For most people a 404 error page is something you wish didn’t exist. It’s something stopping you from getting to where you wanted too.
For those involved in the web it’s often something ignored, left in the wardrobe or on the shelf to gather dust. But it shouldn’t be!
“page does not exist” … it does!
Tips below will show you how to embrace your error page, give it the love is needs and become its BFF. 404 error pages are important and can tell you so much on any standard day, but it’s even more important during a site re-launch.
404 the basics – dust it down and ready for the party
- Firstly and most important, get GA tracking code on it!
Simply it’s a page like any other. Without tracking we won’t know how many times it’s been visited or its part in the user journey.
Set it as a goal too. You can either use an actual GA goal (if you event track errors) or more commonly create your own goal in a dashboard. The easiest way to do this is by filtering by total pageviews using “page title” rather than URL, as your 404 page title is both unique to all errors.
TIP: Your 404 error page should also have a meaningful page title “Page not found | your website name” rather than something harsh like “404 Error”.
- Get it looking right – Top hat and tails. Great design but CTA focused.
Again, it’s a page like any other, so get it looking like the other pages. In fact treat it like a landing page because it is (by default). The goal of any landing page is to convert a user via a call to action (CTA). Your 404 page is no different. Most times the page they were after doesn’t exist in its old form but does in a new form. So give them options to find that new page, you might want to add a search, key navigation or promote services. These options are your CTA’s.
Also remember to track CTA’s in GA. This might be through event tracking so use a common “category” for the various CTA’s and report on this grouped category. You can then use the specific actions/ labels to gather detailed insights.
In terms of design, so many good blogs on this out there so I won’t go into this other than it needs to look good, it needs to change an unhappy user into a slightly happier user. We want them to find there intended destination and convert against the big goals (purchases, sign-ups, downloads etc.) Good posts include:
404 backup – Party in numbers
- Protect it with redirects
Pre re-launch you should have hopefully gone through a mapping operation (old URL to new URL). This is passed onto the techies to create 301 redirects. Firstly note they should map to a like-for-like page and thus keep UX and user engagement at a maximum. In the event your page doesn’t have a like-for-like, next destination should be a related area/ top level page. I would suggest if you don’t have a like-for-like or near like-for-like page t redirect to then don’t implement a 301 redirect and let your 404 page deal with the traffic.
301 Redirects are good, especially in getting organic search to update, retain SEO ranking and maintaining accurate referrals, but with all the will in the world you are not going to map all URLs. But a bit of planning will help…
- Planning – Google Analytics and Google webmaster tools
Again pre re-launch use GA and identify top pages, firstly ranked by highest pageviews, but also ranked by highest goal conversions. Focus on the big wins, the ones that convert!
Second open up Google webmaster tools, in particularly search traffic/ links to your site. You have 2 reports at your disposal, first “who links the most”, secondly “most linked content”. Again focus on the big wins and ensure these have a redirect in place. Equally get in touch with the key referrals (if possible) and forewarn them of the change, even providing them with the future links.
Hopefully you also have a back linking strategy. If you don’t, have one for SEO purposes! Revisit links you have set up, getting in touch with the original source. Highly ranked referrals are another BFF so you want to keep hold of them.
404 in action – Dance the night away
With all the steps above in place, its go-live time.
With 404 set as a goal/ event you will now see these showing in real-time when they occur.
Real-time is good for fire-fighting, seeing the biggest error pages and reporting it ASAP for a 301 redirect fix.
If you are seeing loads, best holding off for a while and collating them for batch 301 fixes if you can. (Use standard reports for this)
Remember your webmaster tools too, especially Crawl errors. These are downloadable and thus easy to action.
Once things die down, start looking at your goals. Firstly look at you 404 goal and glean insights on what people do when they get a 404. To they leave or progress to another page? What CTA do they use?
Secondly look at 404 pages/ CTA’s and cross reference with your other goals. Do people still progress to a goal? If they do, what is the conversion rate compared to non-error pages (better-worse)?
With your insights at hand you could further develop the 404 page. If the CTA’s really work maybe use them again on non-error pages?
- embrace the 404 page
- accept people will always get them
- reduce impact by planning/ mapping like-for-like 301 redirects
- enjoy the challenge of creating one that impacts positively on the user experience
- have a bit of fun, turn and angry user into a happy one
- use insights from the reports to solve problems, but importantly understand the user journey