Most 404 pages fall into one of two categories:
1. An afterthought, with a boring, bordering-on-punitive message written by a developer. It’s either full of technical jargon or blames the visitor for landing there, like this one:
2. Or a cutesy page built by a designer that’s supposed to reinforce the brand and make the visitor chuckle. All it does, though, is just send the user back to the homepage unhelpfully, like this one:
Face it: people on your site are going to click on broken links from time to time. So you need a 2-part strategy to prevent and optimize your 404 page.
Part 1: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Bacon
Although I’m going to show you how to make a high-converting 404 page, always keep in mind that you don’t actually want people finding it. There’s no other page on your site that you’ll put so much effort into, and then constantly try to reduce traffic that goes to it.
404 pages can be caused by broken links both internally and externally. You need to fix both.
Finding Broken Internal Links
In order to find internal broken links, run your site through Screaming Frog, a spidering tool that quickly identifies all sorts of SEO problems on your site, including response codes such as 404s. The first 500 URI crawls are free; after that, you can purchase a license for £99/year.
Here’s what that scan looks like:
Finding Broken External Links
Use Google Analytics to find the referral source (e.g. other websites) sending traffic to a non-existent page on your site. You could then contact those sites and ask them to change the link, but that could be time-consuming.
The faster solution is to do a 301 redirect to the page that most closely matches the one they intended to send people to.
Then, set up custom alerts in Google Analytics so you’re notified when people land on your 404 page in the future. Here’s how:
-Create a goal in analytics using the url of your 404 page
-Go to “Custom Alerts” and create a new alert like this:
Finding and fixing internal and external broken links on a regular basis covers the first part of your 404 strategy: prevention. But since you can’t prevent 404 errors all the time, here’s how to employ the second part of your strategy: optimization.
Part 2: Optimizing Your 404 Page
Despite the recent praise for fun, quirky 404 pages, you should aim for clarity and helpfulness first. As with all of your copywriting, clarity beats clever every time.
The page below is cute, but put yourself in the shoes of the user: they were on some other page, clicked a link that made some promise, and landed here. It’s not clear that the page they’re looking for isn’t there; this page just disorients the user.
Instead, the first thing you need to do is explain that what they’re looking for isn’t there. But don’t imply that the user did anything wrong to land on your 404 page, and don’t use technical jargon.
Then, offer links to the most helpful pages on your site, and allow them to search for something else. Make it easy for them to contact you if they need to.
This is about where most good 404 pages end.
But why not use this as a conversion opportunity? I’m not saying to ask for a big sale after an error; that’s tacky. But you can go for a micro conversion if you do it right.
Just make sure you position it as a benefit to them, not a bait-and-switch from what they were expecting to find when they originally clicked the broken link. Like this:
Wrapping It Up
Don’t let your developers slap up a 404 page that will either confuse or insult your lost visitors, and don’t let your branding strategist use this as an opportunity to show how witty she is. Treat your 404 page like any other page on your site: give your users helpful information, define the purpose of the page, and use it to further connect with your audience.
Then try to get as few people as possible to ever see that awesome page that you spent so much time crafting.