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.
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?