How much do you pay attention to your 404 page? Do you know what your 404 page is or how it works? You can receive this error response for various reasons but the main reason is someone or something has tried to access a page on your blog or store that doesn’t exist anymore. This also represents lost traffic for your blog or store that you can direct somewhere else, within your site. Make this page work to your advantage. Making the best use of these queries can bring the user back into your site instead of showing a dead page that will most likely cause the visitor to move on to some site that doesn’t show errors on their site.
There are many reasons a site will report a 404 file not found error, but knowing how they work, who tried to access the missing file (a search engine or person), and knowing which page or title they were trying to access is all important information to have when working with the traffic of your blog.
What is a Server Response 404 File Page Not Found
The 404 error page has been with us as long as there have been web pages, and for the most part is a request for a page that doesn’t exist on your site. This can be displayed for more reasons that just a file was not found that was once there, and is no longer. You could have re-named a url in your blog to correct a spelling error, which will make the original url incorrect. You could have deleted a file, or a search engine could be doing its own thing. Wikipedia states it like this:
The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code indicating that the client was able to communicate with the server but either the server could not find what was requested, or it was configured not to fulfill the request and not reveal the reason why.
We have all come across these pages from time to time, some have even made some humorous cases out of the 404 page, but either way, it is an error as far as the visitor goes, and you want to convert these visitors in some useful manner, not have them leave because they think your site is not working properly.
Customize The 404 Page to Increase Traffic Conversions
You can make this page useful by doing some basic customization to what is seen when the 404 error response is given.
The standard domain or blog usually has access to the 404 page just like a normal .php or .html page that is called when a specific url address is given. You can see an example on my blog when you type in any url that doesn’t exist and you can also see how other domains handle their 404 pages by doing the same thing. It can be any url that doesn’t exist, like http://www.scottfillmer.com/tHisPagEofMinE (which doesn’t exist) will show you how this one is setup.
When you customize the page make sure you say a few things.
- Explain in lay terms what page the visitor has reached and why
- Offer a way out, at least back to the main page
- Provide useful links or additional articles to the visitor to click through
- Use your standard design layout so it looks the same as the other pages
- Try to avoid the standard “ERROR” language, look, and feel
I have used my 404 page like I would any other page on my blog. I setup a static sitemap of sorts with a short explanation of the page they have reached and what the visitor can do at that point.
Monitor Your 404 Page Requests
Something I didn’t think about at first was to keep an eye on which pages are getting requested. There are several ways you can do this. If you are running a blog, the easiest way is to use a plugin. There is a very good WordPress Plugin by Alex King called the 404 Notifier that will send you an email or rss feed of your 404 page requests.
This plugin is easy to use and install and it provides you a list of exactly which page addresses are being requested. I was surprised at home many pages were being requested, but I never would have know without looking at the list being created.
If you are not working on a blog but on an ecommerce store site check with your hosting provider for exact details on how to access the 404 file page. A good way to monitor non-blog related pages is to use Google Webmaster Tools. Google Webmaster tools will give you the page in question, the date, and the actual server response. Knowing who these errors are coming from is also a very big help in correcting them as well. Being notified every single time your site reports a 404 error can be somewhat annoying when you have a lot of errors, but the information is very helpful. Look at who the error was referred by. Some most recent examples from my blog look like this:
- User Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Yahoo! Slurp; http://help.yahoo.com/help/us/ysearch/slurp)
- Referred by: http://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2&view=bsp&ver=1qygpcgurkovy
- User Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 6.0; en-US; rv:188.8.131.52) Gecko/2008070208 Firefox/3.0.1
- User Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 5.5; Windows 98; DigExt)
- User Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Googlebot/2.1; +http://www.google.com/bot.html)
- User Agent: Java/1.4.1_04
- User Agent: Google-Sitemaps/1.0
- User Agent: Gigabot/3.0 (http://www.gigablast.com/spider.html)
- User Agent: msnbot/1.1 (+http://search.msn.com/msnbot.htm)
There are several pieces of information each email will provide. A “referred by” and a “user agent”. Sometimes you will have both pieces of the information, sometimes one one or the other. Referred by above is a mail system, which mean someone (a person) probably clicked on a link in the email and was taken to a 404 error. The user agent mozilla is a browser, like Firefox. Bot’s refer to search engine robots or spiders that crawl your site to deliver traffic to your blog. Once these spiders find a 404 error they will often notate that and not index the page again.
There are many different responses you can get for errors like this. If you are unfamiliar with any of them, follow the link they give you if there is one, if not, google the user agent and find out who it is. Most likely it will be some type of indexing system for the Internet.
Correct the 404 Errors If You Can
If you are going to monitor the 404 error reports you should also do something with that information. I couldn’t believe how many error reports were being generated, but I noticed some of them should be, and could be, eliminated by changing a few page titles around. There could be a typo in your url or a page you deleted by accident could be re-uploaded. There are probably several 404 reports that you could eliminate just by correct a few actual errors you weren’t aware existed.
Check the Results in Google Analytics or Webmaster Tools
Once you have found and corrected some of these errors you can check the various stat tracking sites to see the results you have accomplished. What is great about these two particular tools is that when a page is not found and then the visitor goes to a page that is found, you can get an idea of how many visitors are utilizing your 404 file not found page.
In Google Analytics check to see where the user came from. If you know it is a page that didn’t or doesn’t exist then you know your 404 file not found page was utilized to bring the visitor back into your site. Following the example I noted above, when I check my stats for traffic on the page http://www.scottfillmer.com/tHisPagE I know this page doesn’t exist. When I see traffic to other pages that came from that particular page, I know the user clicked on a link on my 404 page.
What Does Your Company Do With the 404 Error?
There are so many different way to deal with your 404 file not found error. Some don’t know or choose not to do anything, but I think you can utilize your 404 page to work for you and bring traffic back into your store or blog. Don’t loose traffic that would otherwise stay if it wasn’t for an error on your page.
Does your company have a specific procedure for handling 404 requests? Share it with us.