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How-To Geek

We’ve all experienced a 404 error while browsing the web. Maybe even on How-To Geek! What exactly do the numbers in this error mean, and why the numbers 404 specifically? Here’s why.

The Dreaded 404 Error Defined

404 is an error code that appears on websites. It means that a link is broken or does not lead to a valid page on a website. It’s the thing all site owners hate to see on their website, which can mess up a user’s online experience. A user can stumble onto a 404 page in a variety of ways. Maybe they followed a link on the website itself that leads to a 404, or maybe they have a bookmark that leads to a dead-end. Sometimes, 404 links can also appear on other websites or via search engines.

Because of how bad it is for the end-users experience, sites are discouraged from linking to many 404 pages. Some search engines explicitly penalize websites that contain a lot of broken links. Frequent incidences of users being redirected to 404 pages can lead to a website getting categorized as “low-quality” or “untrustworthy” by Google’s algorithms. Most content management systems (CMS) have features that attempt to minimize 404 redirects.

Its prevalence on the internet has made it one of the most well-known errors in the history of the web. It’s become a meme and slang term of its own. When you refer to someone as
“having a 404 error,” it means they’re slow to think or ignorant about a particular topic.

Why “404?”

So why exactly is it 404? The first thing to realize is that there are other “numbers” related to the status of loading a webpage. For example, when you’re loading a regular webpage, it’s a “200 OK” request, which means it loaded without any problems.

Tim Berners-Lee, considered the father of the internet, established HTTP status codes during the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1992. These codes, which are still in use today, are formatted in three-digit numbers. A code that starts with “4” means a client error, which means that the user requested a page that they cannot access.

Here are a few standard codes that also start with 4 that you might recognize:

  • 400 Bad RequestThis normally pops up when there’s an incorrect request made to the site.
  • 401 Unauthorized / 403 ForbiddenThese appear when the user does not have the necessary permissions to access a page, such as a log-in or a digital authentication.
  • 404 Not Found: This shows up when the resource, or the page, does not seem to exist on the server.
  • 408 Request Timeout: This appears when the server timed out or hit its maximum time to load a page before the request finishes.

RELATED: What Is a 403 Forbidden Error (and How Can I Fix It)?

Other Common Error Messages

Aside from seeing “HTTP 404” or “404 Not Found,” you might also run into a few other error codes that convey the same thing. Common variants include “Page Not Found” or “File Not Found.” Depending on which website you’re browsing, you might also see messages like “Product not Found.”

One thing to note is that websites can customize what page a 404 hyperlink directs to, so many site owners design a custom 404 page. Some will tell you to contact the site’s webmaster; others use it as an opportunity for the user to search for something else on the website. For example, How-to Geek’s 404 page leads to a search bar and an image that reads, “the page is in another castle.”

So, What Now?

If you run into a page that has a 404 error, but you’re sure it used to have content, there are a few things you can do. One is to check if the administrator moved that content somewhere else. Websites change their URL structures all the time, so it’s possible that the link got recategorized or renamed. If the website does not have an internal search engine, you could do a site search on Google by typing to help you out.

You could also use the Wayback Machine, a service provided by the Internet Archive. To use this service, copy-and-paste the URL of the page into their box. It will bring up a list of archived versions of that page from previous years, and you can check out any of them. While this doesn’t always work, many websites have archived versions in this database.

If none of these options seem to work, you might have to look for the content elsewhere or contact the site administrator. There’s a good chance there’s a Contact Us page somewhere on the site, so let them know they have a broken link.

If none of the tips above work, you should check out our in-depth guide to fixing a 404 error.

RELATED: How to Fix a 404 Not Found Error

Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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