Website errors happen every now and again – it’s inevitable. But what your visitors see when they reach an error page is completely up to you! Will they continue to engage with your website or leave immediately? Optimizing a 404 error page has the ability to increase visitor engagement and boost traffic, but it is often overlooked – even by some of today’s biggest brands.
The Basics: What Is a 404 Page?
When someone tries to access a page on your website that does not exist, a 404 error page will display. In more technical terms, it means the server did not find the requested URL. There are a variety of reasons a visitor might land on a 404 page. Some common reasons include:
- Typing the wrong URL into the address bar
- Redirect errors
- The page no longer exists
- Permalink structure changes
- And more…
Why Should You Optimize Your 404 Page?
There are two main reasons why optimizing a 404 page is so important.
1. Retain Site Visitors:
When a 404 page is designed correctly, it can increase a visitor’s time on your site. This helps reduce the website’s bounce rate, an important quality signal for search engines. Many sites use a default 404 page template, like the one pictured below. It wouldn’t be surprising if the visitor left immediately after the page loads because there’s nothing to click on. Putting some thought into your 404 page will help retain visitors, which in turn can contribute to additional conversions, and a lower website bounce rate.
2. Boost Keyword Rankings:
A 404 page is a strategic location to add internal links – with rich anchor text – to pages throughout your website. The homepage, popular content and category pages are all great features to include on the 404 page. These keyword-rich links provide an opportunity to boost keyword rankings for target pages and ultimately drive more traffic.
How to Optimize a 404 Page
Optimizing a 404 page is a simple task that provides many benefits. Follow these six optimization tips for success:
1. Don’t Call It a 404 Page
Many sites put “404 Error” as the title of the 404 page. While it’s an accurate technical description, most users won’t know what this means. Consider using a descriptive message that visitors can relate to, such as “Sorry, we couldn’t find the page you were looking for.”
2. Add a Search Box
Adding a search box to the 404 page will help visitors find the content that they originally wanted to see. This will keep visitors on the website longer, reducing the bounce rate.
3. Feature Popular Content
Sometimes the content a visitor was looking for is no longer available. Or maybe the visitor isn’t willing to put in the effort to find it. In either scenario, featuring popular content on the 404 page can help to keep the visitor’s attention. For example, BuzzFeed’s 404 page does an excellent job with this:
4. Email Captures & Promotions
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to capture a visitor email address or show site visitors your latest promotion. While a 404 page is typically a small percentage of overall site visits, this has the potential to make a small impact on conversions and every bit counts.
5. Consistent Site Navigation
Keep consistent site navigation on the 404 page. On some sites’ 404 error pages, the traditional menu navigation is not available, making it difficult for users to find what they were looking for. For example, Best Buy has the same navigation on their 404 page as the rest of the website which is highly recommended.
The site below, which is from one of the nation’s largest coffee brands, has no navigation on their 404 page. It’s basically a dead end.
6. Strategic Internal Linking
The 404 page provides the opportunity to add links to your content, internally. Here are some suggested links for the 404 page:
- Homepage: Link back to the homepage, with strategic anchor text. For example, if you want your homepage to rank for the keyword “Best Coffee,” then use that keyword in the anchor text.
- Sitemap: Include a prominently placed link to the sitemap. This provides users with another helpful tool to find what they need in addition to the search bar.
- Keyword Links: Include links to several, high priority pages on your website using keyword-rich anchor text. For example, if you want to rank for the term “Organic Coffee,” then one idea would be to list different coffee categories on the 404 page.
Keyword TIP: The 404 page is an excellent opportunity to squeeze in anchor text links that you might not want on popular areas of the site. For example, if you want to rank for the keyword “Cheap Coffee Cups” but wouldn’t want to have the word “Cheap” plastered all over the website, the 404 page is a decent solution. Place a link for “Cheap Coffee Cups” on the 404 page and only very small percentage of visitors will ever see it, yet you’ll reap the benefits of those internal links.
Is Your Site Content-Rich?
If your site is content-rich, you can go one step further with the 404 page. Improve the indexation of past content by adding a “Featured Stories” section on the 404 page which randomly selects 8-12 articles to feature. The selection should change each time the page is loaded, thus helping less popular content get indexed. BuzzFeed uses this technique, featuring different articles each time the 404 page is loaded (see above).
Funny 404 Pages
Should your 404 page be funny? This depends on your brand and company culture. While the funny 404 examples below might not follow all of the best-practices, the use of humor on the 404 pages does tend to make me think more favorably about a site in general. Plus, having a stand-out 404 page can attract some links to your site. Funny 404 pages tend to be featured in articles throughout the web. Whether they are good quality links is another question altogether. Here are some of my favorites:
The 404 error page should not be ignored. It has the ability to improve site-wide performance with simple tweaks that are easy to implement. Is your 404 page fully optimized? Get to it!
Featured image courtesy of InstantShift.