Most of the apps you use on a daily basis (Google Assistant, Slack, Zoom, etcetera) have something in common – and it’s not what you’re thinking. Whatever happens, even if it’s an internal server errors, these apps always give you a relevant and carefully designed message. Even when you’re offline, you can open any of those apps and you’ll see at least something, even if it’s not what you were looking for.
In those cases, what the app is showing you is called a fallback page. And it’s an often overlooked part of the user experience.
In this post, we’ll dive into:
- What are fallback pages
- What are 404s, the most common fallback pages
- Fallback pages & UX
- Fallback pages’ impact on SEO
- How to detect these pages with Google Search Console & SEORadar
- Other types of fallbacks & how to use them strategically
Let’s get started!
What Are Fallback Pages?
Basically, fallback pages act as a last resort in case one of your pages is offline or can’t be found. Are they useful? Yes, quite a bit. In cases where the content (or the user) is offline or something went wrong, they are a considerate gesture to the user, and highly improve their experience.
A fallback page can be a basic branded page indicating the user is offline. Or even a creative solution, such as:
- A simple game to keep the user entertained while they wait
- Manual “reconnect” buttons
- A countdown to an automated reconnect attempt
Fallback pages let the user know that they can’t get what they want now. So, it turns that into an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to your users’ needs.
Now, let’s dive into the most common type of fallback page: The 404 error.
404s: The Most Common Fallback Pages
There are numerous reasons why your users may not be able to access the content they want. Maybe the page was moved to a different URL or the URL was typed incorrectly. The most well-known type of fallback page is the one assigned to “404 errors”. But, what is a 404 Error?
A 404 Error is the HTTP code that the server displays when the user tries to access a URL that no longer exists. Users typically find this message when a page has been deleted or they made a spelling error when entering the site’s URL. And it usually reads “Error 404 not found” or “404 page not found”.
The default fallback pages for 404 errors do not provide a satisfactory user experience. So, to meet the needs of your users, you should design your own 404 fallback page.
In the next section, we’ll dive into the role of custom fallback pages in your UX.
Fallback Pages & UX
The goal of UX (User Experience) is to make your website as easy to use and accessible as possible.
Additionally, UX helps you achieve strategic goals by optimizing some of your website’s features. For instance, you can increase sales by optimizing your UX.
UX includes everything from product strategy to copywriting. And yes, Google’s algorithm is becoming increasingly aware of user experience factors. So, UX is essential for modern-day SEO.
UX is about creating an experience that puts your users’ needs at the center. So, while it doesn’t fix things, creating a custom fallback can be much kinder and more considerate to your users than just showing them a generic 404 notice. And, if approached correctly, a 404 can be an opportunity to re-engage your user and lead them to your best content.
Here are some fallback page UX best practices to keep in mind.
- Explain what happened in simple words.
- Provide a link to your contact page so users can get in touch with you to seek help.
- HTML Sitemaps simplify navigation for users. Make the most sought-after resources easy to find.
- Add a search bar to the fallback page template, so the user can search for the resource they desire.
- Be as useful as possible.
- Keep an eye on your 404 page and use Google Analytics to see how much traffic is directed there. A peak in 404 traffic may mean that something’s wrong with your website.
- You can use 404 pages for errors that aren’t technically 404s, such as 410s. But a 404 message tends to bring more clarity to the average user. Of course, use this resource discretionally.
Here are some inspiring 404 examples:
3 Inspiring 404 Page Examples (and what they’re doing right)
Discord’s 404 Page
- Includes an illustration, which means that the Discord team took their time to add some extra value
- Includes very clever and even humorous wording
- Provides links to Discord’s support & status pages
The Wall Street Journal’s 404 Page
- Maintains the same navigation as the rest of the website, making it easy for users to get back on track
- Succinctly explains what went wrong and suggests a solution
- Provides users with a contact email address so they can notify the team about the error, showing that they’re user-centered
The New Yorker’s 404 Page
- Includes a classic New Yorker cartoon, which adds some humor to an unpleasant situation
- Includes very kind and solution-oriented wording
- Suggests two solutions (“try the search tool or visit our home page”)
Should I Have a Fallback Page in My Domain?
