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How To Increase Search Ranking By Finding, Monitoring, and Redirecting 404 Errors In WordPress

We’re currently helping an enterprise client implement a new WordPress site. They’re a multi-location, multi-language business and have had some poor results in organic and local search over recent years. When we were planning their new site, we identified a few issues:

  1. Archives – they had several sites in the last decade with a demonstrable difference in their site’s URL structure. When we tested old page links, they were not found on their latest website.
  2. Backlinks – When we did a backlink audit using Semrush, we found there were many ranking pages in the past that were backlinked that no longer existed.
  3. Translation – much of their audience is Hispanic, but their site relied only on a translate button rather than having embedded manually translated pages.

Their last site was owned by the SEO agency they were working for… in my opinion; a very shady practice that holds the business owner hostage. So, moving forward, we would have to create a new site from scratch and optimize it,… a big investment for the client.

A critical part of the new strategy is to take advantage of those three issues above. We must ensure that we incorporate redirects to all missing pages (404 errors), AND we can capitalize on their multi-lingual search users by adding translated pages. In this article, I will focus on the 404 error issue – because it’s hurting their search engine rankings.

Why 404 Errors Are Bad For SEO Rankings

To simplify explanations to clients and businesses, I always tell them that search engines index a page and align it to specific keywords by its content. However, they rank a page based on its popularity – typically translated by backlinks from other sites.

So… imagine that you have a page on your site from years ago that ranks quite well and is linked to from various sources. You then build a new site where that page goes away. The result is that when the search engines crawl the backlinks… or a user on another site clicks the link… it results in a 404 error on your site.

Ouch. That isn’t good for the user experience and the search engine users’ experience. As a result, the search engine ignores the authority passed by that backlink, removing you from the SERP for the relevant keywords or phrases the search engine user used.

The good news is that backlinks on an authoritative site don’t expire! As we’ve built out new sites for clients and properly redirected old links to new content…we’ve watched these pages skyrocket back to the top of the search engine results.

If you’ve got an agency focused on your organic search traffic (and EVERY website design agency should be) or an SEO consultant that HAS NOT done this work, I believe they’re genuinely negligent in their craft. Search engines continue to be a top source of traffic for relevant prospects with an intent to purchase.

So, if you’re redesigning your site, ensure that you’re auditing and redirecting your traffic to new pages properly. And if you’re not redesigning your site, you should still be monitoring your 404 pages and redirecting them properly!

NOTE: If you’re not migrating to a new site, you can jump directly to Step 5 on this process to simply monitor and redirect 404 pages.

Step 1: Pre-Launch Audit Of The Current Site

I assume you cannot download or backup your current website here. You don’t have to do step 1 if you have that access.

  1. Download All Current Assets – I do this with a great OSX app called SiteSucker.
  2. Get A List Of All Current URLs – I do this with Screaming Frog.
  3. Get A List Of All Backlinks – using Semrush.

Now, I have every asset and every page on their current site. This will enable me to correctly map each resource to the new paths on the new site (if they need redirecting).

Step 2: Pre-Launch Plan The Site Hierarchy, Slugs, and Pages

The next step is to audit their actual content and identify how we can simplify and build out a content library that’s well-structured and organized on the new site. Most of the time, I build out the empty pages in a staged WordPress instance to have a checklist for later completion for my writers and designers to work on.

I can review the old current URLs and assets to repopulate the draft pages so that it’s easier to ensure I have all the necessary content and nothing is missing from the new site that was on the old site.

Step 3: Pre-Launch Mapping of Old URLs to New URLs

If we can simplify the URL structure and try to keep the page and post slugs short and straightforward, we do. I’ve noticed over the years that while redirects supposedly lose some authority, optimizing them drives increased engagement, which translates to better ranking. I’m no longer afraid to redirect a highly ranking page to a new URL when it makes sense. You can do this easily in a spreadsheet!

Step 4: Pre-Launch Import Redirects

Using the spreadsheet in Step 3, I create a simple table of the existing URL (without domain) and the new URL (with domain). Before launching the new site, I import these redirects in the Rank Math SEO Plugin. Rank Math is the best WordPress plugin for SEO, in my opinion. Side note… this process can (and should be done) even if you’re migrating the site to a new domain.

Trace Your URL Redirects

Step 5: Launch And Monitor 404s

If you’ve done all the steps up until now, you’ve got the new site, all the redirects, all the content, and you’re ready to launch. Your work isn’t over yet… you must monitor the new site to identify any 404 pages utilizing two different tools:

  • Google Search Console – as soon as the new site is launched, you’ll want to submit the XML sitemap and check back daily over the next few weeks to see if there are any issues with the new site.
  • Rank Math SEO Plugin’s 404 Monitor – You should use this tool often, not just when launching a site. You will need to enable it in the Rank Math Dashboard. Just be aware that not every visit to your site to a URL that doesn’t exist is hurting you. Many malware bots will crawl your site looking for code vulnerabilities. I sort this report descending by the number of results and then monitor those pages that appear to be relevant, often adding the page if it’s a new topic or redirecting to an existing page that has similar content.
Rank Math 404 Monitor

For example, we launched a site for a multi-location Dentist. One of the pages we identified that had backlinks that weren’t covered was an article, Baby Teeth 101. The existing site didn’t have the article. The Wayback Machine only had an excerpt. So when we launched the new site, we added a comprehensive article, an infographic, and social graphics with redirects from the old URL to the new one.

As soon as we launched the site, we saw that redirect traffic was now going to the new page from those old URLs! The page started to pick up some nice traffic and ranking as well. We weren’t done, though.

When we checked the 404 Monitor, we found several URLs with baby teeth landing on 404 pages. We added the multiple exact paths of the redirect to the new page. Side note… we could utilize a regular expression to capture all URLs, but we’re being cautious to start.

Rank Math Redirections Plugin

The screenshot above is Rank Math Pro, which includes the ability to categorize your redirects… a very nice feature. We also went with Rank Math Pro because it supports multi-location schemas.

The page is their second most trafficked page on the new site within months of launching. And there was a 404 page there for several years whenever anyone arrived! It was a huge missed opportunity that wouldn’t have been found if we hadn’t been thorough about properly redirecting and monitoring old links on the web to their site.

Rank Math also has a detailed article on fixing 404 errors that I’d encourage you to read.

Rank Math: How to Fix 404 Errors

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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