Running into 404 pages is not a rare thing if you are a frequent web user. In fact, in one year alone, you can run into more than three “404 error – page not found” messages.
Webmasters know that this is normal, hence why they create such pages to let you know what the issue might be. But, do 404s hurt SEO? Do they have an impact in the overall user experience and rankings?
In this article, we answer these popular questions and provide you with 5 best ways to optimize 404 pages for SEO.
What are 404s?
Status code 404 or simply 404s are one of the most common HTTP errors or a response code that web users come across when browsing the web. For instance, as a webmaster, you want your site to return a 404 error message when a user requests a URL that does not exist or is invalid, instead of a blank 200 page, which can create duplicate content issues.
404 errors are also caused by broken links, and it is your job to fix these as a webmaster.
Usually, people don’t take 404s into consideration. Instead, they get frustrated and respond by either going back to the previous page, search results or by simply closing the browser tab.
For site owners, a lot is at stake when a user exits your site because they might not come back.
A recent study by commercial platform, Gomez, shows that 88% of web users are highly unlikely to come back to a site after a bad experience. With that being said, you lose potential customers.
Are 404s Bad for SEO?
404s have an impact on rankings, although not for the entire site. If a page returns a 404, it means the URL is invalid or broken. Therefore, it cannot be indexed by Google or any other search engine.
More so, 404 errors are completely normal and search engines are forgiving of them because if a page does not exist, it simply doesn’t exist. Also, 404s can happen when a user types in a faulty address, which is out of the webmaster’s control.
However, what does impact your site overall is having plenty of broken links. This is why it is important as a webmaster to monitor the number of errors and broken links your site generates using tools, such as Screaming Frog and Google Search Console.
Do 404 Errors Have an Impact on User Experience?
404s form part of user experience and bad UX can lead to an increase in your site’s bounce rate, which can result in a drop in rankings.
Research shows that new web users spend less than 15 seconds browsing new pages before they decide if a page contains the content they are looking for. That makes it 15 seconds to impress your new user, and the generic “404 Error, Page Not Found” will not help keep them.
However, you can avoid this by changing the content on your 404 pages by adding some humor to it as well as making it interactive.
5 Ways to Use 404 Pages to Boost SEO
Customizing your 404 pages can help prevent users from leaving your site. What’s more, optimized 404 pages can strengthen your SEO.
Below are 5 easy ways to optimize 404 pages for SEO.
1. Add Hyperlinks or Call to Action
Adding links to your 404 pages is a clever way to get more of your site’s pages indexed. You can link back to your homepage, sitemap, blog or popular products.
404 redirects to the homepage
For webmasters, redirecting back to the homepage is ideal for sites that have hundreds or more redirects as it will save you time to redirect each individual error.
For the user, you are giving them the simplest route to start their search again.
Linking to your sitemap
Your sitemap has links to your entire website. Therefore, redirecting users to this page is more like providing them with a map or compass to help them find what they might be looking for.
The sitemap will help them navigate through your site without leaving
Alternatively, instead of linking to your sitemap, you can include half the links from it (obviously important pages or products) on the 404 page.
Redirecting to your blog
Although blogs might not directly influence your users into taking any action, they are useful in creating awareness. You can link to your blog if you feel it has attention-grabbing content that your web visitors will find interesting to learn.
Linking to your hottest products
Suggesting products that your users may be interested in is a good form of marketing. If you are an e-commerce site, you can feature your best portfolio items to entice interest in the user and probably create a buyer.
2. Get Creative
Since 404s are a standard HTML page, it doesn’t matter how you style them. Adding some creativity to capture the user’s attention is a good way to go.
Visual graphics together with some creative content play an important role in attracting customers. In fact, research shows that 96% of potential customers watch visuals before making a decision.
3. Add Search Bar
Research shows that 40% of customers find the search bar to be a powerful tool. Having the feature on your 404 page will work more like compensation for an error that your site visitors come across.
4. Feature Popular Landing Pages
Create consideration for your web users by directing them to pages that are interesting and worthwhile. Running into a 404 message is not intentional, so by offering suggestions to viable pages you are diverting their consideration to some of your most sought-after products.
Research from McKinsey and Firm shows that 35% of Amazon and 75% of Netflix revenues come from suggestions.
5. Use Conversational Language
You want your users to feel less frustrated after not finding what they were looking for, so to do that add some humour or comfort.
The purpose of conversational marketing is to make your web users feel like you are directly speaking to them.
There are many ways in which you can optimize your 404 pages to make users stay on your site. It’s entirely up to you on how you do it. It could be in a form of text, images, GIFs or videos.
Some ideas that we did not mention include; placing business information, such as a contact us form, email opt-in page, or price list.
When optimizing your 404 pages, always keep the purpose of your site in mind and customize accordingly.