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Monday, January 28, 2013

404 Error Handling for eCommerce Website: Scenarios Explained

Monday, January 28, 2013

404 errors are common problem with many websites and portals. Especially with ecommerce, we see quite a big chunk of 404 pages in Google webmaster, and wonder how to minimize them? Well, this post addresses some of the concerns in handling 404 error of an ecommerce website under different scenarios.  Why ecommerce in a particular? It’s due to the fact that these websites run loads of promotions offering to their customers, and they delete the pages once the promotion gets over. 

Quite often, we see lots of 404 (pages not found) in Google webmaster. See the screen below. 

Most of us hate to see such errors while many simply address them with a 301 auto-redirect to home page. Programmatically setting ‘auto-redirect’ in CMS to the home page, to my understanding, may not be an ideal solution in all cases. Understanding different scenarios is the most important aspect in dealing with such issue. The scenarios explained below hopefully helps you understand why auto-redirect solution is not ideal all the time. 

Scenario 1: 

Periodic Promotion:  Most commerce companies come up with lots of promotion on day to day basis. Adding expiration date with auto-redirect to home page may unnecessarily stress the server, and thus it may decrease the time of ‘data download’ when a search engine spider (Google Bot) visits. How many auto-redirect? Hundreds and thousands of URLs in 6 months or a year? 

The best practices, that I believe, are:
Identify a short and long term promotion based on season, holidays, and time period. Ideally, if a promotion is for:

1, 2, and 3 month: Add a no-index follow in CMS programmatically if possible (Let disallow such link to be indexed by search engines). Else, manual job is the next best alternative. Otherwise, writing a no-follow tag programmatically on CMS would be ideal solution here. 
More than 3 months: Any promotion that exists for more than 3 months get good quality back links. Setting auto-redirect rule in CMS to transfer the link juice (PR), and quality back links to the home page is ideal solution for this particular scenario.  
Prescribing the same therapy to all patients just because they have fever without understanding their medical history may pose a greater risk. :)
So, identification of a short term versus long term promotion is very important while setting auto-redirect or no follow index.  

Scenario 2: 

Repeat Promotion: There are some promotions that an ecommerce company typically keeps running on the website month over month, and year over year such as Black Friday Sale, Annual Live Events, Cyber Monday Sale, Christmas Sale, and so on. Typically, pages are taken off once the promotion gets over. For such repeat promotion that comes month over month and year over year, the ideal solution would be to ‘archive’ such pages with ‘message display’ on the top about the expiry of the offer with old content. And, when you run a similar offer sometimes or a year after, make use of such link with new set of content and offers. This way, you can not only retain the link but also gain lot of SEO values.
                   Not Recommended URL 
                   Recommended URL
Once you follow the recommended URL naming pattern, you can archive such URL once the promotion gets over, and then you can use the same URL to post new information month over month or year over year.  Deleting a page and again creating a new URL, and then deleting the same may not be a good practice from SEO perspectives. 

Scenario 3: 

One time Promotion: There are many ecommerce companies that offer onetime promotions that are never run in near future. In such scenario, they can decide a no-follow or auto-redirect 301 depending on the ‘time’ if it’s for 1-3 months or more than 3 months. I have already explained this in Scenario 1. 

Scenario 4: 

Deadlock Promotion: There are some instances that require removal of a promotional page even if it is there for more than 3 months. To my money, if it’s extremely important for your business not to have them, then let it be 404 without any redirect rule. This is what I call a compromised 404 page due to deadlock. However, such instances could be avoidable, and they should not exist in volumes.  
The possibility of 404 pages is not completely ruled out. However, it depends on the scenario. So, it’s OK to be a 404 wherever it makes sense but where it does not, let’s manage them more rationally and SEO friendly. 

If you have any additional scenario, please share with me. 


  1. Thanks for sharing your info this is very useful information,this is very helpful

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