August 29th, 2007 - by ses5909

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have typed in the wrong URL and have come to a 404 – Page Not Found Error. What’s interesting is to see the kind of error pages that are out there. The 404 page is often neglected, which is a big mistake because it’s a very important part of your site and shouldn’t be ignored! In this article we will take a look at a few 404 pages so we can see what TO do and what NOT to do.

  1. The Unix Default 404 Page – Site: The Blog Experiment (before I changed it)Grade D

    Page Not Found

    Now, surely as developers we can do better than this. The only thing this page does right is it tells someone they did something wrong. The only way to do worse than this is to show a blank page!

    Now we know what’s right with this, what exactly is wrong with it?

    • As developers, we have learned the importance of making meaningful error messages that tell the users exactly what they did wrong and help guide them on how to fix it; this page shouldn’t be any different. While the default error does tell someone what they did wrong, quite often a user does not know where to go from there! It’s important to take the steps to tell them or make recommendations on how to fix it.
    • The look and feel of the site is completely non-existent! What happened to the pretty layout that you spent money on or hours creating? Consistency is very important when someone is browsing your site and they may just close their browser when they see this page!
  2. The Windows Default 404 Page – Site: NalgeneGrade C

    Page Not Found

    All of you M$ haters are going to love to hear me say that the Windows Server’s default 404 page is better than Unix’s. Even though the page doesn’t blend in very well, it at least tells the user what they MAY have done wrong and makes a suggestion on how they can fix it.

  3. A Custom 404 Page Site: Search-This Grade B
    Page Not Found

    This page is MUCH better than either of the previous examples. The look and feel is consistent with the rest of the site, it is fun and has personality, it explains that there is an error and what may have led to that error!

    Obviously that example is world’s better than the default, but there is still room for improvement.

    • After you let someone know why they landed here, try to tell them how they can fix it (i.e., check their spelling).
    • When a user arrives at your 404 page, it is a great opportunity to show off your website! You can show some sample articles or provide them with a search form and let them search from there.
    • Provide links to some important pages.
    • Provide a contact form OR a link to your contact page so people can contact you!
  4. A “Grade A” 404 Page Site: Slickdeals Grade A
    Page Not Found

    This is a great example of a 404 page. In the left-hand column it tells you things that may have led you to this page. In the right-hand column, it goes into a little more detail and explains some things to try to get you where you need to go. If all else fails you can click on one of the provided links or contact them. If I was their programmer though, there is one more thing I would do. This is a deals website where new deals are added multiple times a day; they should take advantage of this space and show their latest deals!

You’ve now seen what you should and shouldn’t do with your 404 page. Let me summarize the main points for you!

  • Consistency – The default Windows and Unix 404 pages are just awful and people may think they have actually left your site! It is best to blend in your 404 page with the rest of your site.
  • Announce the error -Make sure you explain to the user that they have reached an error and give examples of what may have caused the error.
  • Provide solutions – Give possible solutions to fixing the error that led your visitor to your 404 page.
  • Show off your site – This is a great opportunity to show the visitor some of your great posts or provide a search form for them. Don’t let this opportunity go wasted!
  • Provide a way to contact you -You should provide a link to your contact form or even the form itself. Let your readers know that if they have any questions, they are welcome to contact you!

I’ve learned that when you are creating a website you really need to give as much attention to the 404 page as your other pages. When someone gets lost on your site which is bound to happen, you can either recover gracefully or scare them away and loseWeight Exercise a potential repeat visitor or customer. Now I want to see YOUR 404 pages!

11 Responses to “What’s Your 404?”

1 Paul Bradish

Currently, my 404 is just a redirect that sends visitors back to the main page of my blog.

I’ve been thinking about turning the 404 into a site map since who knows what they may have been looking for. I really like how Aaron Wall of SEO Book created his 404 page.

2 Golgotha

Thanks Sara for pointing out my dirty laundry. I’ve been meaning to update the 404 page, but haven’t found the time…

3 Colin Carmichael

I once developed a site that had a context-sensitive 404 page. The messaging changed depending on the referrer so that if they had followed a link from a search engine, the message would say “Google has a old link in their index…” or something to that effect. In that case, we would use the search parameter form the referrer to search our own site and present the top 5 options or so. We also, of course, provided a search box prominently on the 404 page.

Things happened differently for different types of referrers – the message for an internally-referred 404 was especially amusing if I remember correctly.

4 Bob

I think i covered the basics with my sites 404 error page, gives the users a few options etc… it also reports the error to me if there is a refer header. Nice article, cheers…

5 John
6 ses5909

@John – And here I thought I had a brilliant idea that hadn’t been done yet! It’s always this way in the blogosphere!

@Colin – That system sounds awesome!

@Bob – Thanks!!

7 Rob O.

I recently overhauled my 404 page and having done so seems to have improved visitor retention somewhat. Roughly 40% of the hits on that page go on to other pages on my site rather than leaving the site alltogether. However, since it averages about 8% of my traffic, I’d like to figure out how to reduce the number of lands on my 404 period…

8 AutisticCuckoo

One thing, though: don’t go overboard with your 404 page! I’ve seen sites where they include branding and everything on their error pages. As an involuntary dial-up user I can tell you that it’s not fun to wait a couple of minutes for a page to load, only to discover that it’s an error message.

Make it useful. Include a link to the site map and/or a search form. If possible, guess which page was meant and supply a link to it. But keep it light. 🙂

9 Golgotha

Dial-up users?!?!
You people still exist? 🙂
I thought even the Quakers had DSL?

j/k Tommy, thanks for speaking up on behalf of dial-up users everywhere…. all 3 of you 🙂

10 Colin Temple

No, no… it’s two now. Didn’t you hear? Timmy got cable.

Anyways, yes the 404 is easy to forget. Thanks for the reminder… I must put proper 404 pages on some of my newer sites!

11 ses5909

@Rob – thanks for the comment!

@AT – You’re right Tommy, it should definitely be a consideration. People don’t want to arrive at a 404 page and then have to sit there and wait to find out what to do.

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