Sooner or later, every online explorer encounters the dreaded “page not found” aka “404 error page”. With all the will in the world, there is no way to totally eradicate them.
Links go bad, URLs get misspelled, and users find themselves at a dead end in their search for content.
And, what do users do when they hit a “404” from within your site? Best case scenario, they back-click. Worst case scenario, they mutter under their breath and leave the website entirely.
While “404 error pages” are a recurring frustration for the everyday internet user, they are also a constant headache for webmasters. No one wants visitors to their site to have a bad user experience, and “404s” are right at the top of the list of things that frustrate and irritate online users
But, if the dreaded “404 error page” can’t be totally eradicated, what are webmasters to do? Well, there are a few ways website managers can come to terms with their “404s”, and use them constructively.
Let’s look at a few tips on how webmasters can turn “404 error pages” into opportunities, instead of liabilities.
Create a Personalized “404 Error Page”
Sometimes webmasters and SEOs forget what it’s like to be a typical online user. When an average internet surfer hits a plain “404 error page”, their first thought is “Where am I?”, and their second thought is “Get me out of here.”
In order to get “404s” to work for you, it is important to create a personalized error page that tells the user they are still connected to the original site, and that a simple error has occurred.
People of a certain age will remember the test cards that used to fill their television screens whenever there was an unexpected broadcast interruption. These typically featured a comical little man tangled up in film rolls and a short note telling the audience that the station was experiencing “technical difficulties”.
It was an easy, and effective, way of diffusing the situation and informing the viewer of what was happening. This approach works equally well for “404 error pages”, and allows the webmaster to reassure the user while displaying the personality of their website.
Add Links to Your “404”
Webmasters should also include useful links in their personalized “404 error pages”. You have grabbed the user’s attention, and reassured them that they are still connected to your site, so now add the links they need to continue their exploration of what your website offers.
By giving them definite options, you can greatly reduce the bounce rate that typically accompanies a “404 error”. Insert links to the site’s most popular areas, and be sure to include a a link for users to report the error to the webmaster. This not only gives users a sense of control, it helps webmasters keep track of bad links and corrupted URLs.
Add a Form to Your “404”
Why not think about creating a direct call to action for your “page not found” new visitor? The visitor has clearly landed on an outdated page through a bad link, or possibly a typo. This is a great opportunity to simply capture the visitor’s information through a web form.
With a lot of web form generators, or even custom code, you will easily be able to push the page URL through with the web form details. Who knows? Maybe a bad link on the internet highway is bringing in a lot of traffic to your site.
Turning “404s” Into Opportunities
Make it a habit to periodically check your sites for “404s”, using Google Webmaster Tools. This tool will give you a list of broken links and bad URLs that are redirecting to your error page.
In many cases, these pages offer an opportunity for webmasters to exploit the incoming links, and turn them to their advantage. If you find a large number of sites are linking to a bad URL, rebuild the page with relevant content and reap the benefit of those incoming links.
When necessary, you can even redirect broken URLs to existing relevant content using a “301 redirect”. This will allow you to benefit from any available link juice while avoiding the “404”. “301s” should be used judiciously, however, and should only be used to redirect to pages that offer content that serves a similar purpose to the original.
“404 error pages” can never be totally avoided. Broken links and bad URLs are always going to plague webmasters and online users, but there are ways to come to grips with those “404s”, and to make them work for you instead of against you. These few tips can turn “404 error pages” into opportunities instead of liabilities.