Imagine the following scenario: You’re out skateboarding (like I said, imagine) one day when your pair of trusty old Vans finally give at the seam. Your sock shows through the gap. It’s pretty clear that it’s time to get a new pair of shoes.
Because you know what you want—the exact same pair you have on—you turn to your favorite search engine and deliver a very specific search, all the way down to your size.
Finding the pair isn’t as easy as you hoped because the pair you have on is about three styles ago, but you finally spot a result that looks promising. So you click.
And then… nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing, but not what you were looking for either. Apparently, the item you’re looking for doesn’t exist anymore on the page. You’re at a 404 (Page Not Found) error page, with an apology from the website and not much else.
As a cosumer, it’s not a good place to be. And as an ecommerce site, it’s not a good place to have your potential customers end up—especially if it’s their first time visiting your site. Chances are, this is happening more frequently than you’re aware.
Luckily, 404 error pages present you a huge opportunity to still deliver a relevant experience to your potential customer and increase conversions. Here are five ways you can improve yours:
Link out to important site pages
A basic 404 page should have a simple, clear indicator that the page is actually an error page. No need for it to be more than one or two sentences. At minimum, the page should also include links to major sections of the site, like the homepage, the product pages, help and support.
A Contact Us form, or a prominently placed link for the visitor to contact the site support team, is a vital piece to have. After all, they had an intention, but hit a dead-end along the way; this is the time to step in and give personalized help.
Determine user intention by the requested page URL
A visitor can be presented a 404 error while accessing a page like yoursite.com/mens/shoes/vans/size-9/ if you no longer carry that brand or if, during a site redesign, you didn’t have the proper redirects in place.
Still, by parsing the URL, we can easily see that the visitor is looking for a product related to men’s casual shoes (let’s face it: that last pair didn’t rip because of hours and hours of skateboarding). So, tailor the content of the error page based on the address being called by using dynamic content.
Similarly, query parameters, such as keywords, passed into a page’s URL can also be used to determine intent.
Show related or intended products
If we can effectively parse the user’s intention in terms of what item he or she is looking for, we can use that to search our product catalog and present them with similar items.
In the above example of yoursite.com/mens/shoes/vans/size-9/, if we display a list of men’s casual shoes, there is a strong possibility of click-through and continued interaction, potentially resulting in a purchase.
Feature special offers and discounts
Hitting a 404 error page is a frustrating experience.
If a visitor clicks to access a link that they think is the best one to get them where they want to go, but are presented with a server error, he or she is going to lose confidence in your site. But you can regain that confidence. Use your error page to show currently running sales or featured promotions, or even give that visitor a one-time discount.
The visitor may forget all about the inconvenience if you show them something even better than what they originally intended to find.
Keep pages living, even when the product is no longer available
Preventing 404 Page Not Found errors from being thrown in the first place is the best way to understand the user’s original intent.
You can accomplish this by maintaining product pages even when the item is no longer available. It is important to adjust the page template significantly when displaying an item that is no longer available. If possible, inform the user why the item is not available, and provide them with alternatives.
Avoid maintaining an old sales page for an item that does not exist with the active product sales template. This is even more frustrating for visitors if they get informed during, or even worse, after checkout that the item is not available.
In some cases, 404 errors may account for up to 5% of all visits to your site. If you’re able to capture and convert just a fraction of those encounters, you can make significant gains in sales and conversions.
404 Page Not Found illustration courtesy of Shutterstock.
Shannon Sofield is a serial entrepreneur lending his conversion and optimization expertise as a guest blogger. Having launched several successful startups in digital goods and payment processing, he has seen all aspects of the user experience; supporting businesses and their customers. He currently lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia where he continues to help companies convert users.