The understandably dreaded 404 or “Not Found” error message is the kiss of death to visitors and search engines alike. When a visitor or search engine crawler can’t find a page that they’re looking for on your website, it’s game over…or is it? It doesn’t have to be if you create a custom 404 error page that doesn’t suck.
Huh? What’s A 404 Error Page?
A 404 is a standard response code from a web server that indicates that the client (web browser) was able to communicate with the server, but the server could not find what was requested due to any number of reasons including:
- A mistyped URL
- A user error with copy/paste
- Broken or truncated links on web pages or in an email message
- Files that have been moved or deleted
A 404 “Not Found” error indicates that the requested resource may be available again in the future, as opposed to a 301 (permanent) redirect or a 410 “Gone” error. If you’ve somehow never seen a 404 error page before (very unlikely), I’ve included an example at the top of this post.
Some hosting companies actually supply you with their own 404 error pages so that it’s not left up to your web browser. These can often confuse visitors since they’re created using your hosting company’s website layout and not your own. They’re also no more useful than the default 404 shown by web browsers, so I definitely don’t recommend leaving these in place.
Instead of just serving up the default browser error or using a page supplied by your web host, it’s considered a best practice to create your own custom 404 error page. For detailed instructions on configuring your website to display custom 404 pages, check your server or web hosting company’s documentation. You should still make sure that your web server returns a 404 status code to visitors and crawlers so that search engines don’t accidentally index your custom 404 page.
Creating Custom 404 Error Pages
Since a 404 error page can be a standard HTML page (or whatever language the rest of your pages use), you can customize it just about any way you want. Some suggestions for creating a great 404 error page that keeps visitors on your site by helping them find the page(s) they’re looking for:
- Tell visitors clearly that the page they’re looking for can’t be found. Be descriptive and helpful.
- Make sure your 404 page uses the same look and feel (including navigation) as the rest of your site.
- Add links to your most popular articles or posts, and always include a link to your site’s home page.
- Consider providing a way for users to report a broken link to you or your webmaster from the 404 page.
- Use the Enhance 404 widget to embed a search box on your custom 404 page and provide users with suggestions.
- Another useful tool is the Change of Address tool that tells Google about the pages that have moved.
- If a page has been renamed/moved, always 301 (permanently) redirect to the new page name or location.
- One last tip worth noting…if possible, be creative with your 404 page.
Check out these sites for unique examples:
A few of my favorites (although not necessarily the most effective):
Feel free to share your favorite examples of well-designed 404 pages in the comments below!