The dreaded 3-digit number can mean more in analytics reporting than someone not seeing a missing page in a website. The appearance of a 404 error in a browser screen frequently can be a pain in the neck. But its impact can diminish the effort in maintaining a coherent digital experience, costing visitors and conversions (purchases, downloads, etc.)
Why 404 Errors can hamper a digital marketing campaign
The number of 404 errors can influence bounce rates. Bounce rates are the number of times a visitor arrived at one page and left immediately. The metric reflects that people who landed on a page left without viewing other pages. While there can be many reasons for a high bounce rate, a singular visit to a 404 page can not help.
Errors are a technical reality of a digital presence – no page, no information – but too many unmanaged 404 errors can negatively impact the visitor experience on a site. Regularly occurring 404 errors indicate that site visitors are consistently being mislead because the page is not really available. Thus reducing 404 errors becomes an important part of a establishing a digital presence.
What to do: Making 404s a Number 1 Priority
404 errors are best addressed with an experienced developer who is comfortable with basic code language, and good ol’ fashion follow–up skills.
But if such experience is not immediately available, there are a few ways to manage 404 errors so that bounce rates are reduced and visitors are kept with a website experience. Consider the following tips:
- The most common solution to eliminating 404 errors is by using 301 redirects for pages permanently removed and 302 redirects for pages temporarily unavailable. 301s are implemented by adding an update in the htaccess file. The htaccess indicates to search engine queries the intended pages of a site, so an update can also help eliminate potential query errors. Use a text editor to add the redirect (see this Zimana post to learn about a few types of text editors available). The redirects are typically added in the format below:
Redirect /originaldirectory/originalfile.html http://website.com/updateddirectory/updatedfile.html
- Create unique 404 pages that appear when a page is missing. Even a humorous 404 redirect page can re-engage visitors and reduce exits from the site. The .htaccess file can be modified to indicate a 404 message and to indicate the custom 404 page. Add the following syntax in the file:
ErrorDocument 404 /errorpage.html
where “errorpage” is the name of the custom 404 page (Feel free to name this page anything you want, as long as you follow standard HTML protocol)
- Create an Google Analytics custom report to track when visitors arrive to 404 pages. Set a filter to highlight the 404 URL; this may mean parsing the “404” in the URL or setting the filter to reflect the custom 404 page. This report can help track the frequency in which 404s are occurring, and direct resources for monitoring the site function.
- To better understand a site missing page response, become familiar with other 400 codes. For example, Search Engine Journal reported a Matt Cutts explanation of the difference between a 404 and 410.
If you want to be the first to know when a 404 occurs, consider creating a Google Analytics alert. The GA alert can indicate when 404s are occurring at an increasing rate or above a certain threshold.
To create an alert, follow these steps:
- Log into a Google Analytics account and click on the Admin section at the top of a profile.
- Once on the admin page, navigate to the Goals menu. At the menu, select the destination goal and insert the 404 page URL as the destination page.
- Next, navigate to the Custom Alerts section and create the alert, based on the 404 goal. You can set alert to send via email, including the emails of any team who is also managing a website. Set the increases by a percentage or a set value, using previous day.
- If you are unsure of what volume of 404 errors to trigger an alert, start with a 10% increase. You can later adjust the volume to a number of your choosing. The key is selecting a general indicator of how frequently 404 errors appear (and to keep development teams alert in eliminating out of date pages within the site).
An variation to the Google Analytics report is to set a custom report that highlights landing pages and sources – doing so can reveal if certain referral sources are consistently viewing a 404 page.
Even with all these ideas in place, your bounce rate may not reach 0% or a reasonable rate (Many blogs naturally have a high percentage), but the rate will move closer to that direction with 404 alerts. The end result is retaining engaged visitors on the site.