The Importance of a Great 404 Page

There are few pages more dreaded in the web design world than the 404 error page, which flashes on the screen when users click on a link that simply cannot be found on the site's web server. It's a page that is almost always equated automatically with failure or a dead end, but it just doesn't have to be that way. In fact, websites that embrace 404 error pages as more of an opportunity than a failure will stand the best chance at capturing "lost" users and turning them into viable clicks.

Error Message

The key thing to remember about a 404 error page is that it's still a page that the website has full control over. Sure, it's not the ideal situation, but it's one that can guide users toward useful content, company contact, account creation, or search tools that help them maximize their visit while helping the company maintain its sterling reputation.

To fully implement a 404 error page that embraces this opportunity to capture visitors and convert them into meaningful readers, website owners and their designers simply have to adhere to a simple checklist of things to include in the design of these error pages. By including each of these elements, and adhering to a few basic rules, 404 error pages will shed their dead-end stereotype and earn praise as a gateway to site content and company products.

The Value of Consistency: 404 Error Pages Absolutely Depend On It

Whether website designers like it or not, a 404 error page currently elicits a negative response from the average Internet user. They're typically confronted with the page at a time when they’re almost certainly waiting for a useful article or great product to load instead, and they're often discouraged upon its appearance. This is jarring enough on its own. Unfortunately, all too many companies think that a 404 error page should consist of just the "page not found" error, along with a simple design that doesn't mesh with the rest of the site's layout.

This is a big mistake. A 404 error page should never be just an error message, and its design should never deviate from the standard design featured across the rest of a website's pages, store listings, blog articles, and more. Instead, the goal of a good 404 error page is actually to confront confusion and a sense of being lost with a familiar design that soothes the user and reassures them that this error can be easily fixed through just one more click.

To that end, a 404 page should be created within the confines and layouts of a company's existing content design. That means giving the page the same header, footer, sidebar, and content area as any blog post, product page, or company page would offer. Instead of using a flat backdrop and a rather bland error message, use the extent of this page to offer condolences and content recommendations that keep the user in the fold. Follow a few basic rules to make this a success.

Rule Number 1: Include an Error Message that Entertains

Want to hear something boring? Try this on for size:

"Error 404: This Page Could Not Be Found or is Missing from the Server."

Consumers will see this as essentially the end of their journey and, with so many web browsers featuring a search bar right above where this error message would be displayed, they'll see it as an opportunity to search Google for something similar that doesn't benefit the company at all. This is a worst-case scenario, but one that is simply all too common.

Instead of just displaying a standard error that looks like something from the depths of early-2000s Apache kernels, display something more entertaining and useful. One of the best error pages a user can stumble upon is one that says "Oh crap! We got rid of this page. Here's another page that you should try instead." It's self-deprecating and funny, and it grabs the user's attention in the way that a simple 404 error message just would not accomplish. While every company doesn't need to resort to "oh crap!" to command attention, there are plenty of unique ways to make a 404 page as useful and as entertaining as any piece of hard-written marketing copy in a company blog.

Rule Number 2: Use the Error Page as a Way to Create Value

The first step to creating something of real value on a 404 error page is to write an error message that commands attention more than a standard 404 alert displayed by the web server. So far, really great strides have been made toward capturing the user and making sure that they return to the company's products or content instead of going elsewhere to have their needs be met. More must be done, however, to increase the value of the page and focus on the importance of opportunity that a 404 error presents.

Below the brief error message and a sort of apology to the user, website owners must list some suggestions for users so that they continue to interact with what the company has to offer. Instead of simply telling the user that an error has occurred, follow up an error message with a sentence that reads like the following:

"We're sorry that we couldn't display the content you were looking for, but here are some of our greatest hits from recent weeks."

Below this brief apology and instruction, the company would simply list some of its most-commented blog posts or most-purchased items from an online store solution. This would give the user "a way back" instead of inviting them to simply exit the site and leave the error behind. In addition to these products, though, the company can take things a step further.

Many successful websites pair their most active content with a list of the newest posts, recent user comments, and an account login area. All three of these things encourage users to come back to the site's core. Including recent posts indicates freshness, while showing recent comments gives the user an indication that there are plenty of people on the site who might be able to help. Offering an area to login to the user's account gives them a tool to use that might help them find what they were looking for in the first place.

Rule Number 3: Remind Customers that They Can Be Part of the Solution

An error page isn't enjoyable for users, nor is it enjoyable for the company that relies on its website to interact with them. The good news is that both parties can benefit from this situation in a way that encourages meaningful interaction and could even cause the user to become a more frequent visitor to the website. So far, the user has been informed of the error, entertained by the occurrence of the error, and they've been given excellent tools for finding value on the error page and throughout the website. Astute site owners can probably identify the one thing that seems to be missing from this equation.

For those who couldn't pinpoint the missing element, the answer is simple: The user should have a way to report the error and get in touch with the company so that things can be fixed up and made right. Of course, this is something of a formality in many cases. Thanks in no small part to analytics software solutions and in-depth website monitoring tools, most businesses can easily identify 404 errors and missing content with ease. That being said, there are still oversights every now and then that go unaddressed for a long period of time.

Giving users the ability to not only redirect themselves away from the error, but also to report and help the company learn from it, accomplishes a few goals. For the company operating the website, it gives them a two-tiered defense against missing content. It also provides a meaningful stream of user feedback concerning the site's regular operation. One of the most overlooked benefits of this approach, however, is that it also prompts the user to interact with the company and take meaningful action. The company can then contact them regarding the error and suggest a fixed link to the exact product or article the user was looking for. That's great customer service.

For the user, they feel like they're part of the company's efforts to produce a better website. They view the error reporting tool as a form of great customer service, and they're more likely to recommend the site to others based on this perceived attentiveness. If and when the company responds to the error report, they'll feel far more valued overall.

Error Pages Are Important Ways to Create Value and Cultivate Customers

Don't view an error page as a failure. Instead, understand that these 404 error pages are an opportunity to guide users toward new posts, popular products, user account management tools, and even error reporting options. Each of these design elements will increase the page's value, elevate the number of successful conversions, and reduce the likelihood that users view 404 errors as an exit rather than an opportunity to go back and try again.

Written 2013-10-07 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)

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