Sahil Merchant
Sahil Merchant 3 May 2018

Reimagining The 404: Stop Losing Customers To Broken Links

Traditional 404 pages are antiquated. Visitors hitting broken links can have a considerable impact on your website’s conversion rates, as well your overall brand image. Luckily there are practical and data-driven ways to create a better customer experience that retains site visitors and increase conversions, even when the link a visitor lands on is broken.

Let’s get straight to the point- traditional 404 pages are antiquated. There are practical and data-driven ways to create a better customer experience that retains site visitors and increase conversions, even when the link a visitor lands on is broken.

404 pages are speedbumps on your website visitor’s content journey, reducing their velocity towards the content they are looking for and hampering conversions. We’ve all seen creative 404 pages out there, when we hit a broken link on a website. In recent years, organizations have upped the ante, creating ever more creative and amusing 404 pages. The one thing they all have in common though? None of them go anywhere.

Think you have a handle on it?

Most of 404s occur when a webpage is renamed or moved. Links are broken when site owners neglect to rename the internal link associated with the webpage. Old URLs should be redirected to a new site with a 301-redirect, but this doesn’t always occur. Additional causes include a change in a web directory, which normally mandates users to alter URLs, or when URLs are deleted or moved without an update. Internal links that aren’t updated within the directory can lead to 404 error messages.

But despite this variety of rectifiable reasons here’s the thing- your website only accounts for about 17% of the 404 errors people encounter. This means that no matter how diligent you are about crawling your site to rectify errors or setting up redirects, your visitors are still going to hit a large number of 404s through no fault of your own. On average, the primary causes of 404s are:

  • Direct, Typo, Email, Bookmarks- 45.87%
  • Referrals & Social Networks- 30.26%
  • Broken Link On Your Website- 17.58%
  • Search Engine- 6.3%

The upshot of this of course, is that at some point your visitors are going to stumble onto 404 error pages on your site no matter how hard you try. And the consequences of that is significant.

They’re so money, and you don’t even know it.

The occurrence of 404s is more pervasive than many organizations realize- in a recent beta test Cludo conducted with a number of large companies like Vodafone Australia, Parkinson’s UK and the Bank of England, thousands of 404 pages a MONTH were served to EACH company’s visitors. That’s a lot of people who didn’t find what they were looking for, especially when real money is at stake.

Visitors hitting broken links can have a considerable impact on your website’s conversion rates, as well your overall brand image. 404s have a direct impact on your ability to connect with and retain potential customers. Here are 3 telling statistics that speak directly to this issue:

  • Only 23% of visitors that encounter a 404 page make a second attempt to find the missing page.
  • 73.72% of people who reach a 404 error page will leave your website and not return.
  • 79% of visitors who are dissatisfied with website performance say they are less likely to buy from the same site again.

Simply put, regardless of the money you’ve spent reaching potential clients, your efforts are wasted if they can’t be converted. These numbers should serve as a warning for site owners that wish to use their websites as a gateway to their business- customers hitting a 404 are customers hitting dead ends.  

At best, sites currently try to mitigate this effect by either serving up humorous messages to distract from the fact that the customer has hit a dead end, or offer alternative static links to a homepage, help center or other popular webpage that a user may be interested in.

While this is a good start, we are now technologically equipped to offer visitors a seamless and meaningful experience.

It’s time to add data driven doorways to your website’s dead-ends. 

The key to moving visitors through your site seamlessly, is to stop thinking of your 404 page as a static entity, and instead reimagine it as a dynamic landing page.

The best way to achieve this is to employ a machine learning solution (ML), similar to that used by a site search engine. The ML engine can utilize a variety of data points to identify pages that retrieve pertinent results for a visitor when they hit a nonexistent page. It attains relevance across millions of search queries, and learns, refines and improves results automatically. Patterns of behavior are identified, and the most up-to-date results are shown, even when a 404 page is encountered.

A truly intelligent alternative to the classic 404 requires 2 key aspects:

  1. It should be predictive, offering the visitor options relevant to their intended content.
  2. It should be intuitive, offering the visitor an easy path towards that content.

The best way to measure the accuracy of your Intelligent 404 is via a Mean Reciprocal Rank (MRR). The MRR score is a statistical measure for evaluating any process that produces a list of possible responses to a sample of queries, ordered by probability of correctness. For instance, the Reciprocal Rank is 1 if a relevant link was presented at rank 1, if not, it is 0.5 if a relevant link was retrieved at rank 2 and so on. When averaged across queries, the measure is gives you your MRR score.

A well-constructed Intelligent 404 page will deliver relevant results with a high MRR score, keeping individuals engaged on your site, and retaining the attention of your user base. In simple terms, it’ll get people to stick around and help you convert them into customers.

Utilize data to improve engagement

Beyond creating a better visitor experience, Intelligent 404 pages are also a source of highly useful data. 404 analytics will help you track how many 404s are being generated on your site, where visitors are migrating to from those pages, and what the success rate is for those being diverted. By diving into this data, you can gain a clearer picture of what content is working on your site, and where your gaps are. Understanding this data allows you to receive a clearer picture of content that is well received on your site, and gaps that need to be filled for increased user engagement.

It’s also important that you continually identify and fix 404s occurring locally to keep your website performing at its best. A lot of organizations aren’t even aware of the number of 404s being generated by their websites, but every one of those is a missed opportunity for better customer engagement.  

Can’t build it? Look at an out-of-the-box solution

Building and maintaining a machine learning driven system, which is especially vital for larger websites, takes time, technical knowledge, and ongoing resource commitments. If that capacity does not exist at your organization, an out-of-the-box solution can work wonders for your website.

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