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Build A Better Website: How To Build A Page… For Pages That Don’t Exist

By August 31, 2012June 26th, 2015Website Design & Marketing
Build A Better Website: How To Build A Page… For Pages That Don’t Exist

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.


What’s a visitor supposed to do with this? Close the browser, or visit another website, that’s what.

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.


A bit of humor and a very useful search box.

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.


Simple, clean and clear. No repetition but a direct call to action: use the links or use the search. And no mention of “404″ at all, which is not a word most people try to use in a sentence each day.

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.


A bit of Star Wars geek humor. This isn’t a consumer site so visitors here would chuckle first, find their page second.

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!

More In This Series

11 Tips For Writing A Great About Page

8 Tips For A Contact Page That Converts

The One Thing You Must Do On Your Services Page If You Want To Make The Sale

Top 10 Ways To Make Your Product Page A Selling Dynamo

Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Hi Carol,

    thanks for sharing your insights. A 404 page can either speak in favor of us or against us. That these errors occur is the most normal thing in the world, as you note, because of house cleaning for example. I realized that I have a little work to do on my own blog.

    I appreciate the reminder.

    Have a great weekend ahead


    • It’s not something we commonly think about. I have news for you, it took me until I was writing this post that mine had broken completely! So I had to fix it before I could post this 🙂

  • Adrienne says:

    I keep ignoring this page Carol. I have yet after all these years I’ve been online to set this page up. Of course I haven’t ever changed the name of a page or a post but I’m sure there is still a reason for that page to come up at some point in time.

    So I guess I need to go in search of how to set it up and then find a really fun thing for them to land on. I love yours at the top. Very creative my friend.

    Thanks for this fabulous post and this very much needed reminder. Dang, one more thing I need to do now.


    • Oh, there’s always something, Adrienne, I know! If you’re using WordPress it’s really easy to customize. In fact most generic ones are not terrible (assuming they’re in English!) The most important thing to do first is make sure you have one. Those generic server errors are bad because there’s no way for a person to find anything on your site and they might think your site is gone and not bother coming back.

  • Hi Carol,
    About a year ago I changed my blog to have proper slugs (instead of mysitecom/p?324 it shows mysitecom/date/correct-slugs) and as a result I had a LOT of incoming links ending up at my 404 page. I quickly learned how to create a good 404 page where I direct them to different places that will help them find what they’re looking for.

    That page came in handy a couple of days ago when my post showed the wrong post date. I fixed it but there were a lot of links already out there pointing to the original post (which was bringing people to the 404 page). Since I have that page I was able to actually redirect people to the right page from there.


    • That’s great, Stacy, especially since you went through such a massive change. Lucky you were smart enough to do that. Lots of people have no idea there is such a thing as a 404 page or how to send people to the right place. Changing something here and there can be a pain but changing urls like you did can be a gigantic pain!

  • Andi-Roo says:

    Zowie! This didn’t even occur to me. Thanks for the great ideas — I’ve passed them on to the hubz in hopes he puts together a fun 404 page for my bloggy-blog. If you’re gonna have errors, do it with a smile, yeah? 🙂

    • I’ve definitely seen some fun 404 pages 🙂 It takes the sting out of that initial sense of oh crap, where the hell did that page go?? Watch out for those WordPress default pages, some of them sound like they were written by a two year old!

  • @Carol: Great write up about 404 pages and I love the samples you have shared. I think webmasters should still redirect some of the ‘popular’ broken links to their equivalent new pages so that the ‘disorientation’ never occurs.

    A search box, list of top pages / services should definitely be part of 404 page. Another widget that I highly recommend for these pages is the Google 404 page widget, they can actually suggest some ‘really good’ replacement pages to visitors. I don’t really know why people don’t talk about the free and awesome tool much.

    Jeet (Somehow Disqus doesn’t show my name but uses my company’s name).

    • Thanks Jeet, and thanks also for sharing that tool from Google. I had actually not heard of it so it’s something I’ll definitely have to look into. I used to do the same type of redirect if I knew I was changing something and there was a corresponding new page but then there was talk about how doing that sort of redirect could actually cause harm to your “link juice” in the long run. For big sites I think that’s probably necessary, specially if major top level pages have moved. On the whole I let the 404 take its course.

      • I think the widget is one of their better ideas though it’s not very popular. I agree that it might be difficult for bigger sites to implement redirect properly, but if it’s a URL structure change and the site has been around for a long time, I wouldn’t worry about link juice or SEO and still redirect old URLs to new ones (use 302 redirect if you are so concerned about link juice).

        If someone is looking to buy apples in walmart, I would give them apples (even if their place may have moved) instead of telling them that bananas are walmart’s most sold fruits. Google widget tries to guess the URLs and hence I like it so much.

  • Hi Carol,

    I love your post, but my question is, and sorry if I missed it, but I read the whole post 🙂 how do you edit a 404 page so it looks the way you want? I’ve seen my own 404 page sometimes, and the header and everything was there, but as far as having the page say …. whatever I’d like my readers to see, I have no clue!

    • In WordPress, there is a 404 file in your theme directory. You can open it in an HTML editor or text editor and change it. If you just want to make text edits, you can overwrite the default text with your own. If you want to display categories, recent posts or something else then you need to add the corresponding php. I’m not a php person so whenever I need to do that type of thing I just Google it and find someone who tells me what code to use 🙂

      And just as an added precaution, it’s a good idea to make a COPY of your file before you edit it. That way if you mess something up you can always go back to the original without having a major headache.

  • Sue Price says:

    Hi Carol
    I am like some of the others and need to do this. Well I have never thought about it before so thanks for writing about it. Oh this list of things to do on my blog kees getting longer 🙂


  • Hmmm Carol, never thought of this one before! Thanks for keeping me posted! This is important information and I did have some questions, but you have answered them in the comment section. As Sue Price has mentioned, “the list of things to do on my blog keeps getting longer” lol.
    Thank you,

    • So true, Donna! Our work is never done! As long as you have a page and not one of those server errors, you’re off to a good start. Then you can customize it the way you want. if you have any other questions let me know!

  • Damn this has just reminded me that I need to do something with my 404 page. Some excellent examples above, I really like to see a creative 404 page it feels like a lot of care has been put into the website.

    • That’s a great point – a good 404 page goes beyond just being useful because as you mentioned, it shows that someone paid attention to the details. It adds to the experience and credibility of the site/business.

  • Hi Carol, Great ideas for a 404 page. I wish no one ever saw them on my blog, but it does happen. I am not a coder so I do need to hire someone to make these changes, but at least now I know what I want!

    • Are you using WordPress? It’s usually pretty easy to update those via your theme. Sometimes there is a field somewhere in your admin to enter the text. Sometimes you can edit the message right in the file. It definitely happens, and it’s good to be prepared to keep people on your site instead of having them leave because they think it’s broken or gone.

      • Yes, I’m self-hosted on WordPress using Thesis, but I like your ideas of offering categories. The editing of code to add the categories looked a bit complex. I have completely broken my blog by trying to mess with the coding so I leave that to the professionals now!