Best Practices for 404 Error Pages

Causes of 404 Error Page

404 error pages can be embarrassing, especially when they look unprofessional. Almost worse is the fact that they can have a negative effect on your SEO when Google picks up on them. But in many cases, there is nothing you can do about them! These are the top 3 causes of 404 error pages:

  • Bad external link
  • Bad internal link
  • Mistyped URL

If another site has linked to yours with a bad URL, then you can email them and entreat them to rectify the link. Most people are cool about this, but it may require some tactful email exchange. As for mistyped URLs, there is nothing you can do except design a flashy and fun 404 error page to distract the user from the inconvenience, or to soften the blow, so to speak. Bad internal links are all your fault and there is no excuse for them. Maybe you changed the URL of a post or page and forgot to update internal links or something. Well, that wasn’t very clever, was it? Fortunately, there are some great tools for locating bad internal links.

Locating the 404 Pages

Some of the best tools to locate those 404 error pages include Screaming Frog, Link Sleuth, and good ol’ Google Webmaster Tools. Google Webmaster Tools also helps you to locate the sources of the broken links. It can be easier to just get a browser extension like Check My Links, which is listed in the Google Chrome Web Store. Either way, these resources will root out those bad and broken links and their sources so you can either fix them or delete them.

SEO Best Practices

In most cases, the best thing to do is allow users to land on a 404 page so that they can use the site navigation tools to find their way around. There are other instances when a 301 redirect is more appropriate but these can be annoying and confusing for the user if they don’t understand why they are being redirected to the home page. An exception to this rule is when you have a really valuable external link pushing traffic to a 404 page. The 301 redirect is better for retaining the strength of your powerful incoming links, so it’s OK to redirect traffic to the homepage, but generally, you should be cautious about this so as not to impair the user experience.

Designing a Great 404 Page

Be creative here. You can have literally any image you want to explain that the user has reached a 404 error page. But it should be consistent with the theme of your brand/product/website. The text must be clear and explain that it is a 404 page of course, but other than that, the designers can really go to town on this.

User is generally a bit frustrated when they reach a 404 page, so the function of the image is to make them feel happier. Try and use an inventive and amusing image that will make it more difficult for the user to be angry with your website and its designers. Make sure it fits in with the general mood of the website or it will be even more confusing; the user might think they are on the wrong site and then they could close the browser window. It’s also a nice idea to try and help the user with navigation. Let them know where they should go next, a clear and friendly call to action is a good way to retain user attention and traffic.

If you’re not using a 301 redirect, then the 404 error page is an important aspect of your site that deserves special attention from the design team. Consider the following when designing:

Consistent with theme
Visible branding
Fun design
Humor/Positive message to distract
Helpful navigation assistance
And be sure to reduce the chance of internet users ever reaching a 404 error page on your website by following the advice in the article above.