What is a 404 Error?
A 404 Error is a page that is served up on a website when a visitor lands on a page that doesn’t exist. This either happens when they type in the wrong address, or the page they were looking for was deleted by the website owners. Perhaps it was temporary page – like an offer, or an article. Maybe it was a link to an image that was erased after it lost its charm. Regardless of the reason, the 404 is there to alert the visitor that while your website is still up and running, the page they are searching for is not.
The Problems with 404 Pages
The main problem is that most visitors don’t have an idea as to what a 404 error is. They look at the error as a sign of a definitive dead end. Maybe your company is no longer in business? The website was shut down? Most of the visitors presented with a 404 tend to click the back button and head on over to a different website. Sadly, since they found your page while they searched for a service, they’ll probably visit your competitors.
What can you do about it?
As stated above, most of the 404 pages that are being served up are caused by user error and not website errors (for the most part). They either came from an incorrect link, or came from a direct URL that was miss-typed by the visitor. So really, you can’t avoid the 404 pages. You can, however, avoid leaving a sour taste in the visitor’s mouth. Designers are starting to use comedy and wit to lighten the mood and increase the reach of their brand when a visitor reaches the dreaded 404. If done correctly, a visitor will get a small giggle and give the website a second chance. But, what if instead of using comedy, you used a selling technique? What if your error page actually made you some money?
Closing a sell with a dead end page
The first thing you need to understand is that the people who found your 404 are there in search of a service or product. You need to make sure that your 404 offers that product. Unfortunately, you can’t focus on all products. So your job is to make the page fit for as many products or services as possible. Maybe add a discount code or add a link to individual pages like your site map. Or better yet, do some research and target specific people.
Recently, a client hired us to re-design their company website. We went through their website and found 47 dead links – 404 pages. After visiting a 404 page, we were served up a “Page not found” … that was it. Most of these 404’s belonged to files that were moved to a different location or deleted.
To see what was going on a little further, we installed a page analytics tool and tracked where the visitors were going to. We found that 85% of the visitors were searching for a “Surveillance Special” page that no longer existed. Rather than contacting website owners to remove the link going back to our client’s page, we decided to add a twist to the page and offered the visitors the chance to still get a discount.
At first, our client was hesitant about our offer – a $40.4 discount on a surveillance assignment seemed like too much. That’s almost one hour of surveillance for free… and for what? a play on words for a 404 page? But the fact of the matter is that these visitors came to the site, found a missing page, turned around and left. Most visitors only stayed for 10 seconds or less before leaving the website entirely. Our client wasn’t losing $40.4, they were losing the entire sale.
The discount was there to get our client a last ditch effort sale. Sure, they were giving away one hour of surveillance, but in return they were getting an eight hour case. Your 404 page should offer the same – or similar – services to your users.
Your website needs to sell!
When you’re designing your company website, you need to make sure that not a single part of your page is dead, or has dead links. Always give your visitors a link for them to visit next. Include call to actions, offers, specials, and links to other services that they may be interested in. – Oh, they’re clicking away from the page? Give them an offer they can’t refuse.
Your 404 pages are not that much different than your homepage or a sales page – after all, a 404 is a homepage of its own to a lost visitor. Give them a reason to click on your links and help them find the way back to what they’re looking for. A good 404 page can make a visitor smile as he’s going out the door. A great 404 page can get the visitor to turn around and explore your site some more.