Turning 404 Pages into Something Beneficial
A 404 page is something every website will have and are often overlooked or ignored. 404 pages can quickly be turned into something beneficial for your website; especially if you constantly have changing URLs. In this article, we will be covering how turning 404 pages into something beneficial will be good for your website.
We will be covering a variety of areas in this article, including:
- What is a 404
- Soft 404s
- DNS Errors
- Impacts on SEO
- Turning 404 pages into something beneficial
- Reporting and finding 404 pages
- Custom 404 pages
404s are very common and everyone will come across them at some point when browsing on the web. When users come across these pages, they can react in different ways. They can react with anger as they weren’t able to go where they wanted to or they can react calmly and move onto another page to find what they are looking for.
Getting a 404 error isn’t the end of the world, but unless if they are used correctly and resolved where needed; they can be a quick way to lose potential business. Utilising them can be a great digital marketing tactic when done right.
What is a 404
A 404-error code is given to users by the web server when they try and access a page that has been moved (without a redirect being put in place) or removed. This will also include pages that never existed in the first place. Misspellings are a common reason behind people reaching a 404 page. These should try to be limited as much as possible. When pages are removed or moved elsewhere, redirects need to be put in place to redirect potential business to a different page.
If a user managed to land on a page that had recently been removed or moved; they will be stuck on a 404 page which can be off-putting. This can cause them to bounce of your site and head elsewhere. Potential business can be easily and quickly lost through leaving 404s to stick around. Redirects will stop this from happening as it will direct the user to somewhere of similar relevance.
Pages that don’t exist can return different error codes. This includes 404 (not found), 410 (gone) and soft 404s. 404 pages cannot be fixed through just adding a redirect that leads users elsewhere on the site. Redirects need to be set up so that they lead visitors to another page of similar relevance. Leading people to pages that aren’t relevant or that do not have any similarity are what can cause a soft 404. This can be confusing and should be avoided where possible. Soft 404s are detected and reported inside Google Search Console so they can be easily found and corrected.
DNS errors are completely different to receiving a 404. A 404 page will appear when the site has been reached, but the page cannot be found whereas a DNS error is where the domain has not been registered or the DNS has been configured incorrectly. The error will look like what is shown in the image below.
Getting a DNS error is where there is no web server able to provide a response and this can be through a misspelling of the domain or through there being an issue with the DNS temporarily. It is important to get this checked if your website causes this page to appear.
Impacts on SEO
404 pages are bound to happen so no matter what, you will run into 404 error pages over time. Pages might need to be removed or if you are completely changing the websites URLs; 404s will be created. Having 404s on your website is not an issue. If the content has been removed or deleted, the 404 can be left alone unless you wish to direct people elsewhere.
If there are links that lead to the page you are removing from other websites, you might want to consider setting up redirects. This is to ensure that any traffic that comes from those website is redirected elsewhere. This makes it more likely for the visitors to stay on your website whereas landing on a 404 page would make them bounce.
Setting up a redirection can be a quick way to solve 404 pages as they direct visitors that land on those pages elsewhere on the site so that they can find what they are after. These are exceptionally helpful when a page is being moved from one place to another after it has been indexed by Google. Once a site goes live and Google crawls it, the pages it finds will be indexed. Therefore, it will then be looking for these pages when it next crawls the site. If it cannot find those pages, it will cause a 404. Redirects however will allow the crawler to find where you are trying to direct people to and won’t pull up an error (unless if it feels like it isn’t a good redirect and will pull up a soft 404 error).
Turning 404 pages into something beneficial
A 404 page should look like it is a part of your website. This ensures that visitors know that they are still on the same site and don’t believe they have managed to go elsewhere. Businesses have been using custom 404 pages for many years as they come with a range of benefits. From making the user laugh and feel joyful to providing a good user experience; there are many ways in which a custom 404 page can aid your website.
A 404 page cannot be left blank. This will lead to visitors to be confused and leave the website. Instead, the 404 page will need to have an explanation as to why they have reached the page. Something along the lines of ‘the page no longer exists’ is one way to give the user an understanding of why they reached that page. It might be annoying for them as they are no longer able to view the page they wanted to, but at least they will know why.
