Best Practices for Managing Ecommerce 404 Error Pages

EVERYONE HATES 404 ERRORS! Quite simply, they’re a pain. But if you have an online store, keeping shoppers happy and on their way to converting is your #1 goal. Anything that interferes with this goal is of primary concern to any ecommerce business owner.

So how do 404 errors (aka broken links) interfere with your store’s success? In short, if a customer can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll leave — and 70%+ of them will never return. It becomes a chain of cause and effect that ultimately results in lost business — now and in the future.

“If users can’t access your website – or numerous pages – this tells Google that you’re providing a poor customer experience, which can send your site in a downward SERP spiral, resulting in lost rankings, traffic, and conversions.”

Search Engine Journal

Aside from the danger of losing the initial sale, there are several other impacts of 404 errors. 404s contribute to a high bounce rate — how quickly a customer leaves your site after seeing the first page they land on. It can also hurt SEO and overall customer experience.

So if 404 errors are a problem, what is the solution? Here are four best practices to deal with the inevitable occurrence of 404 errors on your ecommerce site.

Monitor Your 404 Errors Regularly

You don’t know what you don’t know, right? Step One is determining how many errors you have. If you’re not routinely monitoring your 404s, you’re asking for trouble.

Depending on the amount of traffic you get, daily monitoring may not be necessary. Once a week or even once a month may be sufficient for your store. Here are some great tools for staying on top of things:

Tools for monitoring 404s:
Google Search Console: a critical tool for webmasters that provides insight including Crawl Errors that they discover and choose to share
Screaming Frog: a great tool for SEOs for internal site crawls that will discover 404 errors that originate from within your site
Swerve Redirects: a BigCommerce app that finds 404 errors encountered by visitors and reveals key info about when, where, and how many times the errors were experienced

Correct 404s Immediately with 301s

Unfortunately, 404 errors do not fix themselves. As long as these errors remain unfixed, you’re creating a situation that’s bad for you and even worse for your customers.

When you put off dealing with your 404s, you’re delaying the inevitable, because they will have to be fixed eventually. We have a client whose site had accumulated 150,000 errors! Ew. Fixing a 404 error with a 301 redirect can actually be a very simple process, especially with a tool like the Swerve Redirects app for BigCommerce stores.

A 301 redirect is like a forwarding address that points an outdated or broken link to an updated location. When a 404 error is corrected with a 301 redirect, the change is mostly invisible to the user, and they continue on their shopping journey uninterrupted. With a 301 Redirect, shoppers looking for products and pages that have moved or no longer exist can seamlessly find what they were looking for.

The sooner your 404 errors are corrected, the fewer shoppers will encounter the 404 page. That being said, there will be times when a 404 error is appropriate and should be left standing, like when a product is discontinued and no suitable replacement is available. In cases like this, it’s all the more important that the errors that can be redirected are handled quickly so as not to get confused with 404s that are valid.

Watch Your Redirect Chains

What is a redirect chain? Simply stated, it’s a series of redirects from one URL to another. Ideally, when a URL is redirected it should have a single 301 redirect in place. For every step in a redirect chain, it is thought that about 10% of page authority is lost. Not only do redirect chains cause a loss of equity (or link juice), but they can slow down your site’s pages load, which is a problem for site visitors and Google.

Too many redirects can lead to losing rankings, traffic, and your URL no longer being indexed. Yikes. Here’s the word from On High:

While Googlebot and browsers can follow a “chain” of multiple redirects (e.g., Page 1 > Page 2 > Page 3), we advise redirecting to the final destination. If this is not possible, keep the number of redirects in the chain low, ideally no more than 3 and fewer than 5. Chaining redirects adds latency for users, and not all browsers support long redirect chains.

— Google

Customize Your 404 Page

A customized, on-brand 404 page (like DogIDs here) can be helpful in improving the inevitable 404 page experience. In a recent review of ecommerce stores, the majority of sites we surveyed — surprisingly — did not have a customized page, which is a missed opportunity. Most 404 pages by default are ugly and filled with jargon that many do not understand.

If a boring default Not Found page is going to appear anyway, you may as well take advantage of the real estate it provides for messaging and customer assistance. In addition to on-brand styling, customizations can include featuring a search bar, top category links, and coupon codes for future purchases. We’ll delve into custom 404 pages in a future article.

Getting 404 errors on your ecommerce site is unavoidable. But with the right mindset and tools, you can turn this inconvenience into an opportunity to increase sales, stay in Google’s good graces, and create opportunities for future sales and success.

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