If you run a website, chances are some amount of your visitors will reach a 404 error page. When they reach that 404 error page, people are likely to leave your website. After all, the person who reached that 404 on your site is frustrated by the error. That error means your website isn't helping that person find what they wanted. So, what does that would-be customer do? Leave, and probably go to a competitor's website instead. That costs you visitors and that costs you potential customers.
A big part of the frustration that people feel when they encounter and error comes from feeling hopeless. A common reaction is to see the error as blocking the path to finding what I want. Or, to see the error as a dead end that means I'll never find what I want.
Now, because of this error, I have to go back to where I was. I have to retrace my steps...and I already went how many steps before I found this error. In short, the error adds a burden. For your website to help you attract new customers, your website needs to get rid of that burden, by removing the road blocks and the dead ends.
What can you do to prevent people from leaving when they reach a 404 error? Yes, you need to fix those 404 errors. Of course. Hopefully, you fix the errors quickly.
However, even if you fix the error lightening fast, some amount of people will still reach a 404 error, especially on busy and active websites.
How, then, do you keep more people on your website after they reach a 404 error? What items can you change about the 404 error page that reduce frustration and reduce the chances people will head over to the competition's website?
We've previously discussed five key points about handling 404 errors on your website. Those are all critically important to keeping people on your website after reaching a 404 error page.
What more can you do? Recently, I helped one website the reduce the abandonment rate from an error by nearly 25%. That is a huge decline, and that decline means that website is losing fewer visitors (and fewer customers) when people reach a 404 error.
So, what changed? How did that website stop losing so many customers and visitors when people reached a 404 error?
I refer to what changed as making the error continuable. What does that mean?
When a visitor reaches an error on your website, do you make it easy for that person to continue along? Or, is your error message that roadblock or a dead end that causes frustration? Every error will be a road block to some point, but you can reduce that by helping people know how to continue forward on their path (with no going back!) after reaching this error.
The easier it is for somebody to continue on your website after reaching an error, the less frustration and hopelessness people will feel after reaching that error.
One example of this (that SpringTrax's snapshot tool evaluates) is suggested links. You want to give people specific, targeted links that help them get close to the content they wanted. The more targeted the links, the more likely they will be to help users continue forward. For example, you want people to say "oh you don't have that red t-shirt I wanted, but you do have a similar blue t-shirt and there is the link to it". A hyper targeted suggested link means people don't have to see the error as a roadblock.
There are ways other than suggested links to make your error messages continuable. Search forms are another common solution, though somewhat less effective than links. To make your search form most effective, it is better to show search results related to the error message. That is, if you know that somebody came looking for that blue t-shirt, but your website couldn't find it, the 404 error message should include search results for other t-shirts on your website. Like suggested links, this gives people a path forward.
Another way to improve the continuable-ness of your error message is to offer a live chat (or some other means of accessing help) on your error page. When your potential customer is lost, being able to talk to a real human being to find what you are looking for can help keep that person around. An operator can help the visitor locate the product (or products) they wanted to buy.
In short, you will never make your website completely error free. Technology will break. Errors will happen. What you can do, though, is make those errors less frustrating so that you lose fewer customers as a result.