We’ve all experienced it. It’s the equivalent of driving half way down a road before seeing an unexpected “ROAD CLOSED” sign, leaving you frustrated as you’re forced to turn around and find an alternate route, or worse, go back to where you came from. If you’re not sure what a 404 page is, this is Google's definition:
‘What a user sees when they try to reach a non-existent page on your site (because they’ve clicked on a broken link, the page has been deleted or you’ve mistyped a URL)'
In general, 404 error pages have come to be a bit of a killjoy for users and website owners alike. In this article, we’ll discuss the reasoning behind 404 pages and how to overcome them.
What causes 404 error pages?
Whilst they’re not ideal, the odd 404 page isn’t the be all and end all of your business. The occasional 404 is to be expected - even SEO leaders can’t eliminate every 404 page that crops up on your site. Don’t worry - you’re not responsible for every 404 page on your website. It’s as simple as this: the bigger your website, the more 404s will appear. It’s inevitable, so knowing how to manage and address 404 pages is critical.
The 3 main causes of 404 pages
1. Broken/Truncated links
As your website grows, you’ll have to adjust it frequently, so it’s highly likely that 404 broken links will appear. The average webpage will last around 100 days before content is moved or permalink structures are changed.
2. Moved/Deleted content
Adjusting content on your website will typically trigger an error 404 message.
3. Copy-and-paste error/Mistyped URL
It’s technically the browser’s fault, but it’s still your responsibility to impress them with an amazing user experience.
What’s the problem? SEO & Pogosticking
Don’t freak out if your website experiences the occasional 404 page. That being said, too many 404 pages can have a negative affect on your link equity. Search engines recognise 404 gateways as random errors on your site. This is because when a browser encounters a 404, their immediate reaction is to click the ‘back’ button and return to the search engine, from which they found your website. This chain of events is referred to as ‘pogosticking’. If this becomes a repeated action for customers, it communicates that your content is ineffectual. Search engines start to believe you’re not adding value specific keywords, which is what really damages SEO.
How to face up to 404s
1. Design a relevant and light-hearted 404 page
Luckily, there’s a pretty straightforward way to confront the 404 gateway problem. The most successful organisations will often design customised, branded 404 pages to maintain UX (user experience). Your 404 is an extension and representation of you who are as a business, so be consistent and don’t overlook it. Reassuring customers with a slick, quirky and useful 404 page ensures the visitor is redirected to another page of your site and keeps them moving through the sales funnel.
2. Communicate clearly
When a visitor ends up at a 404 page, it’s understandable that their mood can change and they’ll feel frustrated, especially if they don’t understand the page they are confronted with. Ensure that your 404 page uses simple, plain English, and make sure to sound apologetic: Oops! We can’t find the page you’re looking for, sorry - something is broken, sorry - this page cannot be found etc. It’s surprising how few people actually know what a 404 is, and using technical jargon will only frustrate users further.
3. Incorporate links
Once you’ve created your branded 404 page, it’s time to add several internal links to encourage visitors to stay on your site, instead of clicking ‘back’. Providing browsers with suggested links that are engaging and useful will mean they’re more likely to continue browsing your website. Most businesses opt for their homepage or some of their more popular pages. Check out your analytics to define precisely which pages receive the most engagement (clicks, shares, comments etc.). E-commerce sites tend to lean towards their categories, different collections or bestsellers to increase sales. Your aim is to redirect the browsers’ shopping experience and keep them interested. One of the most common reasons behind 404 pages is sold-out product pages. For more information on how to optimise sold-out product pages, click here.
Incorporating links into your 404 page greatly increases the chances of a customer remaining on your site and moving along your sales funnel. By providing visitors with links to relevant content, you’re preventing the ‘pogosticking’ we mentioned earlier, and at the same time boosting your SEO. On top of that you’re also:
- Keeping visitors on your site for longer (increase average time spent on site)
- Reducing your bounce rate
- Less likely to annoy potential customers
- Encouraging visitors to uncover more content on your site, and in the future you’ll increase conversion rates and sales revenue!
4. Add a search bar to your 404 page
This is arguably one of the simplest features on a website, but one that has really stood the test of time. Adding a search bar to your 404 page can transform an otherwise disappointing user experience. Research conducted by Econsultancy suggests:
'Conversion rates through site search can be up to 50% higher than the average. Visitors converted at 4.63% versus the websites’ average of 2.77%, which is 1.8 times more effective. Consequently, visitors using search contributed 13.8% of the revenues'.
It is essential that a customer is redirected so they can quickly find their feet by browsing another part of your website. A search bar allows visitors to look up whatever interests them, and they’re back in control of their browsing experience.
5. And a contact form
Some visitors will feel the need to take action when they encounter a 404 error page, so provide users with an opportunity to report the problem. Including a simple contact form in your 404 gateways acts to empower the visitor, and helps you to collect feedback.
Some of the best 404 pages we’ve seen recently
Etsy includes a cute hand drawn illustration, a nod to the handmade products they sell. They’ve gone with a search bar to redirect their customers, aligning with the way visitors generally navigate their site - by searching for products.
2. The Hustle
The Hustle's 404 page redirects visitors to their home page. The Find Waldo image is a light hearted touch that will resonates with the user and could even slightly increase the time the visitor will spend on this page!
3. Pure Cycles
Pure Cycles feature some of their best selling products in an attempt to lure the customer further along their sales funnel.
4. Steve Madden
Steve Madden pretty much go the whole hog. Whilst you should try not to overwhelm the visitor, Steve Madden manages to:
- Be funny
- Demonstrate live chat options and other contact information
- Implement a search bar
- Suggest other bestselling products
- Provide a category menu to redirect browsers.
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* Image credit to Ana Rumenović