404 Pages – retain visitors
Every now and again your visitors will mistype something, or you will change your website structure and a page that used to exist wont be there anymore. Every web server has a way of handling this, and if you do nothing your visitors will be greeted with either a server message or a generic browser message saying the page couldn’t be found. The problem here is that they have effectively left your website, and you have probably lost the opportunity to convert them from a visitor to a customer. Needless to say, this is NOT good news, so thankfully the clever people who designed how the web works came up with a way in which your website can “listen” for these errors and then serve up a possible solution.
Different types of 404 pages
So, once your server has “heard” that a visitor has failed to find a suitable page, you can give it a set of instructions on what to do. Different sites and different target audiences will each require alternative 404 pages, or possibly combinations of the following:
- A humorous message (or image like the one below) delivered within the recognisable layout of your site with all your normal website navigation in tact to allow the customer a route back in to what they were doing
- A more professional message (again possibly with an image), displayed within the normal layout of your website with full navigational options. The example below is an excellent demonstration of this:
- An automatic scan of your content, with the most likely page being served. This can be very intelligent – i.e. a person searching for “SOE Ipswich” might be served the SEO Ipswich” page. However, at times this approach can lead to very strange results such as a person searching for “SOE Ipswich” being served a page with content relating to “nothing to do with Ipswich whatsoever”. Because this solution is automated, it can be unpredicatble. However, on eCommerce sites in particular this can be a very good solution – not only does the customer stay within your site and navigation, but you have also tried to help them with their query.
- A redirect into your search function. This is a step before the above option, and instead of automatically taking the customer to what your code thinks is the most relevant page, this method will use the url string to do a search of your website and serve a list of possible matches.
What are 404 pages?
As mentioned above, your server has a list of conditions under which it will generate errors. 404 pages are triggered when no exact match is found for the url being requested. There are a large number of these error codes, each with its own specific meaning. These codes can then be viewed by the people who look after your web server to help them diagnose potential issues. 404 pages however are more useful to the website owner, as by viewing the list of files that have been requested without being found, you can fix your site, add missing images and add content which your users are most frequently trying to find. 404 pages are example of http errors, however there are other errors that can be triggered by yoru server depending on what the server is trying to do at the time the rror is generated. Our favourite is based on the HTCTP, which can trigger the error message “I’m a teapot” (error 418).
404 Pages – the use for SEO
As mentioned on all of the examples above, the aim of your custom 404 pages is to retain human visitors and allow them a way to stay within your website structure – always remember humans first! The by-product of this is that if a search engine should end up on one of these pages then it can remain within your website and crawl your other pages, something we want to encourage at every step of the way. If you are an SEO client of ours we will discuss with you the very best way to construct your 404 pages to acheive maximum SEO benefit and keep your customers clicking.