• Eleven steps to creating a killer 404 error page

    by  • February 13, 2008 • Google, Search Engine Optimization, Usability • 21 Comments

    Talk about 404 pages has suddenly hit the blogs over the past day because of the new way that the Google beta toolbar is handling 404 errors. Now, instead of showing a default server 404 erorr page, Google will instead show a few different options to try and find the site, whether it is heading up to the home page or searching in Google for the site. But, if you have a custom 404 error page (one that is longer than 512 bytes, which would generally cover most site’s custom 404 ages) Google will still display your custom 404 page.

    Which brings up what many webmasters have been pondering… what exactly should go on a custom 404 page? Here are eleven things that should go on your custom 404 page.

    Tell them it’s lost
    First, you definitely want to let the visitor know that what they are looking for isn’t actually on the page they thought it was on. Whether you want to leave it simple with “This page cannot be found” or go with something a little bit more amusing like “Whoops, this page ran away!”, just make it clear that the page they came to isn’t there. And do keep in mind the type of site when you create your 404 message. “WTF?” might be appropriate on your Halo 3 gamer site, but not appropriate for your knitting site.

    E.T. phone home
    Give them a front and center link to your home page. Make it easy for a lost visitor to hit your homepage without having to search the top of your site and sidebar for the link that says “Home”. This is especially crucial when your site’s logo does not link to your homepage.

    Use your site’s template
    Many, many sites just use a plain page with perhaps the logo at the top, but fail to include the main site’s navigation on the page. You should include this for two reasons. First, you want new visitors to be able to see what your site offers at a quick glance, even if they couldn’t find what they came for originally. And second, your repeat visitors will likely be familiar enough with the site that they can use your navigation to find the section where their expected article will be.

    Search it
    Place a search box front and center, if you don’t have one on the site above the fold. If people know you have – or at least had at one point – an article about a specific topic, they can easily search for the title or topic to find exactly what they are looking for. But on a side note, make sure you are using a decent search service for your site search.

    Tempt a visitor with what’s popular
    Do you have two or three articles that are most popular on the site? Include teasers and a link to them from your 404 page. Likewise, does half your site’s traffic end up in one particular area? Include links and enough information about it to encourage those visitors to explore more rather than hitting the back button.

    Help files, FAQ & site tours
    Do you have help files or a site FAQ that someone would find useful? Include a link to it so people can help themselves if they need it. If you have a site tour, you will want to make sure that a link to that is pretty prominent on your 404 page too.

    Don’t go overboard
    That said, while you want to make sure you give those lost visitors some carefully chosen options (aside from the site’s regular navigation) to help them find their way, you want to ensure you aren’t overloading them with too many options. Ten to fifteen carefully chosen links to help a visitor on your 404 page is far more effective than throwing 50 or 100 links their way. This is why having a search box is so important, because you don’t need to go overboard with options since they can search for those options instead.

    Skip the ads
    If you have some advertising in your site template, such as in the sidebar or the header/footer, leave those in. But resist the temptation to fill all that pretty white space in the middle of your cusotm 404 page with two large rectangle AdSense ad units. Not to mention it is against the AdSense T&C’s to do this. The purpose of a helpful 404 page is to help those visitors find what they are looking for, not bombard them with ads and hope to make a few cents off them.

    Avoiding the redirect
    Ideally, you should give visitors a proper 404 page. Resist the temptation to just do a 301 or 302 redirect to those lost souls and send them off to your homepage, even though you are certain they will find that homepage just what they were looking for.

    Submit an error report
    If you don’t watch your 404 error logs or if you are a paid subscription site where people expect to see that missing page, you might want to give an option to submit an error report. Just make sure that the appropriate person gets it and that it is followed up on when it is resolved, even if it is just a quick email to the original sender with a URL telling them where they can find the article now.

    Track how people end up on your 404 page
    Check and see what the referral is that people are landing on your 404 page by. You could discover that you have a bad link on your site that is driving traffic to a 404 because you used .html instead of .php when you coded the link or something equally as simple. So you can not only discover where the bad links are coming from, but you can also rectify it. And if you discover a fair amount of traffic coming from a particular external site, ask the owner to either recode the link, or you can redirect it yourself to the appropriate page. And also track what people are clicking on to leave the page… if most people hit the search box, you can assist bymaking it most prominent on the 404 page. Likewise if one of your popular articles gets most of the traffic off the 404 page, you know that is one that is matching the needs of many of the lost visitors.