Links and Search
Links are as useful on 404 pages as they are in the general text content on every page of the site. They give visitors a direction and gives them an obvious way to reach other areas that might be of interest. These can be article posts or general pages on the site. The links will aid in providing means for the visitor to stay on your site instead of bouncing off the site as soon as they reach that page.
Search is key for eCommerce, but can be essentially helpful for articles and blogs. When the user accesses the site, they are most likely going to know what they are looking for. This means that if they hit a 404 page, they will want a means to continue their search. A search bar can be used to accomplish this. Visitors will then be able to continue their journey through the site.
A user will want to know that they are on the same site all the way through, even on an error page. This is done through branding. The colour scheme and general company branding (e.g. logo) will need to be present on that error page. A visitor will be more likely to stay on the page if they are assured it is the same company and if the other tips are followed.
An effective way to spot 404 pages that are commonly found is through using a reporting feature. This means that users that come across the 404 page can report it and then continue their journey through the site. Through using this method, you will be able to identify what pages need to be immediately targeted. You can even use this method to identify where redirections are needed.
Reporting and finding 404 pages
Depending on what CMS your website is built on, it might have modules that allow you to do it through them. If not, Google Analytics is a platform that enables you to find and report 404 errors. Google Search Console is another method of finding errors as it will list all 404s it comes across. This includes soft 404s as well so you can get a full list of URLs that currently respond with a 404 page.
When reporting a 404 page in Google Analytics, all you will need is the page title of your 404 page (often ‘Page Not Found’). This will enable Google Analytics to be able to find all the 404 pages that are appearing on your website. To set this up, you need to reach the custom report section. This can be found here: Customisation >> Custom Reports >> + New Custom Report.
An empty report will then be displayed which will require some editing before it can be used to locate 404s. There are different fields as shown in the image below. Those fields are as follows:
The title is going to be the name of the report. This can be something such as 404 pages or something else that you will recognise.
A name is what details the tab that is open which will only be one for this report. This does not have much importance, but would be good if it was given a name that you would understand.
The type will need to be left as ‘Explorer’.
Metric groups are what will determine the statistics you will get back from this report. You can give this group a name which in the example we have called ‘Site Usage’. Bounce rates will show you how many people are immediately bouncing off the 404 page; determining how effective it is if a custom 404 page is being used. Unique page views will allow you to see how many people are landing on the page.
The dimension drilldowns give you the chance to track where visits came from if they were from an external source. You can then identify where these visitors are coming from and set up a redirect if necessary.
Filters are what you would expect. They allow you to filter out or focus on certain areas. In this case, we have set the report up to include a specific page title. It will then record data on any page it can find that has that exact title. Your title will need to be specified here for the report to know what to look for.
Lastly, views has two options. By default, it selects the second option which is specifically targeting the domain you would have inputted already (shown in the top left of Google Analytics). The first option will allow you to select all the domains that are under your account. The first option should be used if you are unsure or only have one domain under your account.
Once the report has been made, you will then be able to revisit the custom report area and view your report. This will then display the information you have told it to collect. In addition, if you wanted more information than just the bounce rate or unique page views, you will need to set these up in the report to get those statistics added.
Custom 404 pages
Most businesses will have similar 404 pages. They follow the points mentioned earlier and have a generic look to them. However, there are some businesses that excel with unique 404 pages. These are commonly big companies as seen with Lego, Blizzard, Bungie and so many others.
From a unique design flare to something that represents their company or products; these are used to make the user smile and stay on the site while also trying to push visitors elsewhere. Often enough, if there is a common theme or something a business is known for, they will use it on their 404 page. Blizzard is one great example as they use the term ‘Grats’ on their 404 page. This term is quite commonly seen in their games. Along with some extra design flare such as having cracks in the screen and a broken navigation bar; it is a great example as to what makes a great custom 404 page.
Bungie, the makers of Destiny and most recently Destiny 2, have been clever with their 404 page. Throughout the lifetime of their game Destiny, a character became well known and a common joke in the community. This was the sweeper bot. The sweeper bot would stand in an area, sweeping the same areas repeatedly with some amusing voice lines. This went that far that Bungie put the sweeper bot on their 404 page.
Bungie's 404 Page.
If you have a 404 page, consider making it into something more. It can be a great marketing asset and capture possible business. Also, we would highly suggest using the tools we mentioned in this article to find and if need be redirect 404s to maximise on incoming traffic.