Sunday, November 28, 2010

Three Easy Ways to Fix Broken Links and Stop Unneccessary Visitor Loss

In business, it's well known that it requires less of a financial investment to keep a customer than it does to acquire a new one. Your website is no different. Once you get a visitor on your site, or get them wanting to be on your site, it takes less investment to keep them there than it does to go bring in another new visitor. Therefore it is important to do whatever you can to keep acquired visitors on your site helping them move through the conversion process. Everything, that is, short of hijacking their web browser!
One of the easiest ways to lose visitors from your site is through broken or invalid links. You've been there before... going through a website, looking for things that interest you only to click on a link that brings you to something like this:
Generic 404 Redirect Page
What did you do when you hit that page? Hit the browser back button? Close the browser? Go to a different site? Perform a different search? Turn your computer off and go outside?
Most people will automatically hit the browser back button. If they hit that page from within your own site, that back button will do OK in keeping them there. Except, since they can't find the information they want from you, they'll likely leave to find a site where they can.
But what if they came from a search engine? Or a link from another website? Or an old bookmark?
In these instances you just lost the visit, and quite possibly the sale or lead.
What causes broken links?
Here are some common ways broken links are created:
  • You rename a page and forget to change all your internal links
  • Another site links to the old page not knowing it's been moved or removed
  • A search engine ranks a deleted page and hasn't yet removed it from the index
  • Someone has bookmarked a deleted or moved page in their browser or bookmarking service
  • Someone links to your page but screws up the link URL
When the broken links are internal, within your own site, those are easy to prevent and correct. But when broken links are external, from other sites or bookmarks, you are only left with a few options short of contacting the linking site owners and asking them to fix the links. And then hoping they do.
No matter what, you can't always prevent people from linking to you incorrectly. So the onus is on you to do what you can to keep the visitor on your site despite the broken link.

Three ways to stop losing visitors from broken links:

Create a custom 404-error page
This is a catch-all solution that every site should do. If you don't have a custom 404-error page then you need to create one ASAP.
The idea here is to prevent visitors from getting the white page shown above, in favor of a customized page that keeps the visitor engaged with your site. Below is the custom 404 page from my site own site:
A good 404-error page will look and feel just like any other page on your site. The only difference is it let's the visitor know the page is gone, missing or moved. This allows you to present some options for the visitor by providing links to follow, helping them get to their intended destination.
Keep it clean and simple. Don't burden your visitors with too many options. Provide links to your main areas getting them as close to their original intent as can possibly be determined (this can be done well with dynamic sites).
Creating the custom 404-error page is easy. Just take any other page on your site, gut out the content and replace it with your simple message and links. Save the file into your root director as something like 404-redirect.htm.
Now edit your .htaccess file with this line of code:
ErrorDocument 404 /404-redirect.html
That should do the trick.
A couple of things you want to keep in mind. Be sure you use all absolute links on this page, including image paths. This will ensure that if someone hits a broken link in a sub-directory such you won't have any broken links on the page that is supposed to correct your broken link problem in the first place.
You want to make sure you actually create a custom page, not just use the code above to redirect people to your home page. This can cause considerable confusion, especially if someone keeps trying a link that takes them back to the home page, when it's not the page they expect. It's polite to give them the message that something is amiss.
Implement 301 Redirects
If you are moving or renaming pages on your website then you want to implement 301 redirects. The redirect is the single best way to prevent losing visitors that may attempt to visit moved pages at the old location. By implementing the redirect, the visitor (and the search engine) is automatically transferred from the old page location to it's new permanent home. The transition is seamless and the visitor will never even know the link is broken (i.e. no thought required to keep doing what you want them to do!)
There are a number of ways to implement these redirects, but the best way is the 301 via the .htaccess file. Simply add the following code to the.htaccess file, save and upload and you should see the redirect work:
Redirect permanent /page.htm
Redirect 301 /page.htm
Either of those will work. The 301 is a permanent redirect, but you can also implement a 302 temporary redirect if you're making only temporary changes.
If you don't implement 301 redirects on a page to page basis, then you'll have to rely on your custom 404 to keep the visitors on the site. But why show a "page not found" message when you can deliver the visitor directly to the page they hoped to land on? The 301 redirect simply helps you provide a better, seamless experience for your visitors.
Perform a broken link check regularly
In addition to the implementation of the strategies above, I highly recommend performing regular broken link checks. We do this once per month on all of the sites we manage. While many of the sites show no broken links month to month, it's not uncommon to uncover new broken links with each monthly check. Programs such as Xenu make checking for broken links relatively easy.
Xenu Broken Links
But just checking for broken links doesn't mean anything if you don't get in there and fix them too!
By using these three strategies you'll pretty much have all your bases covered regarding broken links. This will ensure that you keep your site free of these errors, but when links are outside of your control, you can keep visitors on and engaged with your site and moving closer to that conversion.

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