Setting up a Custom 404 Page – Why and How?

A 404 Page is a page on your website that cannot be found by the server. In many cases someone may navigate to a 404 page because the page they are looking for may have been deleted or moved, they may have clicked on a broken link, or maybe they typed an incorrect URL in the address bar.

Of course you should schedule site crawls to minimize errors on your site and protect usability; but by having a custom 404 page in place benefits the user in the event that they navigate to a page that no longer exists. Consider this, not only a usability effort, but also a marketing initiative.

If you don’t have a custom 404 page set up on your site; the user gets a generic message (seen below). However, you should be using your 404 page as an opportunity to be useful to the user instead of giving them a road block standing in the way of the information they are seeking.

404 page error

 

If you don’t have a custom 404 page or you are thinking about improving it after you read this blog post, here are some things you should think about. A good custom 404 page:

  • Explains that the page the user is looking for cannot be found. Don’t blame them, be nice, friendly, and courteous.
  • Is branded consistent to your website. Let people know they are still in the right place, even if they aren’t on the desired page.
  • Is helpful to the user looking for information. Allow them to search the site or point them in the right direction by adding links to the most popular pages on the site.
  • Won’t show up in search engine results. Make sure this page is blocked from being crawled and indexed.
  • Is memorable. If you have a unique company culture, show it off on your 404 page!

You may be wondering “How the heck do I see if my business is using a 404 page?” The way I like to determine the page is by typing in “www.yourwebsitename.com/404” in the address bar. However, for websites like Panera and Heinz, that little trick doesn’t work. Here’s what I see when I type www.paneracatering.com/404 or www.heinz.com/404:

Server Level 404 Page

I found that if I type in www.heinz.com/404.aspx I get a great 404 page (see below). This is more of a server issue; some servers handle 404s differently than others. What would be best is if Heinz set up their server to use all possible URLS and not just specific ones that end with .aspx.

Heinz' 404 Page

What I like about the Heinz page is that they offer links that they think will be helpful to the user and, though you can’t see it here, there is a search feature as well. Here’s a couple of other good 404 page examples:

Mail Chimp 404 Page

This 404 page is from Mail Chimp and although this page doesn’t actually have a list of links they do offer their main navigation and a search function (not pictured here) to get the user to the information they seek.

Zappos 404 Page

Above is Zappos’ 404 page and I have included main navigation and search function. This page shows you how you can effortlessly put together a simple page that directs users back to a page on your site versus leaving it because they couldn’t easily find what they were looking for. I also like the big buttons that they use and how the image playfully sympathizes with the user.

Setting up a custom 404 page

A custom 404 page is something that you can request your website designer or developer to help you set up or, if you have a Content Management System (CMS), you can probably set one up yourself. I inquired with RC, our CMS Developer, about setting up 404 pages using the CMS software. He explains that “if you are running your website with a CMS, setting up a custom 404 page is similar to creating any other page. Once you have created your page, you simply need to tell your CMS to use it as the 404 page. It’s also important to remember that you will need to exclude this page from many of the CMS’s automated tasks, such as site searches and the sitemap.” He also suggests that you might want to consider” creating a 403 page for pages that return an ‘access denied’ error. Many times, users with accounts on the site will forget to login before trying to edit the site, and a ‘404 Page Not Found’ page can be confusing in these situations.” Thanks, RC!

Now that you know what a custom 404 page is and why it’s important; check to see what your business’ 404 page looks like and if it’s being used to its potential. If not, it’s an easy page to improve and you probably just need to consult with your site developer and whoever handles your server files.