In the “Build A Better Website” series, we’ll dissect a website page by page and put it back together with purpose and great content so that each page of your site can build trust, earn credibility and drive revenue for your business.
If ever a page was overlooked in the grand scheme of things, it’s the page that doesn’t exist! Alas, it’s just as important to accommodate for these non-pages as it is to make sure the rest of your site is fabulous and functional.
The fact is, at some point you’re going to rename a page. Or move it. Or delete it. But the search engines might not catch up with you for a little while. And your visitors’ and readers’ bookmarks aren’t going to know when something has changed. And all those awesome backlinks you spent so much time building won’t know where that page went.
One day, inevitably, someone is going to click a link to visit a page on your site that simply doesn’t exist anymore. And then what?
And then what, indeed!
Smart marketers have a plan for just such an eventuality. And it’s called, in technical parlance a “404 page”. A 404 page is a specific type of page that does a specific thing: it intercepts people looking for a page that doesn’t exist and lets them know it doesn’t exist.
A good 404 page, however, does more than that. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
The 404 Page: Why You Need One
Before we get into “good” 404 pages, you absolutely must have one. If you don’t, and someone tries to visit a page that no longer exists on your site, they’ll get a generic server error that will be of no use to them – or you – whatsoever. A visitor might think your site is down or gone for good. A visitor may very well move on without ever trying another way to reach your site.
Changed URLs and moved or deleted pages are quite common, even if your site hasn’t been around for very long. For sites that have been around there are probably more “broken” pages than good ones! Each of those pages is an opportunity to lose a customer or visitor for good – unless you have a 404 page.
The Good 404 Page: Help Your Visitors Get Oriented
When someone clicks a link that leads to your site, they think they’re going to get to your site. They already have an expectation and perhaps even a vision of what they’ll see. But when they arrive, they’ll probably experience a moment of confusion and will have to process what’s happening. That awesome article, super About page or stunning home page… simply won’t be there.
In the 1.2 seconds that they spend figuring it out you can either welcome them in or you can slam the door in their face.
Assuming you don’t want to slam the door and send them off to a competitor, the first step is to be sure that people recognize with 100% certainty that they are still on your website.
Imagine a friend walking into your house to find the walls have been painted a different color. A bit disorienting at first but at least they know they’re in the right place. Now imagine that friend walking into your house and the walls have been torn down and the floors have been stripped and the kitchen sink is missing. They probably wouldn’t stick around for tea.
When someone arrives at your (disorienting) site page, it should welcome them in. Start by ensuring that common page elements, colors and overall design are the same. Except for the specific content that’s missing, the rest of the page should look exactly like the rest of your site. Same navigation, same background image, same font.
One of the most common 404 page mistakes is simply tossing up a utilitarian “page not found” message. Worse, is when the page says “404 not found” or something similar. That means nothing to your site visitors. Nor does it help orient or welcome them.
Instead of generic messages or worse, jargon, compose a message that lets people know that you know that something is wrong and that you’re willing and able to help.
There are a couple of ways you can do this and it’s all about the message you choose.
Tell people you know the content is missing and invite them to visit another page.
Do this by specifically suggesting pages that may be useful. This might be listing your key service pages, your top-selling products, your most popular articles. The point is less to direct them to the precise page than to capture their interest and direct them to another page and keep them exploring your site.
Include a search box. Don’t presume someone will find the one in the top right corner of your site.
Place one right there in the middle of your 404 page and encourage people to search by title, product or keyword for the page they were hoping to find.
Keep it short and make sure there’s a call-to-action.
A disoriented person does not want to read your brilliantly crafted 500 word apology. They just want to get to your content. A punchy “oops” message with a directive will keep things moving in a positive direction.
Avoid repeating every navigation link on your site in hopes that someone will find the precise page they want.
If your 404 page is within your site structure then it will be easy for someone to continue to navigate your site. A couple of top links is ok. An entire sitemap is probably overkill.
Things Your 404 Page Should Not Do
There are a couple of things you want to avoid altogether and they’re pretty simple, but they require that you pay attention.
Don’t redirect your 404 page to your home page.
Remember, the purpose of the 404 page is to let people know that something they’re looking for isn’t there anymore. Remember the house analogy? Well, redirecting people from a page they expect to see to your home page is like opening your front door and instead of your kitchen you shove your friend into a supermarket.
Keep your 404 page out of search results.
This page only exists as a fall-back, not as a deliberate entry page to your site. If your hosting server is set up properly it will deliver an actual 404 error which will alert Google and search engines that this isn’t an indexable page. If you’re not comfortable with your web host’s capabilities… well, first get a new web host… but you can also exclude the 404 page in your robots.txt file.
Don’t rely on the “out of the box” 404 page.
If you’re using WordPress, many themes have a default 404 page that doesn’t require you to do anything at all. When someone tries to visit a non-existent page, they’ll get the 404 page instead. But while you don’t have to do anything, you should. Default 404 pages are usually not very friendly and they certainly don’t take into account all of the points we just discussed. I’ve worked with themes built by people with fantastic programming skills but not the best grasp on the English language. Check your default 404 page to make sure it’s at least grammatically correct and spell-checked.
So before you breathe a sigh of relief that you’ve got all your content pages done, make sure you pay attention to those pesky non-existent pages and set up your 404 page as a contingency.
All it takes is one mis-typed URL, one broken bookmark or one moved page to lose a customer. The good news is that instead of sending them off with a shrug to your nearest competitor, you can take them gently and turn them to another interesting or useful page on your site.
Have you seen any other super helpful or fun 404 pages? Let me know!