One of the first things on everybody’s mind when they start a new website is to produce as much content as possible. After all, we want to get those backlinks, and we want to get a consistent stream of visitors to your website right?
Months go by, and you start to see more and more traffic coming it, this is a good indicator that you’re on the right track solving the same problems that your product is solving through the media you’re creating and promoting.
But did you know that the average lifespan of a webpage is around 100 days? According to Brewster Kahle, digital librarian at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, links tend to go bad over time due to moved or deleted content or changes in permalink structure.
So this means, that the beautiful, interesting experience your visitor is expecting can turn sideways when they are greeted with the dreaded 404, or “page not found” message.
One error page can kill all your hard work.
And what will the visitor do? They will hit that back button in their browser and go straight back to the search result page, trying to find a website that CAN help them with their problems.
Your first opportunity to impress a new lead and you just blew it, outdated and permanently moved web pages will leave your leads hanging without you giving them the opportunity to start a loving relationship.
No wonder that according to a 2010 study by Firefox, the back button was the most used navigational feature in their browser.
Although there is no formal estimate of the amount of lost sales and opportunities caused by people landing on a “page not found” page, we’re pretty sure every lost sale opportunity is one to money.
It isn’t all bad news though because 404 pages also represent opportunities if done well. If someone lands on your 404 page, you have their attention. How you use that attention is directly related to how successful your site will be in converting visitors.
This article will focus on turning those 404 error pages, into revenue, leads and sales.
Prevention is better than a cure
Although we just told you that we’re going to focus on turning those 404 error pages into revenue, the first thing you want to take care of is trying to make sure people don’t end up that dreaded 404 page in the first place of course.
It might feel a bit counterintuitive, but this page is probably the only page on your website that you’ll actively try to reduce traffic towards, even though you’re going to optimise it for success.
Basically, visitors tend to end up on your 404 error page in two ways. They end up on your 404 page because of internal and external broken links, and you need to try to fix both.
Finding Broken Internal Links
Let us take a closer look at how you can find broken links on your website.
Google Webmaster Tools (free)
Every webmaster should have subscribed her or his website to Google Webmaster Tools, as it is one of the great tools Google is offering to help you identify things that are going wrong on your site. One of those great tools is a way for finding 404 errors and broken links.
After logging in to Google Webmaster Tools, and going to your website, you can find the information in the Crawl Errors page (located in the crawl section of the main menu).
That page will display site errors and URL errors for desktops, smartphones, and feature phones. URL errors are categorised, with server errors, soft 404 errors and normal 404 errors all being shown separately.
It is worthwhile going down the list and checking each error. Sometimes you might have removed a page from your website, and you can fix them using a simple redirect.
W3C Link Checker (FREE)
A second free tool out there that you can use is the link checker by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It might look a little bit less fancy than the Google alternative, but since W3C is responsible for maintaining standards on the website, their link checker should be recommended as an impartial tool by a lot of people.
Broken Link Checker (FREE)
If you’re using WordPress just like us, then we can recommend the Broken Link Checker plugin as well. The plugin will scan your entire database and displays the links that are broken. It will highlight the HTTP status code, the link text around it and the post or page in which the link can be found.
After that, you can select the broken links and choose to mark them as not broken, remove the link, etc. The great thing about the plugin is that it can automatically scan your entire website on a regular basis and email you whenever it finds something.
Finally, the plugin can also monitor outgoing links to YouTube, Vimeo and other video site and then report to you if that video has been removed.
Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool (FREE / $99 Per Year)
The last tool we want to highlight is one that should be in every SEO specialists toolbox. Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Besides finding broken links, it can give you a lot of more detailed information on how your website is doing on a technical SEO level.
Things like missing header tags, meta information, errors, etc. If you’re not having an XML sitemap generated automatically for your website by plugins like Yoast SEO than Screaming Frog can even do that for you.
The tool is available for Mac, Windows and Linux, it has a free version that has a crawl limit of 500 URL’s, or you can get a premium version for $99 per year.
