Optimizing 404 Error and Maintenance Pages

Posted on January 22, 2012 by
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Optimizing 404 error page

UI professionals and Web designers should improve all error pages to enhance user experience and engage visitors. Failures are finger posts along the road to success and Web professionals should take this fact to heart. You need to try to make effective maintenance and error pages, from both usability and website maintenance perspectives, for example by using defensive and analytic design, so you can optimize user experience. These are a few questions to ask before going over error pages and optimizing them:

  • Do your error pages succeed in engaging users, who might already be frustrated by the failure of finding the right pages?
  • How do you track 404 error pages traffic?
  • How do you reduce the use of 404 error pages?

Instead of merely stating that a page isn’t available, you should explain clearly why users can’t access the page and provide suggestions, such as other pages with relevant information. Using unhelpful, server-generated 404 error page is like kicking people when they’re down, you should lend a hand to those who are in need.

These are a few things an effective 404 error page should have

  • Company name and logo
  • A clear explanation why users get the page
  • A list of causes why the error occurs
  • A search field
  • A link to the main page and other pages with relevant information
  • Email link or contact form that allows user to report missing pages and other problems

You should check the traffic to 404 error pages regularly. Unfortunately, many companies that rely on an online presence never do it, not even once. The benefit of monitoring 404 error page is obvious; it can give you a clear indication of user experience in your site. Google Analytics is good way to monitor traffic to your webpages, including 404 error page. An effective way is to create an alert each time when 404 error page is accessed, which can help you to quickly analyze the problem.

It is advisable to add a search box in the 404 page, because you can get a summary on what people are searching for from the 404 page. These are other metrics to consider when monitoring a 404 page

  • Total searches: The amount of searches people perform from the 404 page, however you should exclude duplicate searches from a user in a single session.
  • Page views after search: The number of times users click and visit pages on the search result.
  • Exit rate: The percentage of immediate exit after searching a term
  • Search refinement rate: The percentage of another search using different term after the first search is performed
  • Time after search: The amount of time users spend on the website after searching a term
  • Search depth: The number of webpages people visit after searching a term.

Although regular monitoring of 404 pages is important, that alone is definitely insufficient. You should do everything necessary to reduce the use of 404 error page and improve the overall user experience in your site. These are a few ways to effectively fix both external and internal broken links:

  • Check the summary report: It can give you an idea how users can reach the 404 error page and thus show you the location of broken links. You can get percentages of internal and external visits to the missing pages.
  • Check the source of problem: Try to replicate the error by using routes users use to get the 404 error page. Create a list of missing pages in your website.
  • Fix the broken links: You can either redirect users to the correct page or restore the missing page.
  • In general, you can use the usability practices in error pages using the same general usability practices.

These are a few ways to make sure users stay in your site and get what they want after encountering a 404 error page.

  • Be focused and simple: Use original design, interesting words and appealing images. Try to re-align users’ attention, because they are already disoriented from arriving into an error page unexpectedly. Make their lives easier by offering clear actions to take.
  • Understand your users: Use humors that are relevant to your visitors. Use humors wisely, because jokes can be misunderstood.
  • Let users decide: Users should be your primary advisors, not friends or even spouse. You may ask users to fill an online survey to ask for ways to improve user experience, including issues related to 404 error page.

Optimizing maintenance pages

Some websites require a few hours each week for complete maintenance during low-traffic hours. Maintenance is essential in keeping an acceptable level of user experience; however, you should use a maintenance page when the website is temporarily unavailable. These are things to consider when creating a maintenance page:

  • Keep it useful and simple
  • Realize that site maintenance is an inconvenience for users.
  • Maintenance page should have the same visual design.
  • Use good humor
  • Add a countdown timer to indicate when the maintenance task is expected to over
  • Inform users about latest development
  • Invite users to return in the near future

Although maintenance is ideally performed on hours with the lowest traffic in a given week, you should be aware that maintenance should focus on performance optimization instead of preparing the site to handle large traffic. As the result, some websites choose to perform maintenance on hours with the lowest conversion instead of with the lowest traffic Maintenance page is a good opportunity to increase user engagement, you can introduce your products and encourage users to visit other marketing channels, such as company’s Facebook fan page, Twitter page, YouTube videos and physical stores.

Conclusion

Errors will happen and you should be prepared for them. You should make users comfortable by lending them a hand and avoid from making them feel frustrated. People are no longer as patient as 10 years ago when alternatives were fewer. Your competitors are just a few clicks away and you shouldn’t lose valuable customer due to poorly maintained 404 error pages and maintenance pages.

About: This Article was Contributed by Raja. He is a Web Hosting industry watcher and writes regularly on Dedicated Hosting Reviews and Reseller Hosting Reviews.

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