All web users will at some point encounter the dreaded 404 page. It’s pretty much inevitable. But even though it’s common, that doesn’t mean it’s something for brands to treat lightly.
When your users land on a 404 page, it can cause frustration. It makes your visitors more likely to leave your website, and high bounce rates can hurt you when it comes to SEO. And if you have too many links that lead to 404 pages, it makes it look like you don’t take your business website seriously and aren’t worthy of trust.
In short, those 404 pages matter.
When it comes to 404 pages, the main thing you can do to improve your visitors’ experience is reduce the likelihood of them ever landing on a 404 page to begin with. But you should also accept that you probably can’t avoid all possible instances of your visitors coming to a 404 page on your website, so your secondary goal should be to make sure that when they do, the 404 page is well designed and useful.
Step 1: Find and Fix Your Current Broken Links
There are a number of tools designed specifically to help website owners quickly and easily identify all the broken links on a website, and most of them are free. Simply plug your URL into one of these tools to get a list of all the links on your website that need to be fixed.
Then go through and update all of them. Determine which ones need an updated link, and which links should simply be removed. Track your progress as you go so you make sure you don’t miss any, and open each web page to double-check the updated link yourself before moving on to the next.
This takes a little bit of time, but it ensures your visitors will have a better experience on your website. It’s best to take this step once every three months or so to fix any new broken links that come up as quickly as possible. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot them before your visitors do.
Step 2: Update Your 404 Page
Even if you regularly check for broken links, there will likely be times you don’t spot one in time, as well as times when your users enter a URL wrong. Some of your visitors will almost certainly land on your 404 page no matter what you do, so you want to make the most of it when they do.
404 Page Best Practices
1. Keep it on brand.
You want people to know they’re still on your website when they land on a 404 page, to reduce confusion. Many brands still use generic 404 pages that have no branding and no visual relationship with the rest of the website.
A page like this takes someone further away from your website mentally and almost certainly ensures that they’ll click away completely.
Instead, you want people to know they’re still with you. Make sure the page manages to stay within the overall branding style and messaging you want to put forth. NASA pulls this off with a page that shows the beauty of the stars, while still including the NASA logo and website’s main menu.
Clearly you’re more likely to stick around if you land on that page than the one up above.
2. Make it helpful.
The visitor that lands on your webpage got there while trying to get somewhere else. You don’t want them to give up on finding the original page they were trying to get to, so do what you can to make it easy.
Include a search bar and suggested links that help people navigate back to the main areas of the site most of your visitors want to be on.
Toad&Co’s 404 page includes a search bar and main menu up top, along with links to the three pages that most visitors to the clothing site are likely to be interested in: the women’s section, the men’s section, and their blog.
Those who end up stuck on a 404 page on their website know that it doesn’t have to be the end of their destination, they can easily find their way back to a more useful page.
3. Inject some personality.
404 pages are often technical and dull. Your user is already stuck seeing something other than what they were trying to find, you don’t want to make the experience any worse – so make it better instead by being entertaining and bringing some real personality to the page.
Both of the examples above do a good job of reflecting the personality of the brand and adding something a little more interesting to the experience of landing on the page. Steve Lambert goes even further on his website by including a memorable and awkward video on his 404 page that visitors are likely to find entertaining.
It definitely gives you a sense of his personality and makes you more likely to remain intrigued by his site and continue browsing.
How to Update Your 404 Page
If you’re convinced that it’s time to create a custom 404 page for your website, but you’re not too sure how the technical side of updating your 404 page works, that part shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out.
If you don’t use HostGator (you can sign up here!), check with your web hosting provider for instructions on how to access and update your 404 page. If you use WordPress, you can follow these instructions, or go an even easier route and try a plugin like this one.
If you do use HostGator, here are the steps to take (and a video to walk you through them):
- Login to your cPanel account.
- Find and click on the icon for Custom Error Pages.
- Select 404 Wrong Page from the list.
- You’ll see a page with a text box. Fill this in with the html code for the page you want to appear.
- Click save.
- Navigate to a fake URL on your website to check that your update worked and you like how it looks. (You can usually create a fake URL by adding a random letter to the end of the real one, for example http://your-site.com/a).
And you’re done! If creating the actual html code for the page sounds out of your depth and you don’t have a good web designer to turn to, then you can use HostGator’s site builder to work from a template to put something together.
Businesses do so much work to get people to their websites, the last thing you want is for that work to be wasted because a customer bounces after landing on a generic 404 page. If 404 pages must occur (and as we said at the beginning, they’re pretty much inevitable), then you can put them to use to do more for both your brand and your users.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.