Finding Broken External Links
Using Google Analytics, you can quickly identify other websites sending traffic to pages that are non-existent on your page. The best thing, of course, would be to follow-up with the owners of those sites to ask them to update their links, but sometimes this could take a while, or you might not get a response at all.
The faster solution is to let people automatically redirect to the correct new page where they should go to. In technical terms, you can do this using a 301 (permanent) redirect by editing your .htaccess file directly on the server.
If you’re less technical and if you’re on WordPress there are great plugins available as well that can help you with this.
Of course checking your Google Analytics every day might be a bit time-consuming. To make your life easier, you can also set up a custom alert in Google Analytics, automatically notifying you when someone arrives at your 404 error page.
To do this, you need to create a goal in analytics using the URL of your 404 page.
- Go to your property in Google Analytics > “Admin” > “View” > “Goals”.
- If you’re using the MonsterInsights plugin on WordPress, it will automatically tag your 404 pages for you making your life a lot easier.
- Create a new goal by pressing “+NEW GOAL”
- In the “Goal set-up” select “Custom”
- Give your goal a name like “404 Error page” for example
- Type “Destination”
- As a destination you will use “Regular expression” and in our case, since we use the MonsterInsights plugin you will use 404.html
The next step is to create a “Custom Alert”. Following the following steps:
- Go to your property in Google Analytics > “Customisation” > “Custom Alerts”
- In the next screen choose “Manage customised alerts”
- “+NEW ALERT”
- Using the following settings and hit “Save Alert”
From now on you will be notified when there is a more than 5% increase since the previous day.
Identifying and fixing and broken links on a regular basis is only the first part though. You can never prevent all potential errors, so there still might be a chance that people end up on your 404 error page.
In the second part, we will be looking on how to optimise your 404 error page, so you can still make the best out of a terrible situation.
Elements of a successful 404 page
The best 404 error pages should almost be considered as a great landing page. With as little distractions as possible. After all, you want them to turn into happy leads for your company right?
So what are the necessary elements that can help you create a frictionless journey and retain your lost visitor?
Be transparent about the issue
The first feeling most people have when ending up on an error page is the feeling they did something wrong.
A negative feeling.
Trying to make it even worse for them? Letting them arrive at the generic 404 error page that your web server is generating. That initial feeling and confusion might be enough to let them hit that back button and never return.
So the first thing you want to do is take away that negative feeling and start explaining what might be the cause of the issue in your content. Explain to them why they aren’t getting the content that they were expecting.
Sympathise with your visitor, explain what might be the reason that they ended up on that page, maybe it was a typo in the URL, maybe it was a faulty redirect.
At the end of the day, everybody can make a mistake, addressing the elephant in the room and showing them that you’re human and that you understand the negative feeling just like them makes it more personal. And at the end of the day, people like to feel that they’re taking seriously by a human being, by other people instead of a machine.
Just make sure to explain the issue in ways that your ideal customer, your visitor would understand. If you’re a website focused on baking cupcakes, don’t get too technical. If you’re slashdot you can make a more technical reference, otherwise keep it simple.
Provide visitors with a solution to their problem
Once someone understands the reason of the issue, it’s time to provide them with a solution, a fix so they can continue their journey towards the content they were looking for.
“Focus on the user and all else will follow” Wise words from Google with a deep truth.
Focusing on your user means helping them with a solution so they can get the information they were looking for.
You can give a couple of different options they can follow that will make sure they are on the right track:
- A search bar: A search bar is one of the easiest and quickest ways you can help someone find the content they were looking for. They can search through your content the way they want instead of your automatically forcing them somewhere
- Suggested search results: Next to having a search bar, you could also use the contents of the of the URL the visitors landed on to use as input already in a site wide search and show them potential content they might be looking for. Smashing Magazine has a great article on this topic, showing you how your developer can use the Google Search API to give the results you want.
