All right, you've got 404's on your site. But...how exactly did people find those 404's in the first place?
The short answer is that people find 404's anywhere they find other links leading them to your site.
People might find a broken link on your website that takes them to a 404 error page. Maybe you removed a page from your website, but an old blog post still links to that page.
Or, people might find a broken link on another site that leads them to a 404 error page. For instance, your local newspaper might write a great article about your business. Unfortunately, that article links to a product you sell, but that link is broken and goes to a 404 on your site instead of the product the article intended to link to.
Or, people might click on a link in a Google or Bing search result and arrive at a 404. This happens if you've recently removed a page from your site, but Google and Bing haven't discovered that the page has been removed.
I could keep going, listing all the other ways people could reach 404's. Links in emails, links in old bookmarks, links on social networks, typos, broken links in direct mail, and more.
Ultimately, though, you don't need to know all the ways somebody could possibly reach a 404 on your site. Instead, you need to know how people are actually reaching 404's on your site. More importantly, you want to know which of those sources is causing you to lose the most customers.
SpringTrax offers an easy way to see all the various places people found links leading to 404 errors on your website. On average, most people find a 404 from a typo, an old bookmark, or links in an email.
|Referral/Other Website & Social Network||30.26%|
|Broken Link On Your Website||17.58%|
Of course, these numbers are just average 404 activity. Your actual results may vary.
For example, an ecommerce site that has been using SpringTrax for six months has discovered that almost half the 404's visitors encounter on their site came from broken links on their site.
Meanwhile, a travel agency that is using SpringTrax found out that only 8% of their 404's resulted from broken links contained on their site. The rest come from other websites and old bookmarks.
Of course, it is important to remember that not all sources leading to 404's are equal. Take a look at the following chart:
This is the source report from SpringTrax and it shows where people found 404 errors on this particular site.
Let's say this represents your site over the course of a week. In this case, 27 people directly reached a 404 error page. That could be people using old bookmarks, typing in incorrect URLs, or clicking on links in emails.
During that same time period, Google sent 14 people to error pages. Maybe those were pages you had recently removed, but Google still had indexed. Also, your website sent 5 people to error pages.
If one source (your site) only leads 5 people to a 404 error but another source (Google) leads 14 people to a 404 error on your site, it is pretty clear which source is more important.
I want to spend my limited time/money fixing the 404's coming from direct visits first, because those 404's are responsible for the majority of the 404 errors on my site.
Beyond total visit volume, SpringTrax also reports on how many visitors left the site because of that 404. How many people did I lose because of 404s coming from that source?
According to the graph above, direct is costing me the most visitors (17). Nobody reaching a 404 due to broken links on my site leaves. So, my site is not costing me any visitors.
Given that, fixing the 404's resulting from direct traffic will help me recover a bigger loss, and therefore is the most important. (That would be why SpringTrax considers that high priority.)
Of course, we can look at this a different way, too. Instead of looking at total visitors lost due to a 404, we can look at the percentage of loss.
In the graph above we can see that 17 of the 27 visitors who directly reached a 404 left this website. That is about 63% who left.
However, of the visitors who reached a 404 from Google, all but 2 left after seeing that 404. That is an 86% exit rate for the 404's resulting from a Google search.
I'd argue that direct is more important given the volume, but the 404's resulting from a Google search are costing this site more visitors as a percent. As a result, the webmasters managing this site might want to focus on fixing the 404's resulting from Google first before they focus on the 404's resulting from direct traffic.
Ultimately, to determine what sources lead people to 404's on your website, you have to monitor your website's 404 activity. From there, you need to look at which of those sources is causing you to lose the most visitors (and thus, lose the most customers).