Monday, February 07, 2005

Getting Sales From An Error 404 Page - Pt I

What happens when a visitor to your web site types in a URL that does not exists? Or maybe there's a broken link you missed fixing? If you have not set up a custom error message, they'll see a plain "404 Not Found" message, with no explanations or options. It's a dead end.

But this does not have to be so, if you set up a custom 404 error page.

One of the first things I do when I start working on an existing web site is to check the web logs for 404 errors. On some sites I've seen as much as 30% of the traffic going to the 404 error page. Eliminating most of those errors, and making effective use of those that can not be eliminated, will have some of the highest ROI you'll see.

Identifying and fixing broken links will eliminate a large portion of the 404 errors. Be even after all of the coding problems are fixed, there will still be some people getting 404 errors. They may be typing the name of the page wrong. For example, people commonly type, when they intended to type Leaving the "l" off the end of the URL results in a 404 error. Another common typo would be:

The default 404 error page is of no value. It tells the visitor there has been a "404 Not Found" error. Most visitors don't know what that means and leave in frustration.

Error messages should:

+ Tell people what happened and give some possible reasons why it happen -- and do so in plain English.
+ Give people some options for correcting the problem.
+ Provide options that help the visitor find what they were looking for.
+ And you can promote some of your best offers. After all, this page will have people reading it, so my not make effective use of the space.

Let's take a look at how the top three search engines handle 404 errors, Google, Yahoo and MSN.

I've set up a web site at that I'll be using to illustrate things I talk about in this blog. I've set up a custom 404 error page that also displays screen captures from the Google, Yahoo and MSN 404 error pages. All you need to do is to go to a page on that web site that does not exist, such as:

You'll see that Google's error page just displays a 404 error notice. That's not very helpful.

Yahoo does a little better. They display the 404 error notice, provide a search box, plus include a couple of links to key pages on their web site. Having a search box makes a lot of sense, after all, this is a search engine.

MSN does an excellent job with their 404 error page. They include everything Yahoo does, plus they promote some of their major services.

Tomorrow I'll look at how to set up a custom 404 error page.


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