    404 pages are incredibly easy to create… if you managed to create a website, creating a custom 404 page should be easy… you will probably spend much more time chosing the links to place on it. And while you may not need to follow all the steps – you may not have a FAQ or have no desire to collect error reports, this will definitely help you create a 404 page that works for your site.

    And as an added bonus, once you have created your custom 404 page, you won’t have to worry how any web browser or toolbar will handle error pages when you do not have a 404 page to be found. I just polished off my 404 page on JenniferSlegg.com… does anyone else have a newly created 404 page they want to show off?

    About

    Jennifer Slegg is a longtime member of the SEO community and is an expert on social media, content marketing, Google AdSense and search engines.

    21 Responses to Eleven steps to creating a killer 404 error page

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    2. February 18, 2008 at 9:21 pm

      Thanks for the great article, I followed your advice, my 404 page is linked to my name in this comment. I think it looks pretty good!

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    4. February 20, 2008 at 2:50 am

      Thanks for noting. At the moment my 404-page is in English, while my site is in Dutch. I will change it right away :P

    5. February 20, 2008 at 7:34 am

      Parse REQUEST_URI and HTTP_REFERER for hints what the visitor might interest, do a site search and display the best results on the 404 page. Also, if the HTTP_REFERER is a SERP, put the visitor’s search query in your site search box.

    6. February 20, 2008 at 9:24 am

      You said it very well. Maybe add a 404 Not found t-shirt ? :)

    7. Jenstar
      February 21, 2008 at 10:23 am

      Sebastian: Just make sure you don’t prefill the search box if you are using one of the AdSense for Search options on your search! I don’t, but I do know many people are using it on their sites, and Google tends to get a bit cranky about it sometimes! Although I suspect they would be more likely to go after those in the “higher paying keyword” markets than in other ones.

    8. Jenstar
      February 21, 2008 at 10:25 am

      webdev: I always thought ThinkGeek should have done 404 HTTPanties too!

    9. February 21, 2008 at 4:22 pm

      hey, you just found a niche! go make some money … :)

      thanks for the TG link, haven’t been there since like 3 years ago. almost forgot about them.

    10. February 24, 2008 at 6:46 pm

      Great advice, I did customize my 404 page, a very helpful and SEO Error Page,I include it a picture of Clint Eatswood and with the WordPress plugin that I found here:AskApache Google 404
      Regards!

    11. March 7, 2008 at 8:28 pm

      Great Article! One item I find valuable on a small Web site is placing a site map on the 404 page. It gives the visitor a quick overview and some choices on what to click on next. Much like choosing the most popular pages as you suggest. Thank you for the excellent pointers!

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    13. Frank
      March 17, 2008 at 3:03 pm

      You mentioned to avoid using a redirect. I was wondering if there is a SEO reason for this. If, for example, I redirect all my 404 traffic directly to my homepage, is this good or bad for SEO and for rankings?

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    15. Uzair
      April 6, 2008 at 10:09 am

      Just to make it clear that after google changed AdSense ToS, you are now allowed to put adsense ads on error pages.

    16. April 24, 2008 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for the tips.

      Any idea where I can find the code to but a ‘report the error’ button on my 404 pages?

      Greetz!
      Mieke

    17. Jenstar
      April 26, 2008 at 11:00 am

      Are you looking for a WordPress plugin for your blog, or just for a website in general?

    18. July 10, 2008 at 1:23 am

      Gud Post… But…

      How to edit 404 in Blogger?

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    20. skamp
      February 20, 2009 at 9:35 am

      kinda funny.. in the article you say not to redirect to the homepage.. but your 404 does just that?

    21. Jenstar
      February 20, 2009 at 10:30 am

      Yes, but it didn’t until a couple weeks ago when I used this new blog template ;) And it is definitely a more important tactic for commerce sites, which this clearly isn’t. I also watch for 404s on a server level for incorrect backlinks and either get the corrected or do a 301 redirect so the person gets where they had wanted to go.

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