The 404 page is a staple of the internet.
If you combined all the times someone landed on a 404 page instead of the page they were trying to reach, you’d have more hits than Google, Facebook, and America Online combined.*
(*Editor’s Note: This might not be true.)
But what is a 404 page? And why does my company’s website need one?
All good questions. Let’s start, as they say, at the beginning.
What is a 404 Page?
Here’s an official-sounding explanation of the 404 page:
A 404 page is also known as an “error page” or “Page Not Found” page. This page indicates that the user reached the domain they requested, but the URL path provided no information.
If that sentence made your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone. Let’s break that definition down.
First, “URL,” or Uniform Resource Locator, is tech-speak for a web address. Generally speaking, URLs have three sections:
- The Protocol
- The Domain Name
- The Path
Consider the web address “https://websitemuscle.com/blog” as an example. The protocol is “https://,” the domain name is “websitemuscle.com,” and the path is “/blog.”
What happens if you slip up and type “https://www.websitemuscle.com/blerg?” They’ve got your domain name right, so the server was able to reach your site. The path they’re trying to follow, however, literally leads nowhere. That’s when your 404 page appears.
In contrast, typing in “https://www.weebsitemsucle.com/blog” gives you a broken link. In this case, the domain name is incorrect, even though the path works.
Finally, “404” refers to an HTML code response. The three-digit signifier has made its way into popular language in other ways. (Look for the guy at your next Halloween party in a white T-shirt that says “404 — Costume Not Found.” Even though it’s still not funny, at least you’ll get the joke.)
Why is a 404 Page Important?
Besides the misspelling issues above, 404 pages cover any broken or dead links on your site.
Another example: let’s say you have products listed on your site, each with their own unique URL path. The domain would read something like “https://fakebusiness.com/products/widget-1/.”
Now let’s say you have those products linked on the main products page — “https://fakebusiness.com/products/.” Simple enough, right?
But then you decide not to make “widget-1” anymore, so you take the product page off of your website. But – uh oh! – the person who took down the “widget-1” page didn’t remove the link from the main product page.
Your 404 page catches visitors who click on that broken link so they won’t get bounced off your site or rerouted to a broken page. Instead, they’ll get a simple error message that says “Page Not Found,” and they can go back and start over.
I know what you’re thinking: “wouldn’t it be better to fix the main products page?” Yes, fixing broken links improves “site hygiene” and organic search results. Web developers also use tools to redirect outdated links to updated ones.
But it’s still important to have a 404 page in place as a backup.
Using the 404 Page
If you are developing a new website, your designer should create a 404 page as part of your standard setup. Content management systems like WordPress make adding a 404 page to your site easy.
Of course, error pages wouldn’t be complete without a few back-end web designers using them to have a little fun. (This is the internet, after all.)
“We’re still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution.”
— Scott Cook, Intuit co-founder
As the internet grows, many business owners are struggling to be noticed by Google and contend with increasingly competitive forms of online marketing.
For a long time, web-savvy folks — including us — touted the benefits of search engine optimization, which makes websites easy for Google to find.
But now that so many industries and companies are developing a web presence, online marketers — like us — are turning toward pay-per-click ads that have a more direct and measurable impact per advertising dollar.
Before we dive into the difference between these forms of online marketing, however, let’s take a quick refresher on how Google’s search engine works — including the reason why Google doesn’t actually search the internet when you type something in.
The Difference between SEO and PPC (and Why it Matters)
There are billions of possible results in any given Google search. Which one shows up at the top?
In Google’s How Search Works video below, engineer Matt Cutts explains that a search engine performs three functions:
- it crawls the web,
- it indexes pages, and
- it ranks those pages based upon over 200 factors.
When search terms are entered into Google, the search engine looks through its index, not the entire web, to produce the most relevant results. The 200+ factors mentioned above constitute Google’s algorithm to determine how web pages are ranked. The algorithm asks questions, such as:
- How many times does this page contain my keyword?
- Do the words appear in the title? In the URL?
- Is this a high quality or a low-quality website?
- Is the site mobile-friendly?
What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a broad term for tactics that make websites more likely to succeed according to Google’s algorithm.
More specifically, these techniques are designed to improve a website’s position in the results of a search for targeted words or phrases.
Websites that rank higher in searches, especially those that make it to the first page of results, see much higher levels of traffic than those that do not.
SEO comes in two general forms: on-site and off-site.
On-site SEO involves optimizing your site with keywords that you want to rank for in your potential customers’ Google searches.
On-site SEO best practices include:
- Making the site easy to crawl for Google with clear links, navigation and URLs
- Providing keyword-rich content that is relevant and valuable for users
- Usability: good design and framework of the site
- Mobile-responsive: site works on any device
- Speed: loading speed is one Google’s 200+ ranking factors
Off-site SEO focuses on driving traffic and getting relevant links from other websites back to yours. Depending on the industry, ranking highly on Google for specific keywords can take 3-6 months of dedicated on- and off-site SEO work, and possibly longer if the industry is already competitive online.
What is PPC?
Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is a service offered by search engines like Google and Bing, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and other publishers of highly trafficked websites.
Today, Google AdWords is the most popular and effective platform for PPC campaigns.
In AdWords, users bid on keywords and phrases — like “donuts Costa Mesa” — and create advertisements for those keywords that appear in a Sponsored Links section.
When the ads get clicked, the campaign is charged according to the going rate for that particular keyword. PPC campaigns through AdWords are common because of the massive traffic Google receives.
