Monday, December 19, 2011

Why You Need a Friendly 404 Error Page

If you visit a page of a website that has been moved, deleted or renamed, you'll see a '404' error page telling you that there's no page at that address. If your website doesn't have a custom 404 error page, users will see the horrible default error screen with a warning message.

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, updating the URL to match. For example might have been changed to If many other websites link to the old page, the link will no longer work, taking visitors now to a 404 error page.

The link you're following is misspelt - The incoming link might have been misspelled when it was created, taking you to a page which doesn't actually exist.

The page has been deleted - Pages can be deleted, but it might still have incoming links that haven't 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 is no longer running. 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 possible 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 user. There's a lot of technical jargon, making it 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 could be very confusing to the user.

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. They might give up and search for a different website.
The last two are especially bad when you consider a visitor following a link from another website, and they get this error. First impressions count, and if this is the first page they see of your site, it's not a good impression! The visitor 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 customised 404 error page that looks and feels like the rest of your site, there's definitely no confusion to your visitor 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.

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. For example: "We couldn't find the page you were looking for... so why not have a look at these other items instead..."

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