A 404 error page is the page that the user may reach due to various reasons. Some of the reasons are:
- The user has entered / spelt the URL incorrectly.
- The page has been moved or deleted.
- The URL they clicked on was incomplete or cut in an email or message.
The 404 error page should be considered as a very important page as it may be the only page that the user would ever see on your site. If a user see a generic page or message and it does not helps them find what they were searching for then or provide them with some other options, they would just leave the site and not come back. This can cause the bounce rate of your site go up.
It is very important to have a customized error page rather than the standard error page. You should always create a custom error page and make sure your sever uses it. If you are using apache it is very simple to do using .htaccess file as I mentioned in a previous post (.htaccess tips). Just add the following line in your .htaccess file.
ErrorDocument 404 /404.php #Not Found
A good custom 404 error page will inform the user that the page they were looking for does not exist, provide a way to find the content they were looking for, and provide links which are helpful or popular to encourage them to explore your site.
There are many things that can be done to improve the error page, some of them are listed below.
Inform user about 404 error through a friendly and not technical message.
Always tell the users that this page is not the one which they were looking for and that the page they were looking was not found. Don’t use the technical terms like “404 error” on your 404 error page. Not all users understand what “404 error” means. Some users may get confused after seeing that. So, it is always better to user some simple term like “Page Not Found”.
Tell the user why they are seeing the error page.
There are many reasons why the user may be seeing an error page, but it is always good to inform them about some possible reasons why they are seeing this page. Tell them that if they followed a link from somewhere then probably the page was moved or deleted or if they clicked a link from an email the link may not be complete and try copy pasting the link, or they might have misspelled the URL.
Provide users the option to search for what they wanted.
Often users who see the 404 page are the ones who were looking for something or clicked some link. If possible add a search box on the page so that the user can search for the content they wanted to see.
Include a link to your home page and show other options.
Always, include a link to your homepage along with other options for the user. Tell the user that they can go to the homepage or use the search box or check out some popular sections of your site, contact you and other options which can keep them interested in the site.
Keep the look and feel of the page same as other pages.
Make sure your 404 page has the same theme as any of your other pages with the header, menus, navigation, etc. Don’t have a very different theme/look for this page than your site as the users may think they are on some other site and not your site.
Always return a 404 error code.
It is very important to always return an HTTP 404 error code and not a 200 code for an 404 error page. This is because the search engine can identify that this was an error page and not index it. If you return an HTTP 200 code, then the search engine may think this as a valid page and index it.
Add related content / useful links.
You can also try to add some content which may be similar to the content the user was looking for or add links to some of your popular content. You may also display the categories for your site. This will help in engaging the user to your site rather than simply leaving it.
Allow the user an option to report a broken link.
You can also add a contact us form or report broken link form to you error page so that the users can report the broken page so that you can take appropriate action.
Don’t redirect to the homepage.
Never redirect the user to the home page when a 404 error occurs. Always send them to a custom 404 page. This is to avoid the confusion for the users.