404. Three little numbers that can have a big effect. They refer, of course, to the error message that is displayed when a server can’t find a particular resource and are probably the only http status code that every seasoned internet user is familiar with.
But a 404 page is not only a dead-end for online shoppers, it's a leading cause of bounce and untimely exit from a site. It can be caused by an endless amount of things: poor internal linking, dead links on the internet, expired or sold-out products, you name it!
So, as an undesirable and banal functionality - why has it risen to internet stardom?
Because, depending on where you land, they are three numbers that can bring unexpected joy - with many companies choosing to negate the frustration of an internet dead-end by adopting a more humorous or useful approach. In fact, some 404 pages have become a destination in their own right.
But first, a little bit about how to avoid them in the first place…
Your first step should be to enable 404 error alerts - an automatic report that appears in your analytics and allows your web-team to track and fix errors as and when they occur. Remember, one entry to a 404 page can be just bad luck - a mistyped adress or unexpected error. Two could be a coincidence. But three or more suggests an ongoing problem. If the problem is external however, it may not be within your ability to fix. If this is the case, a quick solution is to offer a permanent redirect (also known as a 301) to a page of your preference.
The challenge with this is it can require a lot of manual work. In ecommerce, for example there can be a high amount of flux when it comes to live pages on a site, with product pages particularly prone to change due to availability or season. To mitigate this issue consider keeping the pages of expired products live but remove them from the site’s navigation. This allows customers landing on the page from another source to still view an expired or sold-out product, but prevents them from landing there from within your own site. This approach can also give a small boost to your SEO, especially if some of your products are or have become iconic for your store.
With some of the possible ways to avoid 404’s covered, let’s look at the methods you can employ to make sure your internet dead-space does more good than harm…
I’ve split them into practical elements and fun approaches but don’t get me wrong, these can be combined for the optimal 404 example!
Ok, so you don’t have the exact page they are looking for but that isn’t to say there is nothing on your site that could be of interest. To get them back on track you may want to consider the following:
Use the space to provide them with a map of your site - where other, more relevant content can be found. By doing this you are giving an overview of everything you have to see and sell and essentially laying your offering bare, giving them the most holistic view so that they may decide which turn to take.
ModCloth highlight key categories from its navigation as a way of letting their customers continue their journey.
A search functionality can be used as an alternative to showing your navigation or can be complementary. It works for for two reasons - firstly, if the initial error message was due to a simple mistype or broken link then a search box will give them a second chance to find the exact item they were looking for. Secondly, it allows them to choose to widen their search for similar items if you don’t stock what the specific piece they were looking for. For example, someone looking for a dress they saw in a magazine that has sold out could search for something similar by typing “red dress”.
OtterBox give their customers a chance to continue searching for the item they were looking for but humorously mitigate disappointment by telling them to do so only if they are "feeling optimistic."
Recommendations are a great way to use your 404 space as a potential conversion booster - if people came to your site looking to buy (and if they were looking for a specific product then we must go under the assumption that they did), then why would you show them anything that working towards this end?
Purificacion Garcia offer two best-seller options on their 404 page,
one for women and one for men.
- Cross-selling: This looks specifically at what the user was trying to view and then recommends similar items, allowing you to immediately leverage their initial intent. For example, if someone comes to your store looking for a drill but that particular model is sold out, you would show the most similar products.
- Landing page recommendations: These work when people are coming to your site from an external source. They do so by capturing the data from all visitors to the broken page and making recommendations based on what they went on to view and or buy.
- Browsing history recommendations: These work for customers who have some browsing history on the site, recommending items that are relevant to those which they have previously interacted with.
- Most popular items: If none of the above are possible, then consider showing your most popular products or categories is a good alternative. Not only are these the items that have proven themselves most likely to convert, but if edited dynamically they will also capitalize on current seasons and trends.
Allow people to report issues
If there is something wrong with your site, which by the very nature of an error message there inevitably is, you should want to know about it. A simple form to allow people to report the issue should suffice. This not only helps improve the health of your site in general but goes some way to negate people’s frustration, as they feel like something is being done about the issue. Complaining, it turns out, is half of the solution!
Soocial use a humourous partially pre-filled form (and a questionable photo of Sean Connery) to allow people to report the problem while being entertained.
Suggesting products on your 404 page is one approach to take, but what about the other areas of your site you may want to show off? If you have blogs or social media pages that you are keen to give airtime then this is a good place to do it! This provides added value to the customer while encouraging them to continue their journey within your site.
At Nosto, we use our 404 page to suggest articles from the Nosto blog.
A particular promotion
Across the year there are bound to be some items or lines that you are more keen to push than others. Maybe you’re even paying for display advertising to do so. In which case, why wouldn’t you use the empty space on your own website?! During hectic sale days such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday (with items regularly going out of stock and the chance of 404 pages increasing) this is a particularly useful approach - setting lost shoppers back on the path to the checkout!
One of the most simple but effective approaches is adding a layer of humor to an otherwise static page. This requires little effort after the initial set-up but goes a long way to disrupting the negative connotations of a 404. Many brands choose to incorporate their logo or mascot to keep it on brand. This is effective as it distracts from an undesirable situation while showing some of your company’s personality.
Lego show that a picture can be worth a 1,000 words. And one lego man can eliminate the need for technical jargon. It’s cute, it’s funny and it is, of course, very on brand.
Make it interactive
For a little more effort you can craft something that is not only fun but interactive. The benefit? By encouraging people to actively engage with your error message, you are discouraging them from interacting with the exit button instead! As well as boosting the the time they spend on your site, enjoying positive experiences associated with your brand.
BlueFountainMedia, while not giving you what you are looking for, will give you an excuse not to waste 10 minutes instead. And, at the end of the day, who doesn’t want this?!
Angry that you couldn’t find the page you wanted? Well, good news - with EmailCenter you get to choose who to take it out on (my vote is for Martin). This is a humorous approach that goes some way to relieve some of the internet surf-rage.
We all know that video is one of the most engaging content forms on the internet, so why wouldn’t you consider using it for your 404 page? The example below shows a viral video (which, if you haven’t seen already, is HILARIOUS) but the options are endless- if you have a particularly sexy product video, this a a great place to let it shine, or consider a behind-the-scenes brand video to win customer loyalty.
Bluegg use other people's viral videos to keep their website visitors entertained.
So, there we have it - some of the many ways available to turn your internet dead-ends into useful, brand promoting and sometimes even conversion-boosting spaces. What are the best 404 examples you've seen? Let me know in the comments!
Check out: The anatomy of a perfect category page