404 error, File not found: What your custom error pages must contain!

When a visitor reaches a page on your website that doesn’t exist, by default they get a nasty, ugly document, that very well may end any future interaction with your company.

It is extremely important to create a custom 404 error document for your website. More than any other error page, you must customize your 404 error page to hopefully route those lost visitors back to your mainland.

404 error’s are for the most part unavoidable. I have never seen a website that doesn’t serve a 404 error every once in a while. Whether you mistyped a link, the visitors misspelled a page in their address bar, or anything else, at some point your server will send a 404 error.

What your 404 page must contain:

  1. An Apology for delivering the wrong page.
  2. Something that lets them know they are on the right website.
  3. A search box for your website.
  4. A link to your sitemap.
  5. A link to your homepage.
  6. The proper error 404 headers.

Apologize for delivering the wrong page. – Lets face it, whether your visitor typed the wrong address in the bar, or you made a broken link on your website, it’s still your fault for not showing your visitor what they were looking for. Although possibly humorous, proclaiming that your visitor has the intelligence of a piece of chalk, or ridiculing them for not knowing the difference between an O and a 0 is not a good way to keep their business.

Let them know they are on the right website. – Whoever gets to the dreaded 404 page needs to know quickly that they are at on the correct domain. A logo, your company name, both… Whatever the case, you need to make sure you visitor knows they are on the right website.

Include a search box for your website. – Obviously your visitor is on the wrong page. What better way to help them get back on track than letting them search for what they were trying to find in the first place. If you don’t have a search function on your website, Google has a free one that you can customize for your site, and there are a number of free and paid search engines in every possible language that you can integrate into your website.

Link to your sitemap. – Maybe your visitor doesn’t want to search, and they would rather look at a list of pages on your website. Your sitemap (assuming that it is well formatted) would be the best place for them to look. If your sitemap is going to cause more confusion than a blank page, you should probably work on making it more user friendly, and then put it on your 404 error page.

A link to your homepage. – It is completely possible that your visitor was just trying to get to the homepage. The home page is normally the most visited page on an entire website. Use at least a link that tells them it will send them to the homepage. If you put a logo on your 404 error page, then link the logo to the homepage as well.

The proper error 404 headers. – This one is not so much necessary for humans as it is for search engines and your server’s analytic software. Make sure that your server sends complete 404 Error headers when it is delivered to a user. If it is not configured properly, it will send a status code of 200 which means that everything is OK. 2,000 indexed error pages isn’t going to help your site’s SEO campaign, and if you use log analyzing software, the results are going to be very incorrect. Here’s a good tool to check your error page’s header code. Just enter a page on your website that doesn’t exist and make sure you get a 404 error.

There are a lot of guides to this topic, and I think that a few things that many of those guides do wrong, is recommending to put too much information on your 404 error page. This page is not meant to replace a homepage, and should not be considered a central hub for information. You want to be clear that your visitor is not where they are supposed to be, and quickly give them a few options to get on track. You don’t want your visitors bookmarking 404 pages nor do you want them to send the broken page to their friends. Let them know who you are, that they’re in the wrong place, a few options to get back on track, and then stop!

My example of a usable error page:

Error 404 – File Not Found

I apologize, but I can’t seem to find the page the you were trying to reach.

Here are a few options to help you get to where you want to be:

Visit the Ecommerce Blog Homepage
Visit the Ecommerce Blog Sitemap

Search the Ecommerce Blog:

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  1. […]  Many of us forget the basics when browsing and testing our websites — and one of those basics we might not even see ourselves (because we know our way around) is the 404 Error page.   The ecommerce-blog has a solid post the basic elements of a 404 page which should not be overlooked. […]

  2. Susanne 17 Jan, 2010

    I personal like funny 404 like the one under http://www.olafernst.com/xyz
    The design is different but as it is a technical info I do not care so much

  3. jestep 21 Jan, 2010

    That’s a good one. I wouldn’t use it for a business site, but definitely amusing.

  4. Custom Error Pages 22 Mar, 2010

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