Hidden Problem Of 404 Errors


Hi, I'm Matthew Edgar, found of SpringTrax and what I want to talk about today are not found errors and the problem they present. I refer to this as a hidden problem because those of us who manage and develop websites don't think 404s are that big of a problem. I know I use to not think 404s were a big problem that were causing my website and my business significant problems. What I want to discuss is the problem that 404s present and how you identify this problem on your website.

Before getting into that, I want to make sure we all know what a 404 error is. I think we've all encountered 404s and have a general idea what these are, but I want to make sure we are all on clear on what exactly 404s are. I describe 404s as an experience. That experience is that a visitor comes to your website looking for a piece of content. For some reason, your website can't find that piece of content. So, instead of returning what the visitor wants, your website returns an error message that says "this file cannot be found."

There are lots of ways you can reach a not found error. An old bookmark might lead you to a 404. Or, a link somebody shared with you via email or a social network led you to a 404 error page. With all of the ways you can encounter a 404, it is very likely we have all encountered 404s while we're out browsing the web.

What Is The Problem With 404s?

What is the problem of 404s? Why am I saying that 404s present this hidden problem that we don't pay enough attention to and a problem that can cost you business. The thing with 404s is that they will happen. Not found errors are an inevitability of the web. The web has billions of pages connected by billions of links. Inevitably, those pages are going to change. When pages change or when pages get removed, the links referencing those pages might not get updated. That leads to broken links.

Since 404s are an inevitability, what is the problem? The problem goes deeper than that. The problem with not found errors is what happens when somebody reaches a not found error. What did you do the last time you reached a 404 error message? Did you stay on the website or did you leave that website? Most people leave. Our research at SpringTrax has shown that 74% of people who reach a 404 error will leave your website.

However, the problem is even worse than that. Once people leave your website due to a 404 error, they are now less likely to return to your website. This is because 404s give people a negative association with your website. We remember which websites have problems and avoid those sites in the future. As a result, not only do 404s drive people away from your website, but they keep people away from your website as well.

In other words, 404s cost you customers. If people are leaving your website or are not returning to your website, those people will never become your customer.

But, What Do 404s Cost My Website?

As I started to realize this problem, I started to wonder what 404 errors cost me? Does this really affect my website? I thought nobody reached a 404 error on my site. But, I didn't know the answer to that question. Without knowing how many reached a 404 error page on your site, there was no way I could know how many visitors and how many customers I was losing due to 404s.

I started looking for tools that would help me understand what 404s were costing me. I started with the most popular tool available: the crawl tool. While crawl tools offer an in-depth look at the structure of your website, crawl tools do not provide enough information to tell me if I am losing visitors due to 404s (more about crawl tools).

The reason is that only 17% of the broken links visitors encounter that lead to a 404 error on your website originate from your website. The other 83% of broken links visitors encounter come from somewhere other than your website. So, crawl tools miss out on most of the broken links visitors encounter that lead to 404s on your website. If I don't know about 100% of the broken links on my site, there is no way I can know what 404s cost me.

I started looking for alternatives to crawl tools to help me understand what 404s were costing my website and my business. For more information about crawl tools and the other alternatives, you can read SpringTrax's detailed broken link tool comparison page.

There is one tool I will discuss though that I think highlights the problems with the options I reviewed and that tool is Google Webmaster Tools. While Google Webmaster Tools is a useful tool, Google Webmaster Tools' not found error page report is somewhat lacking.

The first problem is that I don't know if it is every 404 error page. Does this report tell me about 100% of the broken links my visitors encounter? While it does show me more than crawl tools, there are still places Google Webmaster Tools cannot look. For instance, Google cannot see every link shared on Facebook. Google cannot see every typo in an address bar. Google cannot review every old bookmark.

The second problem is that Google Webmaster Tools (like crawl tools and other alternatives) doesn't give me any sense of how important the 404 errors are. If I have lots of 404s reported in Google Webmaster Tools, Google doesn't tell me if those 404s are currently hurting my website or my business? This is important because time and money is limited. You need to make sure that 404s are the most important thing to spend your time and money on.

Why SpringTrax?

Because I couldn't find any tool that would tell me about 100% of broken links and give me a sense of priority. That tool is called SpringTrax. I designed SpringTrax to tell you about 100% of the broken links your visitors encounter. Along with that, SpringTrax gives a clear sense of priority. Which 404s cost you the most business? Which 404s are the most important to fix?

One of the objections I've heard is that "404s don't affect my site." A digital marketing agency started using SpringTrax and they didn't think they would have an issue because they have strong technical talent managing their website. It turns out, 2.07% of visitors reached a 404 error page on their site every month. In their case, this was thousands of visitors every month. For this agency, that was leads leaving their website and advertising revenue (on their blog) lost. They also had 69 different error pages. Google Webmaster Tools and crawl tools didn't report on any of those 404s.

What this means is that 404s can affect any website. Even if you have a really big website run by technical experts, 404s can affect your website. However, even if you are really small, you can have an issue with 404s as well. Many people think their website is too small to have a problem with 404s.

An online retailer using SpringTrax realized they had nearly 3% of their visitors reaching a 404 error page every month. In their case, that was a few hundred visitors and 85% of those visitors left. The 404s resulted from old pages discussing old products. Those pages had been removed as part of the natural process of updating their website. But, people still wanted to buy those old products (and the company had alternatives for those people to buy). So, with several hundred people leaving every month they were losing several hundred dollars every month due to 404s.

Check Your Website

It isn't that 404s can affect any website, it is that 404s can affect your website. Whether you have a really large or small website, you can have an issue. You need to check your website to find 100% of the broken links your visitors. You also need to know how many visitors reach a 404 error page on your website. More than those, though, you need to know about how much you are losing due to not found error pages. If you don't know about all the 404s on your site or how many visitors are reaching a 404 or how much you are losing due to 404s, then 404s will continue to be a hidden problem plaguing your website.


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