A Smarter Way To Fix 404 Error Pages and Boost Your E-commerce Site

Nicole Grodesky
By Nicole Grodesky

A strong SEO strategy is fundamental to e-commerce success, but is your business dropping the ball in areas that may be driving customers away? It is possible given that search engine leaders like Google and Bing are consistently improving their technology to keep pace with users’ preferences and the ever-evolving search landscape. This year Google estimated it handles at least 2 trillion searches per year, amounting to roughly 228 million searches per hour. That’s a lot of search traffic and clicks that e-commerce sites can take advantage of. So when it comes down to honing a strong SEO strategy that takes leads down the path of conversion, the devil is in the details.

The #1 Error Driving Customers Away

You can spend an entire budget on the best marketing or advertising tactics, but if customers are taken to the dreaded 404 Error page, you’re missing a valuable opportunity to create revenue and a great user experience that brings that customer back to your website. That’s because only 23 percent of visitors will attempt to find a missing page if they encounter a 404 Error according to one survey. The other 77 percent of visitors will not try at all! That’s a lot of missed opportunity.

Not only are error pages frustrating for end users, but it hurts businesses’ bounce rate, page rankings and bottom line. Furthermore, the average person rarely knows what the 404 page means or how he or she got there. This presents another opportunity for e-commerce sites to improve their SEO tactics and deliver an experience that either redirects the lead to the right information or guides them through other options that may turn them into buyers.

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Clearing out 404 Error pages can be intimidating for small business owners with tight budgets, but even more cumbersome for larger operations that have been running e-commerce stores for years. Consider how many website changes, software upgrades, server changes, and content those businesses have gone through. Sure enough finding error pages on larger or veteran e-commerce sites is not that simple.

Thankfully, there is a way for businesses of all sizes to uncover all the broken links deterring visitors from finding the information they need. Follow this three-step system to get your e-commerce company on track to improving its website and clearing out error pages.

Step 1: Get Ready With Crawling Tools

The first step to understanding your e-commerce site’s visibility and SEO performance is by conducting an extensive audit using website crawling software like Screaming Frog. This is the best way to get a clear picture of what error pages need to be fixed or redirected.

Related: Technical SEO Guide: Web Crawl & Errors Guide

Website crawling is a process that reviews all the pages within a website in real-time and gathers intelligence that help website owners identify and fix internal broken URLs, analyze title tags and meta descriptions, discover duplicate content and review links blocked by robots and directives, among other things. Smaller businesses can download free versions of these crawling tools, but for larger companies, acquiring a license is well worth the investment as audits like this should be done frequently for every e-commerce store.

For the most comprehensive review of your site, consider using a secondary crawling tool in conjunction with Google Analytics to gather a complete picture of your website’s functionality.

Step 2: Get Set With GoogleS Search Console

At this point, it is time to dive into the data and identify why broken links aren’t working and where the traffic is coming from. While it’s important to clean up all 404 pages in a timely manner, it makes the most sense to prioritize those that are hurting your business and frustrating customers the most. The data points from your crawling software in step one can show you exactly what to prioritize based on things like visitor traffic. Moreover, search engines like Google might de-rank your website if it identifies an unusual spike in traffic due to a broken URL. From Google’s perspective, if you’re not taking care of the user by providing them with the information they need, Google will reward another business that will.

For example, if you just completed a website overhaul, it’s likely that links from an old catalog or marketing brochure may be driving new traffic to an old, broken link. This is not unusual for e-commerce stores who must consistently push out physical and digital copies of marketing materials to attract new buyers.

Speaking of Google, the search engine giant provides a number of helpful (and often, free) resources to help e-commerce businesses fix broken URLs and improve online traffic. Google’s Search Console is a free service that “helps monitor and maintain your site’s Google Search results,” according to the company. This includes gathering data around website performance and information around visitors, where they come from, what devices they use to shop or browse your pages, and which pages are the most popular. This is valuable information that every e-commerce organization needs in order to be successful, so learning how the Search Console works is worth the effort.

Related: What is Link Building?

Of course, setting up Search Console is another story. This step-by-step guide from Search Engine Land shows exactly how to set up your e-commerce site in Search Console and maximize the tool for all the insights you need. There is also helpful information from Google on how to use Search Console with your website here.

Step 3: GoFix Or Optimize

Now it all comes down to clearing out 404 Errors by either redirecting end users to the information they need or by optimizing the error page to help users help themselves. More often than not, you’ll do a bit of both.

