Redirect, don’t 404, when a web page is not found

The ‘Page Not Found’, or 404, error page is the default response for any request made to your website that can not be completed due to a missing file or resource.

Plain 404 error pageAll web servers issue the 404 error and the website, most often a content management system framework nowadays, like WordPress, acts on the 404 server response by displaying a page informing the user that the page requested via the url cannot be found.

Back in the day, the 404 error page was a plain, white page with some technical information. Worse than the lack of design, the page didn’t provide the user with any options or direction as to what to do next.

This was somewhat remedied when digital designers began creating 404 pages that had attractive design elements as well as information like links to the latest content and a search box to help the user find what they were looking for using keywords.

404 error page with space invaders gameMany of these 404 pages are works of art in their own right – some going so far as to incorporate interactive games. Many even encouraged the user to share the 404 page on social media!

The user-experience- and business-minded among you will immediately see why these attractive, interactive, share-worthy 404 error pages actually exacerbate the problem that a user is having; They’ve asked to see a certain page on your site and are instead presented with options to take them further away from the desired resource or to waste their valuable time with games. Any frustration your visitor is feeling by hitting a 404 page is likely to be amplified by these options.

A better solution is to automatically redirect the user to content that they are trying to access, but may not know the correct web address to get there. To illustrate I’ll use a simple example:

A user wants to see your About Us page and types http://mysite.org/aboutus.html into their browser. However, this page doesn’t exist; the real address of your About Us page is http://mysite.org/about-us, so instead of showing them a 404 page how about taking the web address they’ve typed in, assessing which page they might actually be trying to get to and then redirecting them to it. So, even when your user types in /aboutus.html they are taken to /about-us by the site. This makes for a much better user experience.

Now, I did say the example is a simple one, since the user even when hitting a 404 can still use the top-level navigation of your site to find the correct About Us page.

However, say your site has undergone a restructure e.g. it may have a been a static site and it now sits on a CMS that forces a particular url structure that your site did not previously observe, or indeed the site has moved from one CMS to another. If you have a well established online brand then there may be a number of emails and other web sites that carry old links to your site, links still utilising the old structure. So we want a way to map the old site links to the new site links, so that an old url called is automatically redirected to its newer format, so a user never doesn’t see a frustrating 404 page.

This problem is easily solved when using open source content management systems like WordPress, which has a number of redirect plugins that make adding this functionality to your website simple.

One such plugin of which have some experience is Redirection for WordPress. This is a powerful plugin that allows you to set up custom redirects, to set auto-redirects so the user is sent to the closest matching url, and it logs 404 errors to help set up those custom redirects. It’s free and worth checking out if you’re in the market to improve your user experience and help visitors find information on your site rather than hitting them with a frustrating 404, no matter how attractive.

SEO : Are you a ‘cool kid’?

Think back to your days in school – remember the ‘cool’ kids? How they were the most popular? Got the most attention? How everyone wanted to run with them? How your social ranking was based on who you knew and in what context?

Well, search engine optimisation is exactly the same. If your site is in the same circle as the top-ranking sites in your industry it will benefit from the association and rank well too; but if your site is not associated in any meaningful way with the industry leaders you will continue to struggle to get a better rank on the search engine results pages.

This is especially true after the now infamous ‘Panda’ update Google made to its algorithm in April 2011. This update reduced the clout of ‘content farm’ sites, sites that aggregate and list other sites based on industry or subject e.g. directory sites.

Such sites used to rank well (they were ‘cool’) and every website they listed or mentioned benefited from the high ranking as their link back counted as a quality inbound link for the destination site. But the moment Google downgraded the status of such sites, many sites listed that had no other ‘cool kid’ associations felt the pain of also falling in ranking.

So, in order to rank well in the search engine results pages, one of the most important items on your search engine optimisation checklist, now more than ever, must be to cultivate inbound links from high ranking sites in your industry.

If you’re not cool, you may not get noticed.

SEO : Marketing Silver Bullet or Long-Term Strategy?

Where Search Engine Optimisation is concerned too many businesses still believe that it is the “Silver Bullet” of online marketing and that once the web site has been optimized the job is done. However, just optimizing your site pages with context, keywords etc is not enough; these are internal factors you can directly control however there are at least a couple of external factors that require constant, long term attention :

Search Engine Algorithm Updates

It is getting harder to maintain a top 10 listing in the search engine results pages (SERPs). This is because the search engines are forever tweaking their algorithms, releasing a few hundred updates every year. With every new update, the chances are that the formula you use for achieving a good ranking for your website will need tweaking too.
And because rankings are relative whichever of your competition understands the changes and is able to update their mix accordingly is likely to achieve a better ranking post-update.

The Rise and Rise of Social

With the launch of Google+, the various new features Facebook releases every year and the waxing/waning popularity of the numerous social networks, the quality of inbound links, one of the prime ingredients of SEO, changes regularly. Every change in the social landscape and the amount of social activity that generates traffic has an impact on the ranking of your site.

Both of these factors are in constant flux and as such they require someone with knowledge and experience to keep up with them; This makes SEO an important part of your marketing mix.