A 404 Page Not Found error usually is the last thing you want your site to serve up.

But what if visitors being served a 404 error aren’t guaranteed to leave your site in frustration? Good 404 pages display a bit of personality or lighten the mood with some humor, and if they’re really good, further the brand’s awareness.

Copyblogger uses one of the best movie lines in history if you manage to go off the beaten path on their website.

Copyblogger 404 Page

This fits in perfectly with the site’s goal of helping readers become better communicators.

But why stop there?

What if your 404 page was actually… profitable?

404s and Customer Service

Have you ever been shopping at a big box store and had trouble finding something? You stop and ask an employee where you might find your quarry. Instead of taking the time to walk you to the item, they point and say “over there, Aisle 9. Maybe Aisle 12.”

If that scenario makes you want to slap the lazy employee upside the head, consider that this is the same level of “customer service” that your 404 pages are offering. You’re not sure what the visitor was looking for, but instead of helping them find exactly what they wanted, you point them in a general direction or two (usually the home page) and hope they find something useful.

You can do better.

A client recently hired us to rebuild their website. The existing site structure was several years old, and there were several thousands of pages and files strewn about. To make matters worse, 90% of these pages and files weren’t being used any more. We ran down anything that was actually linked to and redirected it to the new (much more organized) location. But the client had also sent out thousands of emails over the course of the years (without keeping an archive). Many of those included links to random files or pages as well.

No matter what we did, we were going to miss something and we were going to be serving up some 404 error pages for a while.

Instead of pointing those visitors to the home page or giving them a list of the site’s pages to browse, we did something very simple: we included a contact form.

The contact form was pretty simple. We apologized for the mess, and we asked them use the contact form to let us know what resource or page they couldn’t find. “Whatever it is you’re looking for,” we assured them, “we’ll find it and send you an updated link or include the file as an attachment.”

404 Page with Contact Form

Believe it or not, people did. In the weeks following the re-launch, we received several emails requesting all sorts of information that hadn’t made the jump to the new site.

404s Can Convert

If this sounds like more work, it was. Profitable work.

First, these emails helped our client know which old pages and resources he should recreate or update.

Second, these emails opened dialogues with several visitors (who would have otherwise left the site frustrated). Those dialogues led to sales. After the client closed a second sale from a “404 lead,” the client jokingly asked if we could just serve up a 404 page all the time.

After the client closed a second sale from a “404 lead,” the client jokingly asked if we could just serve up a 404 page all the time.

Obviously we won’t take things quite that far. You’ll never “convert” every visitor to a 404 page. Plus 404 errors are still something that SEOs should strive to avoid.

But the small, practical improvements that would be common sense elsewhere on your site should also be applied to your error page. A few examples:

  • Include a call to action.
  • Lead visitors toward a goal or page that tends to be profitable for your company.
  • If your site’s goal is to generate leads, capture visitors’ information via a contact form. (And monitor those contact emails, of course.)
  • Explain to the visitor that even though you can’t provide the information they were looking for, they should sign up for your newsletter so that they don’t miss out on any other great information.

If your site’s goal is to sell products, offer up a small discount on your most popular product to make up for the inconvenience they’ve just experienced. Give visitors to your 404 page a code for $4.04 off and test the results.

Whatever approach you take, it’s time to treat your 404 page like any other conversion-focused page on your website.

If nothing else, I’m willing to bet you’d get some links from lists of the best 404 pages.