301 redirect

Fixing a broken link usually requires a 301 redirect. This is the most SEO-friendly fix for a broken URL, letting the search engines know that the page has a new, permanent home on the website. This type of redirect can move 90 to 99 percent of the SEO value (i.e., rankings) to the redirect page without it damaging previous SEO keywords. A 301 redirect is particularly useful when the e-commerce site has switched servers, changed domains, merged websites, or users access your site from misspelled URLs. For example, Google owns various iterations of their domain name like gooogle.com or gogole.com, which still leads users to Google’s main domain despite the misspelling.

For a comprehensive look into how to implement a 301 redirect using .htaccess for Apache, or IIS on a Microsoft Windows Server, there are a number of tutorials and instructions from Google as well as other SEO experts like this one.

 

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404 Error page optimization

No matter how much website monitoring and maintenance your e-commerce site conducts, 404 error pages are inevitable. This is where optimizing the error page comes handy. Considering the fact that most users don’t know what a 404 error actually means, companies have an opportunity to brand the page, offer other helpful links or information, and even engage with the end user in a clever or personalized way. The purpose of this is twofold: Mitigate frustration from the end user and keep them on your site.

A customized error page should feature your company logo and branding colors, provide helpful links that take them back to the homepage or other useful information, a search bar to help users find what they’re looking for, and possibly a link to a help desk or support line. Let’s look at how a few brands have done this well.

TED.com takes on the helpful and informative front with a customized page that tells users why the 404 page is being shown, what the user can do next, and the ability to visit the homepage or keep searching for what they want.

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The BBC’s 404 error page takes a similar approach. It informs users how they landed on the error,

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directs them to two possible options to fix the problem and leads them to a few helpful links in the footer.

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Others like email marketing service provider MailChimp keep their error pages short, sweet, and visually appealing.

RelatedWhat are Link Penalties and How to Avoid Them

As one can see, an optimized error page can be both informative and entertaining. E-commerce sites can go a step further by showing potential leads personalized recommendations or promotions that might be of interest within the error page. They can also include a contact link that informs website owners of a broken URL or a virtual help desk that provides more personalized assistance and feels like a concierge service.

Manage Your Links Like A Boss

Finding and fixing broken links is not a one-and-done scenario. It takes ongoing monitoring, maintenance, and effort to clear out broken links and keep your SEO integrity. To ensure you’re managing your links like a boss, follow these four best practices.

Conduct regular monitoring: The only way to find broken links is to consistently monitor your website for them. Weekly or monthly check-ups will keep most broken links from affecting your business SEO efforts and protecting your Google ranking. While the search engine giant doesn’t penalize companies for broken URLs, they do lower your ranking in search engine results if there’s a high bounce rate.

Hire the right people with the right experience: Hire the right people that know how to use crawling tools like Screaming Frog and Google Search Console well. They are among your most powerful assets when it comes to managing your SEO strategy and cleaning up broken links.

Prioritize broken links effectively, but leave none behind: In a perfect world, e-commerce sites would fix every broken link the minute they find them. This can get very time-consuming so be sure to prioritize which links to fix based on the data from your crawling techniques. It is not recommended that you leave any broken link as is. Even if the traffic to them is low, all broken links can negatively impact your bottom line by chasing customers away. Take the time to address every broken link so they don’t accumulate into a larger project later on.

Related: The Ultimate E-Commerce SEO Guide

Build a 404 landing page that engages users: Be sure to brand your error page with your brand’s color and logo, explain how the user got there, and offer up other useful links to either direct them to another page or help the user find what they’re looking for. Extra credit goes to companies who aim to be clever, entertaining, and helpful all at once.

While clearing up every broken link on an e-commerce site is no easy feat, it is imperative that businesses make it a regular part of their SEO efforts. Customers appreciate the companies that can provide them with useful information and direct them to the products they’re looking for. When it comes to turning leads into buyers, and potentially loyal customers, clearing broken URLs are well worth the effort. Invest in regular maintenance, the right tools and the right people to keep your website in tip-top shape and it’ll pay off big for your business in the long-run.

 

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Nicole is a Senior SEO Strategist with experience in technical SEO, SEO keyword strategy, content strategy, and Local SEO. She has experience with enterprise level Local SEO initiatives that manages multiple business locations up to over 300 stores nationwide. Her Local SEO expertise is in managing Google My Business accounts and building local citations to create an authoritative local presence for business owners.