404 Error Best Practices: The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated: December 5, 2023

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In the digital world, a seamless user experience is a priority. When a user stumbles upon a 404 error, it’s a jarring interruption that can jeopardize a potential sale or subscription – usually leading to visitors bouncing. For e-commerce and website owners, understanding 404 error best practices and employing them is crucial.

Let’s dive into what a 404 error is and how to handle it effectively.

What is a 404 Error?

A 404 error is an HTTP status code that means the page the user is trying to access cannot be found on the server. This could be due to the page being deleted, a mistyped URL, or an outdated link.

404 Error Best Practices

Measure 404 Error Traffic

What gets measured gets improved. It’s good to not only know what pages users are receiving 404 errors on, it’s also good to know how many visitors are hitting those pages on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Tools like Google Search Console can help you identify URL’s that 404 on your website, however, it only tells part of the story. First, it doesn’t indicate to you how many users are seeing this 404 error thus it’s hard to understand the overall impact it has on your website. Second, this only shows 404 URLs that Google has discovered. Visitors coming in to your website from an email, bookmarks, printed content (direct url entry), or other non-indexed sources will not display here.

We recommend installing a tool like NotFoundBot which captures the 404 errors that visitors are seeing (not just Google’s crawlers) on your website in addition to tracking and displaying metrics as to how many visitors are seeing each 404 URL on daily, weekly, or monthly basis. This allows you to assess the overall impact that 404 errors are having on your website.

Customized 404 Page Template

Create a tailored 404 page that matches your website’s design.

  1. Clear Messaging: It should be clear to the user that they have received a 404 error. This includes displaying “404 Error” and then a human readable message that is clear and easy to understand, such as “We are sorry, but the page you are looking for can’t be found.” It never hurts to add an apology in the messaging.
  2. Lighten the Mood: There is a high probability that when a visitor hits your 404 page that they will bounce. Try to lighten the mood or peak their interest to slow or stop that instant urge to close the browser tab. This is usually done through creative imagery or content.
  3. Be Helpful: There are a number of ways that you can be helpful when a visitor hits a 404 error page on your website.
    • Provide links to high value or popular content such as your homepage, blog, products page, contact page, and your support page.
    • Provide a search bar to allow visitors to find the content they were looking for. Ensure that the search results look nice and are formatted in a way that is useful to users. Many times site search is an afterthought that leads to a bad user experience, so take time to implement it properly.
    • If you are really customer focused, such as Zappos, provide a phone number that visitors can call to get help.
    • We believe in a new paradigm of 404 visitor experience. Implement an AI powered chat solution such as NotFoundBot that helps users find their way. Leveraging AI, it will suggest content and links that the visitor is likely seeking and can answer site navigation questions should the user have questions or other desires not suggested by the AI.
NotFoundBot 404 Error Best Practices: Visitor Assist

Keep an Orderly Site Structure: Redirect 404 Errors

  • 301 Redirects: As you start measuring your 404 error traffic you will start to notice URL’s that should be permanently redirected. Perhaps the location of a page url has changed, or a product line was replaced by a new product, etc. When this happens, you will want to add a 301 redirect which instructs the server to automatically redirect visitors requesting an old URL to instead be sent to the new URL.
    There are a number of reasons to setup 301 redirects, not only from a user experience standpoint but also from an SEO perspective.
  • Smart Auto Redirects: We like to say that 404’s are a forever problem. Someone needs to periodically review and update the site structure and 301 redirects. However, there are tools using AI such as NotFoundBot that can do auto redirection of visitors even when 301 redirects are not setup.
    Let’s take an example where you have a website selling product and an influencer mentions you. However, the influencer fat fingers the product link. A tool like NotFoundBot can auto-redirect users to the proper location until which point a permanent 301 redirect can be put in place to resolve the issue properly.

Ensure Mobile Responsiveness

Ensure your 404 pages are mobile-friendly. A huge portion of visitors shop or browse on mobile devices. An estimated 60% of all ecommerce purchases are done via mobile devices and that is only expected to grow.  Test your 404 pages from a variety of devices to ensure optimal user experience for visitors.

Periodic Site Audits and Reviews

It is important that someone periodically review the current 404 error metrics for the site. This should be done to understand if any changes or improvements need made, if there are 301 redirects that need to be put into place, and to generally ensure the best possible site structure. This will pay dividends from a user experience and SEO perspective as time passes.
We recommend that for large sites that gets a lot of traffic this is completed on a frequent basis, perhaps a few times per week if not daily. For sites that get less traffic it is good to do a review on a monthly basis.

Final Thoughts on 404 Error Best Practices

Navigating the digital landscape requires a meticulous understanding of user experience, especially when unforeseen errors like the 404 emerge. These disruptions, while seemingly minor, can profoundly impact a visitor’s perception of a brand and can be the difference between retaining a potential customer and losing them. As we’ve illustrated, understanding and effectively managing 404 errors isn’t just about damage control—it’s about turning a potential setback into an opportunity for enhanced user interaction.

By adopting 404 error best practices such as tailoring 404 pages, ensuring mobile responsiveness, and conducting periodic site reviews, e-commerce and website owners can ensure that their visitors are always met with clarity, assistance, and a touch of creativity, even in the face of errors. It’s not just about preventing mistakes but transforming them into value-added experiences. Remember, every detail counts, and the way you handle 404 errors speaks volumes about your brand’s commitment to its users.

Frequently Asked Questions about 404 Error Best Practices

What is a 404 error?

A 404 error is an HTTP status code indicating that the page a user is trying to access cannot be found on the server. This error can occur due to several reasons, such as the deletion of the page, a mistyped URL, or an outdated link.

How can I track the impact of 404 errors on my website?

While Google Search Console can help you identify URLs that produce 404 errors on your website, it doesn’t provide a comprehensive view. To gain better insight into the frequency of these errors and their impact on visitors, we recommend using tools like NotFoundBot. This tool captures 404 errors seen by visitors (not just Google’s crawlers) and provides metrics on how many visitors encounter each 404 URL on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

How can I prevent visitors from experiencing 404 errors?

Regularly reviewing 404 error metrics and conducting periodic site audits can help in identifying and rectifying common 404 error issues. Implementing 301 redirects for URLs that have changed or setting up smart auto-redirects using tools like NotFoundBot can also significantly reduce the number of 404 errors experienced by visitors. Making sure your website structure is orderly and all links are up-to-date is key to reducing, but probably not eliminating 404 errors.

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