A 404 page exists to acknowledge an error. It usually occurs when a link is wrongly-typed, a post has been moved, or a page or post was deleted. Consequently, the server can’t find the page or post and so serves up the “page not found”.
Some themes come with a basic 404 page. This can be enhanced.
Test your site. Type your address with a page you know doesn’t emxist eg http://your website.com/ducksfly. If you have a 404 template it will pop up. If you don’t, you will get a page served by your webhost and often they are unappealing.
The purpose of improving your 404 is to keep people on your site. Typical user behaviour after seeing a basic or server-based 404 is to close your site and look somewhere else for what they’re after.
How do you make a better 404?
Fundamentally, there are three approaches and you can pick the one within your capabilities and resources to implement.
- At a minimum it’s a good idea to make the 404 more user-friendly. Just changing the words in the template will fix that. Instead of “Page Not Found” you could show “We Seem To Have Lost That”. Change the language from tech-talk to human-speak.
- Next step up is to offer alternatives. Sure, you can add a search box or point them to the navigation menu. That’s better than nothing. But when I land on a basic 404, unless I’m really, really after something only found on that particular site, I’ll go back to Google and search for another site. How can you reduce the risk of visitors doing that? Add links to your best posts or recent post or random posts. You might just pop up something they are happy to click through to, thus they stay longer on your site and that’s what we want, yes?
- If you want to be truly engaging, you can include an interactive element on your 404 page. An animation, a video, a game are examples. Be creative and keep it relevant or entertaining.
- For those wanting to make money from their website, don’t forget the 404. You can run ads on it for others eg Adsense, or, promote your own products (eg link to sales page or products page) or promote affiliate offers. Don’t overblow it though – that will turn people off potentially. Be subtle ad helpful and make the offer relevant to the viewer.
Great. So, how do you implement these improvements?
Step 1 is within the capacity of most tech-savvy types to do. It is simply about finding the text in the file and replacing it. You do need to watch the syntax – those little apostrophes etc in the code have meaning. Never work on your original file – always make a copy and play with that. If you mess up your play file you can always make your original file ‘live’ again.
Step 2 is doable. I managed to add a link to my random posts on one of my 404 pages easily – I just copied the code from a reference site and inserted it into the file. The bonus is not only do you save the viewer but you increase traffic to those others links.
Step 3 is more challenging. If you have a link to the resource (eg video) then it should be just a case of embedding that link so it displays on your page. If you are technically minded you should be able to insert this into the file. If you don’t have a link and need to create a resource … that’s something you can outsource to a programmer.
Step 4 is again a matter of adding a link to your offers. If you want to display an ad on your 404 page then a little more coding effort is required.
If your time is more important then outsource your 404 page enhancement project. Just be very clear what the end-result is that you’re after and clearly communicate that in your project specifications.
Don’t want to outsource and don’t want to get your hands dirty in coding? If you’re using a self-hosted WordPress site then there are plugins you can use. Go to the WordPress Plugin Directory and search for “404” – you’ll find something there and simply install it as you would any other plugin. I’m sure there are similar options for other platforms.
If you do want to have a go, I’ve included some online references I found useful. At this stage I’ve stopped at Step 2 and plugged Steps 3 and 4 into my future work schedule.
When you run a business, there’s always something to do.
When it comes to managing the technical aspect of your business, if you’re not fixing problems, you’re tweaking to improve things. Feel free to outsource this 404 improvement task, though if you’re cash-strapped or plain curious you can learn to do basic stuff yourself.
This post started because I looked for something on one of my websites and arrived at an ugly 404 page.
Knowing it could be better, I searched for ideas and techniques to make a better 404 page.
Here are some of the useful references I found, in no particular order…
Notice Google’s own 404 page? It’s refreshingly simple. Clues perhaps?
ps: the 404 page on this site is still a work-in-progress 🙂