Project Management

404 errors: A silent Web traffic killer

404 errors may be driving customers away from your site. Here's what they are and how to deal with them.


Last year, a study by Zona Research estimated that U.S. companies lost approximately $58 million per month in e-commerce sales due to Web page loading failures in 1999. In addition, a study by the business software developer ParaSoft—which reviewed 292,357 pages and found 84,302 link errors—revealed that almost 29 percent of pages on Fortune 100 Web sites contain link errors.

The most common type of link error found on the Internet is a 404 or File Not Found error. These are so common that software developers have created special programs called link checkers just to hunt them down so Webmasters don’t have to.

To e-commerce companies, 404 errors mean lost business—pure and simple. Let’s take a look at their effect, and how your company’s Webmaster can keep these errors from turning away customers.

What is a 404 error message?
When a Web server can't locate a specific HTML document, a 404 error will pop up on a Web browser. The error generally occurs when a Web page is deleted or its name changes when it’s moved to another area of the Web site. It can also happen when a user makes a syntax error in the URL address.

You can see how your Web site handles 404 errors by entering your Web site’s URL in your Web browser’s address box, and then adding the name of an erroneous Web page. The URL will produce a 404 error unless you happen to have a Web page by that name on your company’s Web site.

Some Internet users are sophisticated enough to get around this error by deleting the last part of the URL and pulling up the Web site’s main page. Unfortunately, many users either don’t understand this procedure or don’t care enough to try to fix the problem.

Losing customers
An informal survey of 3,475 users on Plinko Net’s 404 Research Lab Web page shows that the majority of users don’t bother to take positive action when they encounter a 404 error message. Here are the responses that 3,475 users chose when they were asked the question, When you encounter a 404, do you:

Hit the Back button and forget about it? 36.92%
Try to get to the homepage to locate the missing page? 20.37%
Write to the Webmaster? 2.82%
Weep uncontrollably? 39.88%

While it’s not a scientific study, Plinko.net’s survey—which suggests that a substantial portion of potential customers who are greeted with a 404 error may abandon the site—should be an eye-opener for CIOs.

Fixing 404 errors
Most default 404 errors simply state “404” or “File Not Found,” and that “the requested URL was not found on this server.” These messages aren’t very welcoming to a potential customer.

One of the simplest steps your company’s Webmaster can take to solve 404 error messages on your Web site is to replace the default 404 error message page with a company Web page that acts as a basic site map. Just make sure the Webmaster creates a page that includes a link to the site’s main page, as well as links to all major sections of the Web site, company contact information, and the Webmaster’s e-mail address or support contact e-mail address.

Plinko.net also has examples of custom 404 pages, and gives details for setting up your own 404 error message.

Another strategy for solving 404 errors within your company’s Web site is to have the Webmaster conduct regular link checks for broken links. There are many software utilities designed for this function, and your Webmaster should be able to locate one.

While setting up a 404 site map page is easy, a surprising percentage of sites don’t bother to use this strategy. A survey conducted in the United Kingdom by Ariadne magazine found that more than 70 percent of 160 university Web sites used the Web server's default 404 error message.
As a user, do you abandon a site when you see a 404, or do you go to the home page? Has your business customized the error message that your customers see? Let us know by posting a comment below or sending us an e-mail.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox