead to nowhere when they SHOULD lead to your site. These 404 pages is a wasted opportunity and can be harmful for your overall brand image. However, the more important lesson is always to let your curiosity lead you on a journey through your digital environment because there is no telling what sorts of opportunities you may uncover. Happy digital trails!

Alex Kravchenko
Partner | Search & Digital Outreach
I am the search-engine whisperer. I deep dive through your website and uncover opportunities in organic search improvement, keyword optimization, and ultimate maximization of your ROI. I collate all of these opportunities into a series of executable SEO implementation guidelines and guide our web developers and marketing team to make sure it is set up to the highest scrutiny of optimal SEO best practices. Once it is running, I monitor and analyze your SEO statistics to ensure your SEO doesn’t step out of line again, after all, you just know how to speak it’s language.
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