If you visit a page of a website that has been moved, deleted or renamed, you’ll see an error telling you that there’s no page at that address. The technical name for this is a ‘404’ error, and they’re very important to handle correctly.
If your website doesn’t have a custom 404 error page, users will see a default error screen like this:
What can cause a 404 error page to show?
These are the most common reasons why a visitor will see a 404 error page:
- The URL of the page has been changed –This could be caused by the name of the page being changed, and the URL is updated to match. For example www.silktide.com/latest-news might change to www.silktide.com/news. If there are many websites linking to the old page, it might be some time before they update the URL, meaning that visitors might follow the link which now takes them to a 404 error page.
- The link you’re following is misspelt – A link on your website might have been misspelled when it was created, meaning that it’s taking you to a page which doesn’t actually exist.
- The page has been deleted – Pages can be deleted, but sometimes a site might still have lots of links to that page which haven’t yet been deleted.
- The website is offline – The website is currently down so the page can’t be displayed.
- The website has been deleted – The website isn’t around anymore. The link you’ve followed might be from a site which still thinks the website exists. If the visitor sees a 404 error message, they might also assume this is the case for all of the reasons above, so it’s likely that they’ll never try to visit this website ever again.
Why is the default error bad?
If the user sees the error above, it’s bad in many ways.
- Too much technical jargon – It doesn’t really mean anything to the average internet user. There’s a lot of wording which uses technical jargon, and it’s not very helpful for non-technical users.
- It’s not branded – If you’re familiar with the lovely colours and design of the site you’re viewing, and then suddenly you’re faced with a nasty looking plain white page with black text, you might think that you’ve gone to another site. This makes your visitor feel uncomfortable and unsure where they are.
- There is nowhere else to go – After your visitor clicks the link that takes them to this 404 page, there are no links for them to follow other than click “back” in their browser.
The last two are especially bad when you consider that someone might be following a link from another website, and they get this error. This is the first page they see of your site and it’s an error page. They might assume the entire site is down, where actually the only problem is that a page has been renamed.
Customise your 404 error pages
It’s possible to customise the 404 error pages that people will see on your website. This allows you to make the page look exactly like any other page of your site, but display a clear message to your visitors telling them that the page they were looking for has not been found.
Give people what they expect to see
With a custom 404 error page you can make the page look exactly like your website, so that there’s definitely no confusion that they might have gone to the wrong website, or that your site might be down when it isn’t.
Keeping the layout of your page the same as other pages on your site will also give users the ability to see your menu and link through to other pages on your site. They might even be able to find what they were originally looking for. Or they could link straight to your homepage and start navigating your site from there.
Explaining the problem
A 404 error page allows you to communicate to your user that the page they wanted can’t be found. Don’t be embarrassed or try to hide that fact.
Some websites don’t have a 404 error page at all, instead they redirect the visitor straight to the homepage if the website can’t find the page that the visitor wants to see. This is bad practice because the visitor might not have noticed a redirect happening, and assume that the homepage is their intended destination.
For example a visitor is following a link from an external site which takes them to a really interesting article on our website, e.g. www.silktide.com/news/really-interesting-article. This page has been renamed lately so the link they’re using is incorrect. Instead of seeing a 404 error page, they are redirected to the homepage www.silktide.com. The visitor was expecting to see a really interesting news article, but instead sees the homepage, which doesn’t contain the information they want to see right now. They immediately leave the site.
Whereas if they see a 404 error page explaining that the article might have been renamed or moved, they might stick around on the site and try to figure out where it is.
It’s best to clearly explain to people who arrive to a 404 error page that they’re on the wrong page, (be polite and apologise too!) just so that there is definitely no confusion. A simple example is: “Sorry, it looks like we couldn’t find the page you were looking for”.
Help people find the information they want
If a visitor has come to a 404 error page on your site, it means they were trying to find something on your site but weren’t able to find the page they were looking for.
You might be able to help people find the correct page they were looking for by listing the common sections, or showing them your most popular pages. Some websites even use the 404 page as another place to push their products onto visitors. “We couldn’t find the page you were looking for… so why not have a look at these other items instead…”
Here is a page with some great examples of custom 404 Error Pages. You will notice that some of them look like the full website, while some of them are a very simplified design. All of them continue the look and feel of the website they represent, so that the visitor won’t be too surprised or confused when they see this page.
If you want to improve your existing 404 error page, read our tips here.