|Finding Lost Souls Customized 404 Error Pages Is Good Marketing|
|Thursday, 08 April 2010 14:24|
by Christine Churchill
Imagine the following scenario: you have just spent an arm and a leg on a new and vastly improved web site. It’s launch day. Everyone’s nervous and your boss is breathing down your neck, saying “This site had better earn its keep!” You’re confident it’s a winner. Professional copywriters have inked out content fit for an award; your design is striking, yet user friendly. You’ve checked your links, validated your code, and tested the site from every angle. You’re ready to go live. Or are you????
There’s one item on the pre-launch checklist that is routinely done wrong that can seriously hurt business. I’m talking about the Error page for the web site.
Fast way to scare a customer to a competitor
In the rush to get the new site launched, many sites fail to take the time to create a user-friendly customized error page. Potential customers who mistype a file name or click on a link to a page no longer on the web site are served up one of the scariest pages on the Web, the cold, generic, dreaded default “Page Not Found 404 Error” message! No friendly language, no helpful guidance, just personality-less geek speak to drive the visitor straight to the competition.
We’ve all seen the page; it looks something like this:
Falling through the crack and taking revenue with it
Sadly, the scenario I described happens every day. Custom error pages are trivialized and brushed off as someone else’s responsibility. Considered a “techie problem” by many marketing departments and “unimportant” by most IT departments, this page often falls through the cracks. If the only the CFO realized how much potential income was lost by this experience, it’s likely the lowly custom 404 page would receive a whole lot more attention.
What are error pages?
If you mistype a file name, the server serves up what is called a “404 response.” Since most visitors have no idea what a “404 error” is, the average user interprets this page as a definitive dead end. “No longer in business?” “Bought out by the big guys?” “Mismanaged IT department?” Most people’s immediate reaction is to assume the site is broken and hit the back button to go to another site – usually your competitor’s. A visitor having a generic 404 experience on your site is a lost revenue opportunity. At the very best a bad 404 experience annoys the visitor, at the worst it makes a visitor never come back to your site.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade…or Key Lime Pie!
A good custom error page takes the bad experience and turns it into a good one. It helps your customer know it’s not their fault they got lost. It takes them to a useful navigation site where they can quickly find what they need. It’s helpful. Comforting. It’s smart marketing.
Think about your experience when you get lost in a multi-storied department store. When you can’t make your way to the Home Goods Department, let alone find a clerk that can help you out, how do you feel? When you’re lost, frustrated, losing time, how do you feel about the store/its manager/its merchandise? A nasty generic 404 page gives the same experience.
Now imagine you’re lost in Home Goods, searching for Beach Gear. Before you have a chance to look for the nearest escalator and store map, a cheery clerk comes up to you and says, “You look lost. Can I help you?” Relief floods in. You bound down the staircase straight to Vacation Island, pick out a bright pink pail and blue shovel and sail off, happy ev…. Ok, you got the point. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of the custom error page.
Error page checklist
This list of essential elements for your custom error page will dramatically change your visitor’s experience. Simple, effective, and thoughtful, these guidelines will impart a sense of stability, professionalism, and customer service that can reverse the negatives of broken or dead links.
Redirecting to the home page is not the best solution
Many companies set up their server to redirect to the home page when a visitor mistypes in a file name. Depending on the home page this may be adequate, and short of that, it’s still usually not the best solution for the visitor.
Put yourself in the user’s position: you typed in a file name or clicked on a link expecting to see a specific page. Suddenly, you’re whisked off to the home page. That can confuse you and make you wonder what happened. Are your other searches going to be misdirected? Is this bait and switch? Don’t give the visitor any reason to feel uncomfortable while on your site. They’ll associate that experience with your service or product, unconsciously and unnecessarily.
Redirecting the user to the home page doesn’t acknowledge there is an error, which if done effectively gives confidence to the visitor that your company can handle things when they don’t run like clockwork. Finally, most home pages are too broad to be helpful to the user to get them back on track. The home page redirect solution is considered the lazy webmaster’s solution – it’s better than the scary message page, but not customer oriented.
There are some internal problems with HOME page redirects as well.
Most servers will process a HOME page redirect and without capturing the information that an error has occurred. Since the page serves up a 200 response (Page Found – Page Okay Response), the IT department assumes everything is running fine. There may be glaring errors on the site that are covered up because no error logging is occurring.
Serving up the home page as your 404 page could also potentially run afoul of the search engine’s duplicate content detectors. Check out my friend Ian McAnerian’s blog discussion on this at http://www.mcanerin.com/articles/301-redirect-404-error.htm.
Good custom error pages = happy customers
The web is getting more competitive as more companies enter the online marketplace. You need every edge you can get. In the rush to launch the coolest web site, don’t forget basic marketing good practices. A little thing, like how you help lost customers, is fundamental to good customer relationship building. It’s the little things they remember, like chocolate mints on the bed pillow, that sweeten the user experience.
Now that you’re inspired and convinced you need to create custom 404 pages, here are a few resources to help you on your way:
404 Error Page Resources
http://www.404lab.com/404/ - The folks from plinko.net have put together a great site dedicated to 404 pages. The site includes a list of helpful technical references and a fun area called “Area 404″ that provides links to creative 404 pages.
http://httpd.apache.org/docs/1.3/custom-error.html – Information on setting up a custom error response on Apache.
http://www.cre8pc.com/blog/2004/11/user-friendly-error-and-feedback-pages.html - Usability guru Kim Krause Berg discusses usability and good business reasons to create a custom 404 page. As always, Kim is spot on with good common sense advice.
Here’s a reference resident-genius Randy and moderator from High Rankings Forum pointed out in this thread on Custom 404 pages. (http://www.highrankings.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=17293&hl=custom%20404&st=15)
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