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Error 404: You’re Welcome

How many people visit the ‘page not found’ notice on your website? I’d bet it’s a lot more than you think.

The ‘page not found’ notice is also known as the ‘404 page’, after the web error code which is generated when a URL is not found on the server. It can come up for all sorts of reasons, but the most common are:

  • People following links on your own site which were not updated when you deleted or renamed a page;
  • People following links on other sites to old pages which you deleted or renamed, and did not redirect; and
  • People typing in URLs incorrectly.

You can do something about the first two*, although nearly everyone fails to do so thoroughly. You can’t do anything about the last one, so even the most houseproud webmaster will find that the 404 page gets delivered quite often.

Some people have analytics tracking on their 404 page, but I’ve found that few bother to keep an eye on the numbers. Before going that far, however, a more fundamental question is this: do you even know what your 404 page looks like? Does it say: “Don’t worry, you’re at the right site, let’s get you to the right page”? Or does it say: “Nothing to see here, why don’t you just go back to wherever you came from and click on another result”?

I’ve written about this several times before, and every time I do, I go scurrying back to our own website to remind myself what our 404 page looks like. It’s adequate, if no more. Ideally, I think a 404 page should apologise politely for the interruption, and give some clear links to the most likely places the visitor would want to go next. A search box is a nice feature, but shouldn’t be the only option, as you’re asking the visitor to do the work. Standard site template links can be a sufficient alternative.

There are many articles online about great 404 page design, but most concentrate on how amusing they can be. That may not be appropriate. Minimising the inconvenience and keeping the visitor on site is the most important thing.

*To ensure you don’t have any broken links on your own site (and I’d bet you do), run a regular site crawl to check. We do this for all of our clients without charge.