SEO & Error 404 Pages – Header Status Checks


Error status codes are among one of the status codes that are sent on error pages. However, a lot of custom solutions, and even some CMS solutions are not setup to properly use 404 status codes. What does this mean? It means search engines like Google are viewing your error pages as actual content. Combine that with a lot of errors on your site, and search engines also start seeing that you have a lot of duplicate content. Why exactly does this matter? Well, take a look at Google’s policy about duplicate content on websites:

“Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar. Mostly, this is not deceptive in origin. Examples of non-malicious duplicate content could include:

  • Discussion forums that can generate both regular and stripped-down pages targeted at mobile devices
  • Store items shown or linked via multiple distinct URLs
  • Printer-only versions of web pages

However, in some cases, content is deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic.”

If you’ve never heard of setting custom status headers then you’re not alone. Its a common thing to forget when setting up or designing your own site even if you are familiar with any of the following response codes below:

  • 200 OK
  • 301 Moved Permanently
  • 302 Found
  • 304 Not Modified
  • 307 Temporary Redirect
  • 400 Bad Request
  • 401 Unauthorized
  • 403 Forbidden
  • 404 Not Found
  • 500 Internal Server Error
  • 501 Not Implemented

There’s a lot more than this, but these are the most common ones you’ll come across.

Using Error 404 For Marketing & SEO

Since Google frowns on duplicate page content then you need to be able to do two things.

  1. Find out if your website is producing proper error status code pages.
  2. If they’re not, know what code to implement to fix them.

Status Code Check

The quickest way to test your own pages would be to create a bad link. Easy enough. And use the headers status tool at

Alternatively, if you’re using PHP and you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, there is a function which you can use to output the info that a page is sending out. Here’s a quick example:

  1. $headers = headers_list();
  2. foreach ($headers as $header) {
  3. echo "<li>$header</li>";
  4. }

Applying An Error Status Code

If you have a custom solution (WordPress should already be doing this by default) you’ll want to include code like the following on your error page. Assuming you have a dynamic solution, this should be easy and might only apply to one page:

<?php header(“HTTP/1.0 404 Not Found”); ?>

Just Like No Follow

If you’re already going to the work to painstakingly go around your site and put “no follow” on your duplicate content, then this is just as important! If your error pages have fancy dynamic content (good for keeping mislead visitors on your site) its not good to let search engines waste their time crawling mixed content every time a search bot goes to it. Depending on the CMS solution you’re using a bad URL might display its own error without redirecting to a common error URL and that’s where we run into the duplicate looking content scenario. If its marked as an error page its more understandable to the search engine and you therefore will not be penalized. Google’s official webmaster central blog has a bit more on how users and search bots look at 404 pages.

Other Thoughts About Error Pages

Don’t stop there. While you’re implementing this, its a good reason to optimize your error pages.

  • Logging and then looking up where your 404 errors are coming from is a great way to keep visitors on your site longer. It also gives you some insight to correct the issues in the first place.
  • Create a custom 404 page that has a little more to offer than the common error. Since error pages are common exit points, get your readers interested again by listing of 5 or 6 of your most popular articles in the past month or year. Perhaps a clip of your most recent article with a “continue reading” link which will bring them back into the site.

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2 Responses to SEO & Error 404 Pages – Header Status Checks

  1. Great way to keep it top of mind, as some of the bloggers out there have no idea what to do to change it.

  2. nice information you got here sir!, keep it up coming these are very useful to any web developer and web designers especially on SEO matters.

    thanks Mr. Malon

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