You can’t control every little thing that is connected to your website, even if you do what you can to keep it immaculate from the inside. In other words, someone is eventually going to link to your site with the wrong URL or a user is going to type it into the browser incorrectly. What happens then? A 404 pops up.
Typically, this happens because a user has requested a particular web page from a server, but that web page does not exist or isn’t valid. As explained above, this often happens because of broken links, inaccurate links or incorrectly typed URLs in a browser. However, they can also happen internally from your website if one of your own web pages has a broken link or if a web page is removed. As far as 404 pages go, it may or may not be a better option, in terms of SEO, to provide a 301 redirect. It all depends upon why the page is being displayed.
404 or 301: Which Is Better?
To find out whether you have any 404 pages that are popping up consistently, you can use Google Webmaster Tools or others like Check my Links and Link Sleuth. Google Webmaster Tools can not only help you to find out if you have 404’s, but where they’re coming from. Once you have identified the source of your 404’s, you can then determine if they’d be better served with a 301.
When is it better to use a 301 redirect? Well, this kind of redirect is really only best used if you need to keep some valuable inbound links that were directed to a page that now no longer exists. By using a 301, you are redirecting the link juice to a new web page to replace the old one, thereby hanging on to your inbound links.
You worked for those links, right? It makes sense to salvage them if at all possible. In this case, it’s best to create a new page that is as close to the old one. If not, then redirect to the most relevant page possible or at least to the web page that makes the most sense in lieu of the removed one.
In most other cases, though, a 404 is better, especially from a user’s perspective. Let’s say you type in the URL to a very specific article about basket weaving which is a page on a website about the many uses for wood – but you end up on the homepage. You don’t want to read about uses of wood, you wanted that basket weaving article!
You and most other users will at the very least be a little confused and at worst, probably a little ticked off. A 404 at least allows for the chance to explain to the user why the page has been removed or doesn’t exist.
What Should Be on a 404?
A 404 can actually be an opportunity to engage your audience or potential customers. However, there are a few fundamental things that any 404 page should have; regardless of any extras you want to add to entertain your website visitors.
- Notification to the user that page does not exist or has been removed
- A search box
- A link to the website’s homepage
- An easily understood navigation system with links so that the user can potentially find the webpage or section of the site they were looking for
Again, however, a 404 page can be used as an opportunity to engage your audience. You can use humorous or entertaining content to let the user know what’s happened. Most importantly, be sure that your 404 pages have the same look, feel and tone that the rest of your website does.
Even your 404 page should still represent your brand or voice. Be consistent even with these pages, because if a user comes upon a 404 that looks and sounds nothing like your website, 99% of the time he or she will click right out of there and move on. By reassuring your website visitors that they are still on your website and that they can likely still find what they’re looking for, you’ll improve bounce rates and keep your traffic. You can do this by providing the most relevant web page links, but you can also provide useful alternative content that relates to your brand or message.
Good Examples of 404 Pages
The following websites are great examples for how and what to put on a good 404 page.
Anthony Brands does a fantastic job with maintaining brand voice as well as a little bit of content to make the user aware of what happened. It also provides six different popular links to try to guide the user back to the website and get them to where they need to go.
Again, CJ Pony Parts does a great job by representing its brand on the 404. It should be explained that this website is devoted to mustangs and mustang parts according to their year, so the links that are shown as groups of decades across the top is actually a brilliant way to redirect lost users to the year of the car part they are looking for.
Empire CAT plainly explains why the user has landed on their 404, but allows for easy and fast navigation of their site, while also reassuring the user that they’re in the right place with a photo of their industry and business.
37signals has been used for exemplary 404 page illustrations in other blog posts and you can see why. They actually provide informative content, asking the user where or how they got there, while offering three different solutions, as well as links to popular webpages on their site, while still sticking in a little bit of their brand voice.
Last but not least, we have the Moz 404 page. Using Roger, their avatar/mascot/robot-in-residence, they represent their brand well, insert a bit of humor and then fill in the rest of the blanks with helpful links to navigate through their site, a search box and a homepage link.
There are plenty of other examples and even some sites that have annual dedications to fancy schmancy 404 pages. Prevent frustration in your website visitors by at least giving them the basics of a good 404 page. But, by putting a little extra effort into your 404 pages, you might gain a few dozen conversions that would have otherwise clicked away.