Online marketers also like AdWords campaigns because of the wealth of data Google provides, which includes information like click-through rates, keyword quality, bid amounts and more.
SEO vs. PPC
We describe SEO as a “passive” online marketing strategy. Building momentum through SEO is a long-term strategy that takes a lot of time (and money).
And as we mentioned above, successful SEO campaigns can take at least 3-6 months to start ranking, which means your marketing team won’t be able to tell how well the campaign is going for quite a while.
On the other hand, paid advertising gives you greater flexibility, visibility, and accountability — it’s an “active” strategy. With PPC ads, we can create an ad, test it with a campaign, and know in a week or less if it’s working.
Of course, not every business has the budget for a pay per click campaign, and clicks can be expensive. But as algorithms continue to improve, we’re getting a lot closer to a day when we can know exactly how much it will cost a business to acquire a new customer.
You could make the argument that only large businesses are going to be able to compete in this new advertising world, but smaller companies that offer a better or different service will always be able to find an audience.
The internet is all about specific searches (the “long tail”) now, which means that you can find your niche and market directly to that group.
The ability to reach your online customers through PPC is becoming more powerful all the time, and businesses (large and small) can take advantage of these opportunities.
Online marketing offers undeniable benefits for businesses savvy enough to take advantage of it.
According to Jenny Servis, Vice President of Marketing for SnapRetail, online marketing has gone from an option to an essential:
“Ten years ago it may have been a choice to jump on the online bandwagon, but now it’s an absolute must to survive and thrive as a small business. With over 85% of searches for products and services happening online, it’s just a ‘duh’ at this point,” Servis says. “Being online means having a responsive, search optimized website as well as an engaging and growing following on social media plus using email as part of your marketing mix.”
Digital marketing has become a must-have. But why? We’ve come up with 6 simple reasons your business needs online marketing more than ever.
6 Simple Reasons Your Business Needs Online Marketing
1) Your Customers are Online
If you remember anything from this post, remember this: you need online marketing because that’s where your customers are.
Since you made it to our blog, you probably don’t need us to explain how important the internet is to modern commerce.
We don’t need to mention facts like:
- about 25% of Americans make at least one weekly online purchase
- total online sales surpassed $304 billion in 2014
- 78% of mobile searches for local business information result in a purchase
We could go on, but you’ve got the idea. Your target audience is already out there, searching for what you do. Online marketing can lead them to you.
2) Increased Traffic = Increased Sales
It’s no secret that Google and other search engines favor websites that are constantly updated with unique, useful content that follows SEO guidelines.
While it may take a few months to show measurable results, a consistent online marketing effort will increase your company’s online visibility and drive more traffic to your site. More people reaching your site means more interest in what you offer.
Online marketing also includes setting your website up to drive conversions. Your page should encourage visitors down a path toward purchasing a product, signing up for a service, scheduling a consultation, etc. Optimizing for conversions means that more of those interested visitors will become buyers.
3) Cost Effective
Reaching your audience through online marketing is much more cost-effective than traditional methods. You aren’t paying for space on billboards, bus benches, or banners at baseball games. There are no physical maintenance or rental costs, and no store displays that have to be kept up.
As this infographic shows, reaching an audience of 2,000 potential customers through digital marketing is 50% less costly (at least) than any form of traditional marketing.
[Infographic: Seriously Simple Marketing]
For small business owners on a limited budget, online marketing makes a lot more sense than print, broadcast or direct mail advertising.
With an optimized website and online marketing, your business will no longer be limited by store hours.
Customers that find you online will be able to learn about your products during a 2 a.m. web search. And if your website sells your products, that random, late-night Googler could turn into a loyal customer – one that won’t require overtime hours for your staff.
Marketers have access to more data about their audience today than ever before.
Since everything online can be quantified, your marketing team can look at how many people are searching for relevant keywords to your industry, how many are adding local modifiers to their searches, and what they are looking for in a product or service.
Through website analytics, you can see how many people are visiting your page, what pages they are looking at, how long they stay, how they got there, and a thousand other details.
Tracking and analyzing online data enables you to target your ideal customers and personalize offers just for them.
Let’s say your ideal customer loves the outdoors, and also happens to love Sesame Street. (Anything is possible, right?) You can create a landing page just for them on your site.
Customization even allows you to follow website visitors after they have left your page. Through a tactic called remarketing, targeted ads for your business can appear on other pages courtesy of Google AdWords.
Instead of blanketing the general population with a generic advertisement, online marketing enables you to reach the right crowd and increase the return on your marketing dollar.
Connecting to your audience goes beyond data and analytics. Companies that are successful online use marketing strategies that increase a customer’s lifetime value by keeping them engaged with your brand.
For example, when a customer makes a purchase from your store, your website should automatically generate a confirmation and thank-you letter. But this is only a first step.
That same customer information can lead to a longer relationship with a few simple online marketing strategies. Email newsletters, product or service reviews through Yelp and social media, personalized offers (see #5) and discounts based on purchase history are all possible with online marketing.
Simple enough, right?
Finally, if you’re already marketing your business through traditional means, we’re not here to tell you to stop.
We believe in a holistic, “try it all” approach to marketing and advertising. That can include online marketing, email, print and TV ads, and those inflatable tube characters that flop around in front of car dealerships, assuming they’re effective.
Just remember: your audience is already online, looking for a business that does what you do. Online marketing reaches your customers where they are – on their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. Expanding your online presence will help you connect with them and stay connected longer.
It’s as simple as that.