The Internet is no different than anything else in life.
Mistakes will always happen.
Whether it's because someone has mistyped your URL or you forgot to change an old link, at some point, one of your prospective customers is going to land on a 404 error page.
The error page is shown whenever a server can't find the specified page. Unfortunately, most marketers see an error page as a "tech issue" and don't give it a second's thought.
The 404 page is rarely given the consideration and importance it deserves. There are many different considerations that, if neglected, could have a significant negative affect on the performance of your site.
So, how should we approach 404s? Why are they relevant to marketers? Let's have a look at each of them in a bit more detail.
Limiting the Damage
You'll never completely remove the need for a 404 page. Even if you were to clean up your entire internal link structure, you'll always have people mistyping a URL into their search bar (especially if they are searching on a mobile device).
You also have very little control over the URLs that other sites use to link to you. Unless you make it your business to contact every website owner who links to your site, and make sure their links are accurate and up to date, you will inevitably get the odd mistake.
Having said all of that, the most embarrassing and detrimental of errors are when someone is sent to a 404 from one of your internal pages. This you can control!
To find out which of your pages are currently returning a 404, you can simply check your Webmaster Tools account or use a tool like 404 Checker. You can then check each of these pages and replace any internal links with a more appropriate page on your site.
How to Find 404 Pages
One of the easiest ways is just using a browser extension like Check My Links, which accessible from the Chrome Web Store. This will help you quickly identify internal broken links.
But what about the source of the broken link in the first place?
What About SEO?
Many SEO professionals and website owners will use a 301 redirect to take visitors to the site homepage rather than showing them a 404 error page. Though this is the safest option in terms of retaining the strength of your incoming links, it isn't always best from a user's perspective.
If you have a page on your website that receives a big number of high authority, relevant links, and you've decided to get rid of that page for some reason, then you probably should use the 301 to redirect the search engines and users to an alternative page (not necessarily the homepage). Assuming an alternative page exists.
These external links can be passing link juice, and in most cases they should also be corrected at the source. Meaning, reach out to the site owners and ask them to correct the linking URL or suggest a replacement page.
However, in most cases, it's actually far more appropriate to actually show your visitors the 404 page. If you expect to be taken to a particular page on a company's website and end up on their homepage, you will probably be a little confused and frustrated. In this situation, it's far better to return a helpful and informative 404 page.
Creating a Good 404 Page
A 404 error page is entirely editable and can be customized just like any other page on your site. If it's going to serve a positive purpose, you need to adhere to the following guidelines:
- Appearance: It needs to look the same as the rest of your site. If someone appears on a page that has none of the branding or functionality that they were expecting, they are far more likely to close the window and go back to Google. Keep them engaged by keeping your branding and appearance consistent.
- Content: Just like any other page on your site, the tone and function of your written copy is crucial if you are going to get your visitors to take the desired action. Make sure your language is welcoming and re-assuring.
- Help Users Out: Also, make sure you tell visitors what you want them to do next! Give them a call to action. Help them find what they were looking for by either providing the most relevant links or by giving them an option to search within your site. Or, simply give them a positive experience by making them laugh or give them a game to play.
Make it Positive
There's no getting away from it. The 404 page will only be seen when a mistake has been made. However, it doesn't matter how careful you are, these mistakes will happen. If you're going to hold on to the respect of your visitors, it's up to you to take responsibility for that mistake.
Don't worry though; a mistake doesn't have to be a bad thing. There are lots of companies who take the opportunity to turn this into a positive. Check out some awesome 404 pages here.
The 404 page gives you the opportunity to show some of your personality, character, and humor. In some cases the 404 page can end up being the most memorable of all the pages on a site! Why not let your visitors play some space invaders?
Rather than seeing your 404 page as a technical necessity, see it just like any other page on your site. It serves a very specific purpose and, if it is targeted and designed in the right way, it can help re-engage your visitors and continue their positive experience on your site.