Profile photo of Ivan Temelkov
Ivan Temelkov
October 5, 2016

Harnessing 404 Pages & Why You Should Have One

404 Page error

Website development is an intricate part of any business. A cohesive web presence is essential to any brand regardless of your industry. A website is 1 of 5 pieces of content every consumer will interact with during their purchase journey. Google particularly process over 2 trillion search queries annually and sometimes as many as 40,000 per second. That is a lot of targeted interest and also plenty of untapped business potential. 

When it comes to website development specifically, many brands strive for the quickest route to success. Monetizing a customer’s journey is not an overnight endeavor. Definitely not one that can solely be accomplished through a website. That being said, like anything else worth doing, constructing a dominant website consist of the following basic principals:

  • Strategy
  • Implementation
  • Execution

 

I am definitely not here to lecture you on the above 3 principals. If you are in business, and marketing particularly, then these should be quite evident by now. I would though, like to elaborate further upon the necessities of constructing an engaging 404 page for your website.

Understanding the Meaning of a 404 Page

A 404 is an HTTP status code that a website domain returns when it can not identify with a specific url. Typically, such a scenario occurs when a former URL address has been removed or deleted. A list of top HTTP codes can be quite handy for any website owner. When an end-user makes a request for a page by attempting to visit its URL location on the background, a host server returns what is referred to as an HTTP code. For instance, a 200 HTTP code indicates SUCCESS and therefore proper rendering of a page within a host server. You get the gist.

404 HTTP errors are far more common than the average website owner considers. Your website is a continuously moving target. There is new content added and sometimes old content removed. It is precisely one of the main reasons why every website should have a 404 page.

404 Cases & Occurrences

There are several different scenarios that can occur leading to a 404 HTTP error. Although for the most part it is in fact one and the same, with minor variations, if that makes sense! 404 HTTP errors occur all the time but many brands are not fully acknowledging the necessities behind an engaging 404 page.

A 404 HTTP error will occur when:

  • A url address can no longer be found.
  • A url address can not be served to the end user.
  • The website owner forgot to redirect a deleted page to an appropriate location.

Website owners forget the fact that every page has a meaning of its own. It will matter to one or more people in some form or fashion. If they are unable to interact with that specific content or otherwise be provided a relevant supplement, the overall user experience is lessened. There is nothing more frustrating than stumbling across a broken page and receiving a lame message along the lines of “Oops! That page does not exist.”.

Purpose of a 404 Page

A 404 page is really one of those hidden gems that any website owner should leverage. Your target audience has interest in the products or services you offer. Therefore you should be able to provide them with a cohesive experience that allows them to intersect with images, video, text, and other rich media. At some point or another they will encounter a broken link on your website.

What then?

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You may have stumbled across the ol’ 404 boilerplate page on a so common WordPress website. A bit disappointing, isn’t it? Not much of a selection or anything really to choose from. Well, that’s just it. Web users like options in general and also particularly true when it comes to your website.

Crafting an Engaging 404 Page

The beauty of WordPress is that 404 pages can be constructed in a variety of ways. If you choose the manual route and you’re quite code savvy, then that might in fact give you quite a bit of versatility. Alternative there are a variety of different WP plugins for the less code savvy folks. Some of those I would recommend include 404page, Custom 404 Pro,  or All 404 Redirect to Homepage.

You might be using another CMS besides WordPress though. Particularly if you work for a corporation that might be employing their content through a proprietary solution. Don’t worry, as the fundamentals of crafting an engaging 404 page are identical across all CMS. WordPress merely makes the construction process easier and less code heavy.

Basic 404 Page Tips

Regardless of what platform you use to construct your redirect page, you should always keep the following fundamentals in mind:

  • Provide a simple explanation to the web visitor in stating clearly why they were unable to find the page they are looking for at that moment. Messaging that includes friendly and inviting tone matters absolutely.
  • Utilizes the same aesthetic of your redirect page as the entire site. Cohesive brand experience matters and so does website aesthetic.
  • Incorporate linkage to most popular posts or articles as a supplement. This is where you have to think about relevance. Will the info a user sees on the 404 page be relevant to their need?
  • Request feedback from users in reporting of broken links. Perhaps a box with a submit button where the user can copy/paste the broken URL and quickly submitted to you.
  • Refrain at all costs in having your custom 404 page from being indexed in the SERPs. This is NOT a page intended for ranking purposes or inbound traffic. It’s purely for internal purposes within your independent website environment.
  • Ensure that your web server returns an actual 404 error when being unable to locate a specific page.

Google’s 404 page recommendations are a great resource to utilize when crafting your custom 404 page. Hubspot offers creative insight on some of the biggest brands who are utilizing 404 pages in a strategic way.

Major Takeaway from This Post

As a consumer, I already know that my attention span isn’t what it used to be. We live in a busy and noisy world that allows us less and less time to do the things we enjoy or want to accomplish. Stumbling across a 404 page of a website does not entice me in any way. As a matter of fact it’s a clear indication to me that you don’t have your sh** together. User retention is probably one of the hardest things brands face these days. Having people bounce from a 404 page does not contribute to user retention in any way.

How do you react when you receive a basic broken link message? Is your reaction more favorable when you are redirected to a useful page? Basically, what are your thoughts regarding 404 redirects?

 

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Profile photo of Ivan Temelkov
A digital marketing practitioner bringing nearly two decades of seasonality to the table with emphasis on Search, Social, & Content. I'm enthused about helping small businesses increase their digital footprint by utilizing the power of technology, web, strategic thinking, and targeted execution for maximum market penetration. CEO of @RazorSharpDigit, a human-centric digital brand but can be found @ivan_temelkov on Twitter as well.
  • Andy Capaloff

    This article is so helpful, Ivan. It is one of those subjects we all know needs addressing, yet many of us lag with. The perfect ‘kick in the pants’. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the kind words Andy! When it comes to website development and brand positioning it is extremely challenging to keep up with everything. Being attention-detail oriented and paying due diligence in all facets of website development can attribute to huge payoffs in the long run. 404s and 404 pages are essential to any website although many brands overlook this area. Ironically enough one of my current clients that I’m building a website for chose to use a boilerplate 404 page for their WP site rather than constructing something more engaging and informative. These types of small mistakes add up to a giant problem.