In short: Yes, fallback pages are a good idea.
When talking about User Experience, we should remind ourselves that the era of black hat SEO is over.
In this day and age, to rank on Google, you have to genuinely satisfy users and provide them with a curated experience. It’s your responsibility to ensure that your site is truly helpful and valuable. And a fallback page is a simple tool that can reinforce that commitment.
Providing your user with a nice 404 page will prevent them from ending their journey abruptly. This will increase the time users spend on your site, benefiting your SEO.
Detecting Fallback Pages
On the technical side of things, you’ll need to check when your fallback pages appear. In other words, when your users see errors instead of the content they’re interested in. There are various tools that can help you access those insights. In this section, we’ll dive into two:
- Google search console
With Google Search Console
Sometimes, URLs are no longer needed. For instance, URLs for extremely seasonal landing pages. These URLs often turn into 404s, which show up as crawl errors on Google Search Console.
In the Pages report, crawl down to see the list of issues found in your domain and click on “Not Found” to see a complete list of 404 URLs.
Search Console prioritizes crawl errors for you. If all you see are irrelevant 404 errors (such as low-value orphan pages), rest assured that there is nothing important underneath. Crawl errors for 404s you don’t want to be indexed don’t negatively affect the rest of your site, so find a solution that works for you.
You can configure SEORadar so it sends you a notification whenever a page becomes a 404. This instant notification system makes it possible for you to take action before your SEO is affected. Whether that page should remain a 404 or be redirected is up to you to decide.
In some cases, a 404 is the most reasonable option. For example, if the missing content was a landing page for an event that has already passed. Or if it was a landing page for a limited-time offer.
However, in some cases, it may be best to revamp your old content, instead of removing it from your website.
Using Fallbacks Strategically
The term “fallback” doesn’t just apply to pages. It’s also a generic way to refer to an element that minimizes the impact of an unwanted result.
Aside from 404s, there are other types of fallbacks that can enhance your users’ experience and boost your SEO.
- ISR fallback pages
- Dynamic no-follows
Let’s take a closer look.
ISR Fallback Pages
If you run a JAMStack website, you’re probably aware of what ISR means.
When not using ISR (Incremental Static Regeneration), every time you push a new change to your website, the entire production build has to be recreated, just for that change to go live. No matter how small the change or how large the website.
But Next.js changed that. With this framework, when you push new changes to production, only updated pages and components are regenerated.
While your updated page is being rebuilt, your users will be able to access the rest of your site, and if they enter the page in question, they’ll find the previous build’s version. That outdated version is a fallback. In this case, the fallback is there so the user finds something valuable instead of a 404.
For websites with search capabilities, users are practically URL factories. Every time a user performs a search, they’ll create a parameterized URL. That can result in thousands of pages, some of which add no value. And, if low-value pages are indexed, users will likely find them, bounce, and hurt your rankings.
That’s why some teams decide to set up dynamic noindex nofollow tags. This basically consists of a script that automatically adds noindex and nofollow meta tags to pages that meet certain criteria.
Technical SEO Is the Added Edge You Need
In this post, we shared a look into how fallback pages affect your site’s UX, and how your UX affects your SEO.
But there’s more to SEO than meets the eye. Hundreds of technical SEO elements (such as redirects, alt tags, and meta tags) can suffer from inadvertent changes. And these changes can affect your SEO positioning. Keeping an eye on your technical SEO elements is key. Especially if you’re revamping your site to meet higher UX standards. But don’t worry, SEORadar has you covered.
SEORadar is a monitoring tool that keeps an eye on your site’s code 24/7. SEORadar will notify you of any potentially dangerous technical SEO changes before your rankings drop. That way, you can take action fast and prevent SEO disasters. Plus, all notifications can be customized according to your priorities and preferences.