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November 16, 2007

Using 404 Errors (Page Not Found) To Your Advantage

What’s the easiest way to get rid of a bad house guest? Why, show them the door of course! What’s the quickest way to get visitors to leave your website? Show them a stark, blank “Page Not Found” 404 error page.

When visitors click on a link on your site that tries to call a non-existent page, the server your website is hosted on automatically generates the 404 Error. The web site visitor sees a page with no links to any other pages on your site. The only option available to them at this point is to click their browser’s Back button. Unfortunately, a majority of your web site visitors will just leave.

It’s even worse when the link from someone else’s site leads visitors to your 404 page. In this case visitors will have to use the Back button or type a new web address in and away they go – from your site, your products, your services and your profits.

Because you do have complete control over your internal links (links on your site to other pages on your site), you must be vigilant in your testing and monitoring to ensure the links work properly.

External links, or links from someone else’s site to yours, are much more difficult, if not impossible, to control and correct if there are errors. You should definitely try though, by contacting the site owner or webmaster with the correct link address and anchor text for the external link.

While it may sound a bit bleak at this point in our conversation, you can use a 404 error page to your advantage.

I do like to let my visitors know that the page they’re looking for can’t be found and a very brief description of how it could have happened. No need for too much detail there, because you want them to read the rest of the page. This page can be your sitemap or a one-time product offer as a way to keep them on your site even though they’ve not gotten to their intended destination.

Your 404 page should be consistent in layout and design with the rest of your site and include your logo and contact email and phone number. Make sure especially that the navigation on this page is consistent with the rest of your site, and triple check those links to be absolutely sure they work. You most likely won’t get another chance if the visitor clicks a link and sees this same page again.

Putting a link to your sitemap from this page will encourage your visitors to explore a little more. Once they get to the sitemap, they’ll be able to find all the information and products or services they’re looking for very easily. Don’t forget to add products you’d like to showcase on this page too, so that you can give your visitors an idea of the quality of your goods, with links to more products like it.

If you use this page to put a copy of your sitemap, you must remember to update it just as you do your HTML or XML sitemap.

In a perfect world, you don’t want visitors to find your 404 Error page. I can say without a doubt it can happen to all web sites at some point, so use your creativity to turn it to your advantage.

Author:  Cindy Dykstra is a web designer and developer and edits, a quality article directory providing free content to use on your web site, blog, ezine or newsletter. Free article submission and RSS feeds too!