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Video: 404 error pages: An effective custom “Page not found” error page improves search engine results; Tips & Best practices

In this 2-part minute Video (with companion text article below) we show why it’s so important to have an effective custom “Page not found” error page (A 404 error page) to improve results from search engines. We cover some important Best Practices for 404 error pages. 

You’ll Learn:

What are custom “Page not found” (404) error pages and why are they so important in search marketing?

The most important elements to include on 404 error pages

Why you need to use Absolute Links on 404 error pages

Ensure a 404 error code is sent. Why it’s important to set these error pages up so they send a 404 error code to browsers (and search engines) rather than a redirect code (as some web site owners/managers have done)

 

To Enlarge the Videos:  Hover your mouse over the YouTube logo in bottom right corner of the video and you should see a “Watch on YouTube” link (the videos plays wider there) or click on the full screen button in the bottom right corner

Video Part 1 (4:32 minutes) Covers :

What are custom “Page not found” (404) error pages and why are they so important in search marketing?

The most important elements to include on 404 error pages

 YouTube Preview Image

 

Video Part 2 (6:40 minutes) Covers:

Why you need to use Absolute Links on 404 error pages

Ensure a 404 error code is sent. Why it’s important to set these error pages up so they send a 404 error code to browsers (and search engines) rather than a redirect code (as some web site owners/managers have done)

 YouTube Preview Image

 

 

The Text Version of the Article

Here’s the text version of the article (Without all the “Ahh’s and stutters. Hey, it’s my first video blog post. They’ll get better!)

 

What are custom “Page not found” (404) error pages and why are they so important in search marketing? 

Many of the inner pages of your web site get indexed by search engines and if you rename or delete them you may loose some prospective visitors if you do not have an effective custom “Page not found” error page procedure setup on your server.

It can take months after web pages are moved or deleted before the search engines update their indexes so a number of people may try to reach pages that no longer exist on your site. This is especially important after site redesigns when large numbers of pages may be replaced with new pages with different file names.

As an example of what typically happens when no custom “Page not found” error page is in place, copy the link below into a web browser and try it http://www.companyname.com/badpage.htm

You should have received a standard “The page cannot be found” error page from your browser or toolbar.

Notice that this error page does include a link to the home page for the web site that the visitor tried to reach. Unfortunately many people give up at this point. Most hit the “back” button and try other pages in the search results.

FYI- You probably saw an “HTTP 404 – File not found” message somewhere on the page. A 404 is the error code that is sent to the visitor’s browser (and read by search engines) when a file is not found. That is why these errors are often called 404 errors.

The most important elements to include on 404 error pages

Here’s an example of effective custom “Page not found” error page:

http://www.ibm.com/badpage

This error page is setup on the IBM  web server. The server automatically displays the error page for most “Page not found” errors. Here are the important elements on it.

The page “looks & feels” like a page from the IBM web site. This lets the searcher know that they have reached the IBM site.

Sorry Wrong Page. The error page gives a clear, highlighted message that the searcher tried to reach a page and there was a problem, “Our apologies…The page you requested cannot be displayed”.  It’s important that people clearly see a message similar to “Sorry, Wrong Page” on these error pages or many people will get confused about what just happened.

Links to move the visitor along.The error page gives links that the visitro can use to try to find what they were looking for such as a link to the home page and a site search.

Check with your IT people or web hosting company to see if they can setup a “custom page not found” error page that is returned instead of the standard browser or tioolbar error page. If so you can develop a web page with much of the same “look & feel” as other pages on the site with clear links to the home page, possibly a link to a site map or site search, etc.

The positive effect of a custom “page not found” error page is almost impossible to measure since you obviously can’t tell how many people didn’t reach your web site. It won’t help your search engine rankings either, but it should help increase the number of searchers who successfully arrive at your web site.

Why you need to use Absolute Links on 404 error pages

The links to the images and any hyperlinks on the page should be absolute links (including the full URL path such as http://www.ibm.com/images/pic123.gif) rather then using the default relative links inserted by most web development tools. Even the link to a CSS sheet if used should be an absolute link.

Relative links may not work depending what folder on your site the bad link in a search engine listing points to. If the missing page was in the root level of the web site (where the error page usually is) relative links usually work fine, but if the bad link points to any other folder on the web site the links may not work. When this happens your visitor may see a page with missing images such as your logo etc. Worse, the links you provided to the pages on your site, such as the home page, may not work!

Few of the web developers I’ve ever worked with have been aware of this. And it’s very hard to explain. In the video I show some clear examples of what happens.

Reduce the clutter – The main task of a custom 404 error page is to let people know they tried to reach a page that doesn’t exist on your site and to give them an obvious and simple path(s) into the main site, without too much clutter that could keep them from seeing the important messages and links immediately. This also makes the task of keeping those absolute links up to date.

We’ve found that it’s best to strip these error pages down and have very few images and links on them (except in the case where you provide a site map).

Why it’s important to set error pages up so they send a 404 error code to browsers (and search engines) rather than a redirect code (as some web site owners/managers have done)

Finally, it’s very important that the correct 404 error code is returned when a custom “page not found” error page is served. If you just redirect to a site map or home page without returning the 404 error code the search engines will not know that the URL in its index is a broken link. They may start indexing multiple copies of the site map or home page or whatever page you redirect too, under all the different bad URL’s which can cause real problems (such as duplicate filtering, pages getting removed from the index, delayed crawls etc)

Here’s a couple of server head check tools to test that a 404 code is returned, (or search on “HTTP header check” for other tools)

http://www.seoconsultants.com/tools/headers/

http://www.sim-php.info/http-status-viewer.php

Try testing IBM’s http://www.ibm.com/badpage. Notice the 404 code is returned.


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