How to avoid becoming a victim of 404 error messages

In today’s fast-paced business climate, there really is no time for technical errors.  Website fault messages, such as the 404 error page, can be a common online occurrence and can hold serious implications for your business. The solution however, is easier than you might think.

Daniel Foster, co-founder and technical director of website hosting company, 34SP.com, tells you how to avoid becoming a victim of the 404 page. 

We’ve all come across a 404 error page when browsing the net, but what exactly does it mean and why does it occur and more importantly what implications will it have on your business?

A 404 error is a default message that displays to the end user when a specific page on a website cannot be located or reached. When a user attempts to access a broken link or one that no longer exists, the server will show this message informing them that the page they requested cannot be found. This is frustrating to the user and can also cause problems for the business in question.

What triggers a 404 message?

The 404 error message can be reached in a number of different ways - from mistakes in links to pages being deleted or redirecting incorrectly. Often these problems are relatively easy to avoid as long as the website is maintained properly. Scraping tools can be used to search a site for broken links, enabling you to identify and resolve many of the issues that lead to users encountering your 404 page. You can also automatically redirect visitors to deleted pages to another part of your website.

How can 404 pages affect your business?

Displaying your 404 page again and again to users typically leads to higher bounce rates and fewer conversions, which can cost your business dearly. In today’s fast-paced culture, customers want quick results. If they come across a 404 message within the first few minutes of clicking on your site they are unlikely to return.

That’s because constantly displaying your 404 error message makes your website look amateurish. Rightly or wrongly, customers will associate the quality of your website with the quality of your business and frequent errors suggest your website is unreliable and unprofessional.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that users will sometimes land on your 404 page regardless of all the precautions you might take. However, by making sure your 404 page is creative and useful you can retain the goodwill of your visitors and encourage them to continue using your site.

A unique 404 page that is visually appealing will show visitors that you are really focused on user experience and make them feel valued at all times. A 404 page that gives your customers options, such as suggestions for alternative pages that might be relevant to what they were aiming for originally, will keep them engaged and hopefully discourage them from abandoning the website altogether.  

What are the best 404 pages?

A creative and well-designed 404 error page can make all the difference when it comes to user engagement. Some websites include witty comments or fun pictures in order to ease the frustration of coming across a 404 message. 

For instance, Lego’s 404 page shows a Lego Man pulling a plug apart, to illustrate to the user in a light-hearted way that something has gone awry. Other websites decide to use a more informative approach to their 404 page by explaining to the user how they got there and where they might want to go next.

A good example of this is the Mozilla 404 error message which gives users an indication of what might have gone wrong, providing them with a list of options to click on.          

Landing on a 404 page can be a pain. Not only does it frustrate the users of your website in the short-term, but it also causes long-term problems for your business such as a loss of traffic and lower conversion rates. Unfortunately, it’s almost inevitable that the user journey on your website will not be completely smooth every time.

Putting a little bit of thought into your 404 strategy will maximise your chances of keeping those all-important visitors onside and on your site.    

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