If someone visits a page on your website that doesn’t exist, your hosting server will typically generate an “Error 404” web page. There are numerous reasons why a page on your site might go “missing” and therefore display a page not found message:
The page in question is no longer relevant and has been deleted. For example, it might have been about a product that you no longer sell, or an ex-employee profile who no longer works for the business.
The visitor might have typed the full page URL into their browser and misspelled the address.
An external website could have linked to one of your pages and misspelled the address – something which you have little control over.
The name of your page could have changed. When you do this, it’s preferable to do a “301 Redirect” from the old page name to the new page name, but that’s a subject for another day.
Here’s an example of a default Error 404 page:
Exciting eh? As you can see, the default 404 page is not particularly helpful or appealing for the following reasons:
The page contains technical jargon which isn’t helpful to your average visitor.
The page isn’t branded and doesn’t look like it’s part of your website.
The page provides nowhere else to go.
A better approach is to create a custom Error 404 page which provides a chance of salvaging a lost visitor.
Don’t call the page “Error 404”
404 is the error code returned by the hosting server when a page or resource can’t be found. This code is transmitted in the header section of the server’s response and doesn’t have to be seen by your visitors. A better page title would be something along the lines of “Sorry, the page you requested is no longer available” or even “Page not found”.
Given the fact that it’s probably not your visitors fault that they’re seeing this message, try to use apologetic and helpful wording.
Brand your Error 404 page
Brand your error 404 page and use the framework of your site including header, navigation and footer. This provides a better experience for your visitor and is especially important if the page was arrived at via a broken link within your own site.
Include your search facility
Consider including or repeating your search facility on your 404 page. This provides the visitor with the opportunity to search for what they were originally looking for.
Include your contact details
If all else fails there’s still a chance that the visitor will contact you if they can’t find what they’re looking for!
Include a link to your homepage
If your 404 page looks integral to the rest of your site, there should already be a link back to your homepage. However, there’s no harm in providing a specific, “Can’t find what you’re looking for? Try our homepage”
Don’t automatically redirect to your homepage
Avoid the temptation of automatically redirecting visitors to your homepage when they stumble upon your 404 page. It won’t be obvious that the page they were looking for no longer exists and will only serve to confuse them further.
Under certain circumstanced consider redirecting to an alternate page
Yes, you did read that correctly and it goes against the advice above, “Don’t automatically redirect to your homepage.” However, if an external website is linking to a page on your site that no longer exists, there is probably nothing you can do to correct this. However, you can redirect the broken link to a relevant, alternate page. Emphasis on the word relevant. If you don’t have an alternate page for the content in question it’s better not to do this.
Don’t clutter the page
By all means brand your 404 page, but don’t clutter it with lots of content. It still needs to be obvious to the visitor that they’ve landed on a page that doesn’t exist, rather than a page containing lots of irrelevant or semi-relevant content.
Return a 404 error in the document header
Your visitor won’t see the document header, but other systems will, including search engines. By returning the correct 404 error in the header, search engines such as Google will know to remove non-existent pages from their index.
Fix your broken links
If visitors are seeing Error 404 pages from links within your site, it’s imperative that you fix them as soon as possible. Broken links within your own site look careless and will do nothing to improve your conversion rate. One way of finding out if you have broken links, both internally and externally, is by using Google Webmaster Tools.
That summarises our 10 ways of improving your Error 404 page, and you can see one of our recent attempts below:
Published August 3rd, 2016. Written by Gareth Mueller