Everyone who has been online for any amount of time will have seen an Error 404 page. This is often a frustrating experience when you are trying to reach a certain page and you see this message. Whether the page says “Error 404” or “File Not Found” it means that the page you’re trying to reach does not exist at that location. Some website owners program these pages to contain humorous messages to soften the blow, but it still means that the content you were seeking is not available.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on Error 404 pages from the point of view of the website owner. There are a few reasons why this is an important issue if you have a website.
An Overview of Error 404 Pages
404 is a standard HTTP code that simply means that a server was not able to find a page or a server resource that a client was requesting. Other common ways to describe this problem are broken links or dead links. This is not the same thing as the “Server Not Found” message, which indicates that the entire website or domain in question is not functioning. There are a few possible reasons why this message comes up.
Typed in a wrong website address
In some cases, the message occurs simply because the website visitors typed in a wrong URL. They usually making the typo towards the end of the URL (otherwise, they would have landed on an entirely different website).
The page has been deleted or moved
Another reason for a 404 error is that the page has been deleted or moved. For example, you may have decided, for one reason or another, to remove a certain page or post from your website. If someone finds a link to that page, he or she will end up with Error 404 or File Not Found message.
Scheduled or unscheduled maintenance
The website is temporarily offline. This could be due to a problem with your web host, or because you are doing maintenance work on your site.
Whether the fault is yours (the website owner) or the visitor’s, this can mean a lost of traffic. Most people who are browsing the web are not patient enough to contact you to let you know there’s a problem or start looking for other pages on your site that are functional – unless you guide them to do, as we’ll be exploring in the next section.
While it’s not possible to completely eliminate the possibility of your visitors encountering a 404 page, there are some ways to make this work in your favor – or at least prevent it from working against you.
Custom 404 Error Pages
By creating a custom 404 page, you can accomplish a couple of things. First of all, it shows the visitor that your site is still functional. It also makes the visitor feel better about your site, especially if your custom message is friendly, informative or even funny. The default 404 error just sounds like technical jargon and makes visitors feel like they have landed on a dead website!
The type of custom 404 page you should build depends on the type of site you have. In general, you should keep it consistent with the overall theme of your site. Ideally, you should design the 404 page so it matches the rest of your site. Branding this page reminds visitors that they are still on your site, not in some internet limbo.
With a custom 404 page, you can suggest options for the visitor, such as visiting your homepage or another page on your site. Some websites use 404 pages as a way to build their brand. A humorous or attractively designed page can actually turn a mistake into something positive for your brand or website. Here are some examples of companies that have done this:
- Dan Woodger
- South West Trains
- Blue Fountain Media
- Hot Dot Production
Another option is to set up your site so that visitors never land on a 404 error page. To do this, you would set up a redirection – usually to your homepage, but it could also be any page on your site. The downside to this approach is that if the visitor was trying to find something very specific, they may be disappointed by the redirection to your homepage (or the page you have chosen to redirect to). At least a customized error page explains that there was a problem and may suggest a solution, such as visiting another page on your site or trying the page later.
Most large web hosts such as Bluehost, iPage and FatCow allow you to set up a custom 404 page. If you have free hosting, or use a free blogging platform you won’t be able to do this, but any of the well known hosting companies make this possible. Since the exact process will differ from one company to the next, you will want to follow the instructions given by your web host on how to do this.
For example, if your web host is GoDaddy, you would follow the instructions given here on setting up a customized error 404 page.
Error 404 Pages Should be Managed
You can’t always prevent your visitors from reaching an error page. You can, however, make sure that they see something that lets them know that your website is still active and that you are interested in providing them with the information they were looking for. The problem with the default Error 404 page is that it’s so impersonal that it usually causes visitors to click away from your site, possibly to never return. By creating a custom 404 page, you can retain some of these visitors.