13 ways to improve your 404 error page

404 errors

I’ve previously explained the reasons for a 404 error page, but once a visitor sees this on your website they might not be sure what to do next. The content they’re looking for might have been moved, so you should do what you can to help them find it. Or the content might have been removed which means they’re likely to leave your site unless you can give them an incentive to stay.

There are many things you can do to improve your error page, so we’ve listed some below. For some examples of creative and inspiring error pages have a look at this list.

There’s no need to get technical

The term “404 error” used to be pretty standard, but there’s no reason to use technical terms which might scare off your visitors. The title “Page not found” is more accurate and sounds less geeky.

Don’t blame the visitor

Your visitor has probably followed a link from another website, or an old link on your site. It’s not their fault that they’re seeing this error message, so be nice to them! Write wording that’s apologetic and helpful, rather than text that makes them feel stupid.

Ask the visitor to check their spelling

There’s a chance that the visitor is seeing this error page because they typed in the URL themselves and made a spelling mistake. Ask them to check their spelling, but don’t be rude about it. Like we said in the point above, don’t word it like you’re blaming them.

Make the header return a 404 error

Every web page has a server response code. 200 means the page is okay, and 404 means the page cannot be found. If you’ve specified your own custom 404 error page you need to make sure the page’s headers are returning the correct response code. There are several different ways you can achieve this, the simplest is to use your htaccess file to specify an error page; there’s a tutorial for this here.

Make sure it’s obvious that the page can’t be found

State very clearly that the page the visitor is looking for can’t be found and don’t make the page look too similar to a normal content page (e.g. by adding too much text and links.) You still want to make it clear that this is an error page, so don’t be shy about letting them know.

Help the visitor find what they were looking for

The 404 error has been shown to the visitor instead of the page they were looking for, so you should try to help them find the original page. Make sure your error page contains a menu, to allow the user to find the page they wanted. You could even include links to pages that you know have recently moved.

Include a link to your home page

Don’t leave visitors with nowhere to go or with no way of finding out what your company do. There should at least be a link back to your home page. This way, visitors who have followed a link from another website can find out who you are and what your site offers and might even find some content they like.

Easily allow visitors to send you a message

If the visitor has followed a faulty link on your own site, you’ll want to know about it. If you give them a way to easily send you a message via your 404 page, they can report the fault so you’re able to fix it. Include a really short form that asks them to tell you which page they came from and which link they followed. That way, you’ll have all the information you need.

They might also feel confused and annoyed that the page they want can’t be found, so giving them a place to vent their frustration gives you the chance to respond and help them. This might save you from losing a potential customer.

Keep the same look and feel of your brand

We’ve all seen examples of cool error pages which are a great ‘Easter-egg’ for your visitors to find. But don’t make the design of this page so different from your other pages that it doesn’t look like your website at all. This will confuse the visitor who might think they’ve been taken to an external site.

Translate into your languages

If your site is multi-lingual the 404 error page will catch the errors from all language versions of the site. Whatever message you decide to display, you might want to translate it into all of those languages so that everyone can understand it. Also provide a link back to their language version of the site.

Allow visitors to search for what they wanted

If the page the visitor was looking for has been moved, you might want to give them the ability to search for where it’s been moved to. Consider adding a search box to the page.

Fix your broken links

If you get a high number of people seeing your 404 page (check your website’s analytics to find how many) you might have lots of broken links on your site. You could stop people seeing the error page altogether by just fixing these links. Website testing tools like Nibbler can check your entire website for broken links, enabling you to find and fix them quickly, without having to wait for someone to tell you.

Don’t redirect to the home page

Some 404 error pages redirect immediately to the website home page. This is bad because it won’t be clear to your visitor that they’ve reached an incorrect page, and they might be confused about how they got to your home page.

So that was our 13 ways to improve your 404 error page. But what do you have on your 404 error page? Is there anything you do differently that we’ve missed off this list? Let us know in the comments below.

One thought on “13 ways to improve your 404 error page”

  1. I think Your suggestions here are absolutely great! But it is too bad that most website developers are more about their childish egos than their websites or the patrons/victims who happen upon their ego-ridden websites.

    I feel what You preach here is really just common sense and HUMANE. But for those without common sense or a shred of humanity, it would never occur to them to even read Your suggestions in the first place. Instead, their meaningless ego is their guide. In fact, your suggestions fall under the heading of, “a word to the willfully ignorant”, because the wise [web developers] would never need this sort of coaching.

    For, it is rare that I ever come across a 404 page that is not written extremely insulting and rude as hell. You are right to say that people can happen on to an unstable schizo website, where URLs mindlessly and flippantly change often.

    So when sites are that unstable and flippant, and their 404 page is that RUDE, I simply abandon the website. Such a website is not worth my time or the hassle over. Why would I ever suffer a headache created by a typical mindless and inhuman web developer, when he would never buy my ibuprofen for me in the first place?

    Really, I have never yet come across a 404 page that made any effort to help facilitate me in finding the webpage I was looking for. Most internal website searches don’t work — such as medical websites or corporate technology or tools websites; and Google is out for me too — a thing of the past, for those of us Human Beings who choose to live a google-free lifestyle nowadays.

    Regardless, bravo for the great article!!

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