404 Error Page: Best Practice Example

This as an example of one of our a creative solutions.

404 pages are nearly as important as home pages

Many visitors hit 404 pages when voluntarily visiting a site. The standard server 404 does not support users in dealing with this situation, nor does it offer help for the webmaster. Too many 404 views can damage brand image and earnings of a company. As some causes are not even in reach for the site owner it is important to limit the damage. There are 8 'best-of-class' steps to do this.

404s are bad for business

Imagine an internet department is relaunching a website section on a different platform, and new CMS. The product marketing department was told of this 3 month ago, but they have did not realize the consequences for their work. They are running an Adwords campaign with a landing page in the section of the relaunch.

The relaunch takes place and the new page has a different URL.

The organic traffic is now directed to an outdated page. After a few days, the new page is indexed and better positioned than the old, so the damage resulting from organic links is limited. The AdWords campaign, however, is still sending visitors the old pages, which no longer exist. Lacking other tools this will be noticed when the next report is due - in three weeks.

This negative effect can add up dramatically, even when talking about small budgets:

10,000 clicks per 0.5 US$ in three weeks, 100 products not sold with a surplus of 10 US$ p.p. makes 6000 US$ direct earnings loss for this miniature scenario, not counting brand and relationship effects.

What are the effects of too many 404 visits?

The term ‘bounce rate’ which is used in email marketing and landing page optimization is an appropriate term here, too. Users reach the 404 page and navigate back to the search or off to another site immediately.

 The negative effects on business are dramatic:

  • Paying for click-throughs
  • Disappointed potential customers 
  • Damage to existing relationships (ouch, retention is important!)
  • Showing the brand as unreliable
  • No sales, no leads for given budget.

 Does this sound somewhat familiar?

 Why are pages unavailable?

There are many reasons why a page is may no longer be available and most are related to site maintenance:

  • Technical error (not available)
  • Page deleted
  • Page renamed (file)
  • Page moved

Page moved or deleted occurs most frequently and is very often caused be the relaunch a of complete site or major parts, whereas renaming files is most difficult cause for 404 to catch for internal and external links. There are many ways to prevent that missing pages happen to often, but this post focuses on how to deal with the 404's which still come up. 

How do people get to 404s?

Users reach this particular error page mainly because a link is wrong.

  • Wrong link on internal or external page (typo)
  • Outdated link (SERP) - can be up for several weeks
  • Outdated bookmark/favorite - can be up for several years
  • Page never existed and user uses URL by trial and error
    • if ‘directorinternet.com/news’ works, why not try “directorinternet.com/products’
    • hackers looking for scripts

How to limit the negative results of missing pages - 404

There are three aspects to this:

  1. Guide users to the content they are looking for
  2. Implement a warning system to learn about problems
  3. Fix most relevant problems

9 steps to 404 best practice

Following these relatively easy and inexpensive steps will keep customers on the site, will communicate solid service and customer orientation and will limit the damage tremendously: 

  1. Filter out bad traffic (spam or hacking) to reduce server load
  2. Show page in full design so users realize they have reached the right site
  3. Show that it is an error page and explain what happened
  4. Show main navigation on 404 page so users are not stuck but can navigate to the content
  5. Offer a contact form for immediate help
  6. Take the URL of the page which is not available (the request string), use the part behing the last slash and the dot-filetype to start an internal search on the site and display this as a search on the bottom of the 404. Do not use a redirect, so people - and spiders - will update their links.
  7. Integrate some script into the 404 to catch the requested url, the referrer, timestamp, etc and send this into a database or a unique email address where the webadmin can sift through.
  8. Filter and sort in database / email to find new missing pages, high traffic missing pages and high traffic referrer.
  9. Fix internal errors, perhaps build a rewrite for high traffic pages and contact external high traffic referrer if necessary.

See this  404 best practiceLive on www.tuv.com/de , developmed (2004/2005), initiated and driven by andreas.wpv for TUV, Rolf (IT) and the help of TWT interactive. Maintained and modified since then slightly by Sabine and Andreas.

Works fantastic, resulting insight can cause quite some effort for fixing the causes of 404s, but it usually is completely worth it.

If you have other suggestions or something to add to this list, please let me know!