Thoughts on 404 Not Found error pages

Have you ever wondered why you should have that 404 Not Found page? What’s the use? The page is gone or broken and you don’t want people to end up there, so why not just redirect that page to the homepage of your website? They even made WordPress plugins that will help you do this, so why not, right?

Wrong. What you’re basically doing is putting people on a train they did not choose themselves. If I want to go to Paris, why send me to London instead? If a visitor wants to find a certain page on your website, give him that page or an explanation of why you can’t.

Back to basics

The 404 Not Found error means that the URL that was requested doesn’t point to a certain page. Or as Wikipedia puts it:

“The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code indicating that the client was able to communicate with a given server, but the server could not find what was requested.”

The page may have been deleted, or the URL was misspelled. The permalink structure might have changed or even the domain name, and redirects could have been set wrong. It doesn’t matter why the page isn’t there anymore. Just bear in mind that it’s probably your fault and not the visitors fault, and write content for that 404 Not Found page based on that assumption. Keep a close eye on your 404s, which can be done by using, for instance, Google Webmaster Tools or Screaming Frog.

Note that if you have some pages that need to go down temporarily, the use of a 503 Service Unavailable would of course be better than serving a 404 Not Found page. Smashing did an article on maintenance pages back in 2009: Effective Maintenance Pages: Examples and Best Practices.

Required elements of a 404 Not Found page

Let’s think about this for a while, because the internet is flooded with manuals for great 404 pages and everybody, including myself, has a different opinion on this.

First, I really don’t think the 404 should be a redirect to any other page. In the article 404 Page Best Practices, SearchEngineWatch also refers to this as not being the most user-friendly solution. There are plugins that semi-intelligently link the visitor to a ‘closely related’ page. This may seem smart, as that will give the visitor the information they want. Kind of. But probably not entirely. The visitor might still feel left alone on your website and click back to Google. That is the very reason I don’t like the redirect to the homepage. We test 404s in our site reviews and when we are redirected to the homepage, we will always add a chapter about creating a great 404 Not Found page, with a link to this article. Joost already explained a lot about the visitor’s mindset in that post.

That visitor expects an explanation on why you broke your website. I think just a small explanation is required.

There are a few options for why that page broke. You may have changed permalink structure. If you just did that, perhaps you want to know what the visitor did to get that 404 Not Found. Just ask him. You could also have deleted the page, as many 404s state: “The page is gone”. No. That page didn’t go anywhere but in your trash can. “We may have deleted or moved this page” is a more suitable description.

That would also mean the page is still around somewhere else. Why not point the visitor to a search form or site map? Luckily these are pretty common practices. What I also like, especially in an online store, is bestsellers or recently visited products. Keep that visitor on a shopping spree. On a blog, that would mean displaying popular articles or recent posts. A 404 page should never give the visitor the feeling that they have reached the end of your website.

Examples of nice 404 Not Found pages

Annoying elements of a 404 page

I have to mention South Park here. They did a great job on creating funny 404s, just refresh the page and the SP fans will go wild, but it’s just not the best 404. Even with the most popular listings below the fun part. Create an actual page, don’t just try to be funny, as dull as it may be.

The worst one: the dog ate the page. Note that this might be personal. Even on a pet site, a dog on your 404 page just doesn’t make me smile (but what a nice website otherwise, indeed). Even when the 404 Not Found page isn’t bad at all like on this page, it may be overdone. Or I’ve just seen too many 404s with dogs already :-)

Fun is great by the way, but make it work. Don’t get a giraffe to lick my screen and think I’ll like your website regardless of not finding what I want. Help me to get back on track. At least point me to your homepage to start over again (but don’t redirect me!).

Another pet peeve: no 404 Not Found page at all. The browser telling me your website is crappy. That’s not what you want! Make sure your website has a 404 page. Using WordPress, just add a 404.php to your theme folder and create one if it isn’t there already, it’s really as simple as that.

Lastly, because I am looking forward to examples you have for crappy and great 404 pages: the huge 404 image that is telling me nothing more than that:

Huge 404 on a 404 Not Found page

Please don’t. These are the numbers you don’t want to see on your website, so why emphasize them?

Examples of crappy 404 Not Found pages

An honorable mention for IMDB here. Film geeks will love that one, though ;-)

Why do you think your 404 Not Found page is great?

Or perhaps you have some great examples, good or bad. We’d love to see these, so please drop a link in the comments!

This post first appeared on Yoast. Whoopity Doo!