Picture this: you want to go shopping so you look for a store in the yellow pages and find the address. Once you get to where the store is supposed to be located you discover it’s not there anymore. When that happens on the Internet it’s called a 404. Considering all the time and effort that you’ve put into finding this store, I imagine you’d be pretty upset. I most certainly would. Would you try to find out where the store had moved to? Probably not.
That’s exactly what happens when a page on your Website comes up as a 404. The potential customer who clicked the inbound link will simply go to another site with a little click of the mouse.
What Causes a 404?
For those of you who don’t know what a 404 is, it’s an error that’s displayed when a user requests a Web page that’s no longer available on the server. This often happens when sites change layout and or page information — but 404s are by no means unavoidable! In fact, I think it’s a safe bet to say that this would never happen if Webmasters and site owners always double-checked their work. Unfortunately, however, too many sites seem to slip through the net.
Then, a potential customer performs a keyword search for something that has to do with that business, and the results list includes a page from the site that’s recently been taken down — the page no longer exists. But, as the search engine hasn’t sent another spider to the site since the page was removed, it thinks the page is still available, and serves the link in the search results.
Guess what happens when the user clicks on the link? They’re taken to a 404 page. Online, this is like saying "Hey thanks for trying but we don’t want you here." Accordingly, the user will usually just go back to the search engine and click on the listing of one of your competitors. And just like that you’ve lost a potential customer.
A True Story
404 errors caused a real problem for a client of mine who run an online stock site that provides users with insights and tips into the world of trading.
They were very new to the whole search engine optimization arena and wanted to get more traffic to their site. After doing some research at a few search engines I was amazed at what I found: they had some good rankings but the pages that were listed were no longer available on their site. There were 404s everywhere.
Once I realized what was happening I could help solve the problem. The client had no idea that each time people were clicking on their search engine listing they were getting the "404 page not found" error message. They now understood that these people wanted to visit the site, but because of the company’s lack of attention to detail, these potential clients would simply go to a competitor’s site with the click of the mouse. I could only guess how many visitors were lost due to these missing pages.
Avoid the 404!
So what was the solution for my client? It was simple:
1. Redirect on-site
I showed them how, instead of ever taking a page down, they should redirect the page to a main page of their site (or a page that displays a message saying "Sorry but this page is no longer updated. Please visit our homepage or contact us for more information").
2. Redirect from the host
Another option is to check with your hosting company to see if they offer a 404 redirect. Then, when a user enters the URL of any page off your domain (i.e.-www.yourcompany.com/nopage) that doesn’t exist, they are automatically taken to a specified page, such as your index or home page. It’s the easiest way to ensure that a potential customer is never lost due to a page not being found.
3. Submit new pages to the search engines
Another good idea is to resubmit new pages to search engines for reindexing. Although it’s nice to inform visitors that a page they’re looking for no longer exists, it’s even better to have the new page with all the information the visitor wants appear when they perform a search.
4. Keep an eye on your page listings
Do yourself a favour and check regularly to make sure your site listings aren’t taking potential clients to 404 pages. Go to a search engine like www.altavista.com and type www.yoursiteURL.com in the search bar.
If the search results index a page that no longer appears on your server:
- go to the search engine’s submissions page and submit the new URL for the page that covers the information of the old page, and
- make note of the name of the page that’s no longer available, and then rename one of your existing pages with this old title.
This way you can ensure that people who search for information on your site will be taken to the correct page until the new page is indexed — and ensure you don’t lose potential sales because of missing pages.
5. Get organised with updates
Keep notes: maintaining a Website is a big job, so don’t rely solely on your memory. Keep a notebook or digital log full of your site changes to help refresh your memory and ensure you follow up changes with the search engines.
Throw Open Your Virtual Doors!
In the 3 months after we corrected the 404s on the client site, we saw a dramatic rise in unique visitors. Although the company implemented other Web marketing tactics, I’m positive that correcting the 404s had a lot to do with the traffic increase. The moral of the story: don’t close a door to your site: you never know who might come knocking.