- Quick links: In addition to potentially already the correct content using the suggest search results you also provide the visitor with 4-5 quick links that will lead to the most visited pages on your site. If a visitor has landed on your 404 error page, there might be a good chance they were trying to visit one of those high traffic pages on your site. Ideally, you would also include your perfect About Us page in there for example.
- Contact information: And lastly giving the visitor the ability to communicate with you straight away shows that you’re there to help them, that you want to work together with them to solve the issue. An added benefit of them contacting you is that you can also quickly identify any errors on your website that you might not be aware of.
Don’t be afraid to add a touch of personality
Like we said in the first point of optimisation, everybody can make a mistake. It’s what you do after that makes up for it though.
Sometimes, the 404 page is someone’s first interaction with your website, with your brand. Wouldn’t you want to make this as positive and on brand as possible?
By using a bit of your company’s personality on that page, by introducing them to your brand’s tone of voice, your brand’s colours, and look and feel, maybe with a little bit of extra humorous personality you can turn that frown upside down.
People need to be invested into your company regardless of what page they are on.
Create an opportunity for a conversion
Sometimes the best discoveries are the ones that you weren’t expecting to find. A 404 error page is the perfect place to capitalise on that saying.
Your first reaction might be, can I convert people on a page like this? But It’s just about directing the user to take the action you want them to take.
And what’s better than turning a bad user experience into a positive and profitable one?
HubSpot, for example, offers visitors the opportunity to ‘sign up for a free demo’ on their error 404 page. The other two options above the free demo are also aligned with HubSpot’s conversion goals.
Or maybe you can offer your visitor a coupon for a discount to be used in your web shop? After all, a discount is a strong reason for the visitor to continue shopping on your site after already being let down.
Another great way to increase leads is to add your newest promotion to the 404 page. While focusing on lead generation, you’ll be adding new promotions to your website regularly why not turn your 404 page into a landing page, with a small form to capture the visitor’s details, offering your latest e-book, checklist, or video.
The key here is to tell the visitor what you want them to do. If you want them to shop garden equipment clothing, give them a link that says shop the garden’s section – don’t send them to the home page where they might get lost or distracted.
Taking advantage of that opportunity will help get your visitors into the funnel, help make you appear more helpful to your visitors, and depending on the offer can even help delight your current visitors.
Bonus tip: 404 error pages can lead to more indexed pages
Although it seemed like an awesome way to get more indexed pages, Mike Blazer debunked the below bonus tip. thanks a lot, Mike!
A 404 error page tells your visitors and search engines that a “page is not found” As we discussed at the beginning of the article, this can happen because you may have changed your URLs over time or removed a few pages when you did a website redesign.
The bigger your website, the bigger the chances of having 404 error pages.
One creative way you can use these 404 error pages to your advantage and have more indexed pages ending up in Google is by using a simple trick Neil Patel used on TechCrunch years ago. According to him, he was able to boost search traffic to their website by as much as 9% in one month by simply linking to internal pages on the 404 error page.
To remedy the situation, what I do for big sites is I create custom 404 pages that display a creative image and also link out to 25-50 random internal pages on the website.
Each time the 404 error page is loaded, the links automatically change. By doing this, you can increase the number of pages that get indexed. The more indexed pages you have within Google, the more opportunities you have of getting search traffic.
Of course adding so much different links might work well for large websites, if you’re just starting out with your business online, you can simply include a list of not yet indexed posts, organised by category, making it easy for the visitor to browse through them.
While 404 error pages are often the pages that are forgotten the most when designing the optimal user experience, they can be a valuable addition to your business lead generation.
No matter what the reason is that someone ended on that 404 error page, it’s how you help them during this time of frustration that’s going to keep them on your site and without a bad taste in their mouth. You simply need to be creative and let the visitor know that you’re sorry. By doing this you create trust with the user, and they will want to stick around.
What 404 optimisation tips do you have? Any best practices you’ve encountered in your days wandering around on the internet? Share your thoughts in the comments below!