What is “Error 404?” We’ve all encountered a web page with a 404 message on it — that is, a web page with a message saying the web page you opened is not available. Technically, a 404 (Not Found) page is an HTML Status Code. The 404 page is advising you that the server you’re trying to access is reachable but the page itself is not.
The default verbiage on a 404 page varies depending on the browser and website’s operating system, but standard text tends to be minimal and starkly displayed. The text will inform you that the web page cannot be found, and sometimes include instructions on what to do next to find the page for which you’re looking. These standard 404 pages can be frustrating to users, which is why designing a custom 404 page is a good idea — a topic we’ll cover shortly in this article.
What Is Error 404 — Causes
Sometimes responsibility for a 404 error page falls on the website. A common cause is forgetting to set up a 301 redirect when an old web page is replaced with a new one, or an old domain is converted to a new one (for reasons of rebranding, acquisition, etc.). In addition to that issue, permanent or temporary server malfunctions may cause a page to stop communicating with the server and generate a 404 message.
Another major cause of 404 errors is broken outbound links on a website. Especially if a site has been around for a long time and has woven outbound links into its content for many years, the odds are good that eventually many of those linked-to pages will cease to exist. This is particularly common on blogs, where outbound links are used more generously than on standard website pages. Dead link checker tools can help you spot these links and fix or remove them.
What Is Error 404 — SEO Significance
Why bother fixing broken links or resolving other problems that cause 404 errors? SEO is one big reason. Google crawlers do not like to see 404 page errors cropping up frequently on a website. To Google (and Bing and other search engines), 404 errors are a signal that a website is poorly maintained, and that users of the site have a higher likelihood of encountering the frustration of landing on a 404 page. Google does not like sending its search engine users to that type of website, so it may reduce organic visibility (rankings).
Remember, too, that conversions are the real purpose behind an SEO campaign. If organic search engine traffic comes in droves but leaves in droves because of 404 errors or any other frustration, you won’t gain the critical mass of sales leads or online orders you need to make your SEO marketing pay off.
A certain number of 404 issues will inevitably crop up on any website, but it makes good business sense to keep URLs simple, monitor your site regularly for broken links, set up 301 redirects where needed, and look for other fixable causes 404 page errors.
What Is Error 404 — Create a Custom 404 Page
Since 404 errors will inevitably occur — there’s nothing you can do about user error — you can reduce the damage by creating a custom 404 page for your website. There are numerous advantages to creating your own 404 page:
- You can weave in branding and a short message that conveys your understanding that the visitor has encountered frustration.
- You can provide links to the home page and other site pages of probable interest, such as your site’s HTML sitemap, blog archive or products summary page.
- You can use the same design as your website, to keep the visitor properly oriented (that is, still on your website when the 404 message loads).
- You can provide links and/or phone numbers for the user to get more help. Sometimes visitors become impatient with website navigation guesswork.
These advantages reduce the number of visitors who will cut and run after hitting a 404 error page — enabling you to create or salvage a customer instead of losing one.
There are some issues you should take care to avoid with customized 404 pages, however.
First, be careful with using humor on a custom 404 page. Humorous approaches are commonly used, but you really need to understand the personality of your user base and the delicacy of the selling situation to pull it off. Some types of customers are not receptive to humor when they are searching for information on a website. For example, if you sell products or services used in emergency situations, or medical devices used for serious conditions, humor may not be your best option.
Second, 404 pages have become an area where web designers like to flex their design muscles and outdo one another in creative page designs. This in itself is not bad at all, but again, you don’t want to be creative just for the sake of being creative — because all that creativity comes at a cost and it may not make any difference to the website visitor. On the other hand, some businesses turn error pages from negatives into branding and selling positives with clever and informative custom 404 pages. Don’t let that opportunity pass you by!