You probably read the headline and thought it was some self-help stuff about finding your way in life. Apologies. We’re talking ‘404’ website errors here, the consequences, and how to leverage them to your advantage.
If you’re not the slightest bit interested in directing people who got lost on your site then head on over to TheNumberOneClub.com instead where you can find out what it takes to become number 1 in business (which is far more fun).
Meanwhile, here’s how to help your lost audience who just hit a ‘404 Page Not Found’ error on your site.
If you enter any internal webpage address in your browser that doesn’t exist (eg. yourdomain.com/im-sorry-its-not-here) the server will return a 404 page not found error. We’ve all seen them and we all ignore them.
If that comes via a Google search for whatever reason, then the visitor will bounce immediately (because, why stay?) and your rankings suffer a tiny bit more. But it’s much worse for the visitor, your brand, and even your reputation.
You can see how many times it happens if you hook your site up to Google Analytics and Google Search Console. I highly recommend you do that if you haven’t done it already. Many people are scared by the power of Google, but for me, what’s more scary is the shortness of life.
If someone is searching for a specific page on your site but got the address slightly wrong (or they didn’t realise addresses are case-sensitive) then up pops the 404 error.
What you may not have realised is you have complete control over what is shown on that ‘page’. You can create your own 404 page, which means you now have control.
The question is what to put on it? Many put useless messages, such as “I’m sorry, the page you are looking for cannot be found”. It’s more polite, but doesn’t do anything useful.
What can you put there instead, that will a) keep the searcher on your site, and b) give them something useful to do that may help them find what they want? Isn’t that just the best way to serve your audience?
The next question is how to create your 404 page. What happens on a typical server is that it generates a page of its own. That is, your site ‘disappears’ and instead some generic and very boring page is sent back to the searcher’s browser instead.
The only control you have over it, is if you know what your server does and can create and upload a static page yourself. All very techy and boring.
However, most website frameworks (or themes on content management systems such as WordPress, Drupal or Joomla) are 404 friendly these days and usually give you a neat user interface to go design your own 404 page.
Say NO to boring 404 pages.