Turn an Error into an Opportunity (Commercial ’404′)

You may be aware that one of the many foundation, best-practise points recommended by search engine optimisation experts is to have your own customised error page. An error page is the page of content presented, when an error has occurred in trying to access or locate content on your website. In this case we are talking about when content does not exist or cannot be found, but has been requested and ‘heard’ by the server. Search engine professionals and web agencies may often refer to this as a ’404′. (404 being one of the Http codes for errors of this nature, though there are others.)

It is good practise to have your own customised error page, which is in your own template look and feel, as this provides a consistent user experience and allows you to communicate a suitable message; whilst being in control of that message. Additionally if you don’t create a formal process for errors of this nature you may risk how well your site is perceived by search engines.

Most search engine optimisation and usability experts will recommend you have a customised error page that makes some apology to the user, explains in basic terms what has happened, and suggests some useful and popular content or pages to visit as an alternative. Tip: Don’t reference “404″ in the page content as it is meaningless to the user.

Here’s what we do, which seems to work for us :

Example of a customised error page

Example of a customised error page

Whilst all of this is professional and does something to rescue a poor user experience; for a commercial website, this is a missed opportunity. Make the most of your error pages by turning what could have potentially been a poor user experience into a commercial opportunity by creating a commercial error page.

Tips for Creating a Commercial Error Page

1. Start by doing some simple analysis into your most popular products and pages with highest conversion rates.

2. Do your research first, and if your are a new site, wait a couple of months to get some statistically meaningful performance data.

3. Don’t just put your most expensive products on the page, as this may look hollow and may not convert at all. Wait until you have some interaction and conversion rate data beforehand.

4. Identify top 3 to 10 products and present them in the error page content.

5. Identify top converting pages and explain what these pages are, asking if they might be of interest to the user.

6. Put your search box on your error page.

7. Optimise your error page by testing performance of different products.

8. Analyse the visitor route to error and see if there is a pattern or commercial inference to be made.

Here’s the best commercialised error page I’ve ever seen.

Best Commercial Error Page We Have Seen

Best Commercial Error Page We Have Seen

Note the friendly and apologetic intro, the huge search box in prominent position, and the placement of the trendy, popular and celebrity-fave footwear items. This brand is working hard to make me like them and to get my business.

It’s worth saying that I was surprised to find a huge number of giants in online retail with a lot of opportunity to increase commercial usability and user experience, by improving on their current solution. Such as ASOS and their automatic redirect to the homepage , Argos and their complete lack of customisation and possibly the biggest surprise of all was Amazon and their slightly formal and completely non-commercial message; which for a web retail giant like Amazon, could be a considerable bit of scooping up to be done. (As you have gathered, I didn’t need to look past ‘A’ to find a surprising amount of missed opportunity.)

Automatic re-direct to home

Automatic re-direct to home

Er... Where Am I?

Er... Where Am I?

Mal Function

Mal Function

Kudos to Zappos for leading the field. Do please let me know if you come across any really good or really bad error pages in the comments!

About the author

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Nichola Stott

Nichola is Founder and Director of theMediaFlow; with over 10 years experience in online marketing, over six of which in search. Nichola learned all about search at Yahoo! as head of UK search partners.

8 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    Depending on the website and if you can get away with it, it’s sometimes nice to have a slightly fun or quirky 404 page – particularly as it may act as link bait and therefore raise the profile of your site.

    Personally, I rather like: http://www.dazeofourlives.com/404.htm
    and
    http://www.orangecoat.com/404

  2. Nichola says:

    @Sarah

    Good point and nice examples ;-)

  3. Dean says:

    Great advice, i know Joost put up a great article at the beginning of November to aid WordPress 404`s : http://yoast.com/404-error-pages-wordpress/

    Some of my fave 404`s:

    http://www.catalyststudios.co.uk/404
    http://www.fudgegraphics.com/404

    and

    http://www.sitesketch101.com/404-error

  4. Nichola says:

    @Dean – I’m really pleased you found this to be helpful, when there is already a lot of good examples out there. I like your tongue- in-cheek examples and think they fit the tone of voice of the sites on which they are found (or rather ‘not found’) perfectly!

  5. Even better, go one step further and offer a 5-10% discount code on the 404 page – open to a small amount of misuse, but on the whole a good idea, prevents people leaving.

    (Not my idea though, Seth Godin’s – clever chap).

  6. Nichola says:

    Oooh! David. That is a great idea! I agree it could be easily gamed; however setting up a rule for errors navigated to as opposed to entry point could weed some of that out. Thanks for that!

  7. Hi Nichola. If I may….here’s some other great examples from around the web:

    Heinz ketchup http://www.heinz.com/error.aspx, Titlest https://www.titleist.com/404, eHarmony http://www.eharmony.com/404/, Sporting Solutions http://www.sportingsolutions.com/404 (for football fans), GitHub http://github.com/404 (with parallax effect), Vasa Museum http://www.vasamuseet.se/404 and our own attempt: http://theinformr.com/404/.

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