Fail Gracefully: Build Goodwill and Retain Credibility

By being proactive about 404 errors on your site (which may not be your fault), offer a hand up to your visitor.

Here are some tips to help you guide visitors to the right content, even when you have no control over their entry point.

The Problem

It is unfortunate, but when visitors come across a “404 Not Found” page, most do not try to find the content elsewhere on your website.

Most visitors simply give up, and  move on to the next site in their search results, causing the dreaded “bounce”.

Why do visitors give up so easily?  Because “404 Not Found” error pages are intimidating.

It’s Scary

Typical error messages, status codes and technical language intimidate visitors.  It is far easier to bounce back to Google and move on to another site.

As a site owner, you’ll want every chance to match up your visitors with your content.  With a custom 404 error page, you offer visitors another chance to continue looking for your content.

Human visitors are not the only browsers disappointed when they can’t find a page on your site.   404 errors from a particular website will damage search rankings.  Search engines that repeatedly receive 404 not found errors will remove the page from their indexes.  This will affect your success on the web.

To prevent this, one of the best things for you to do is to create an effective, customized 404 error page for your website.

Building A Custom 404 Not Found Page: 7 Best Practices

Some typical ways one can customize a 404 page and put it to work for you, not against you:

1. Keep it Familiar

Make the error page look similar to any other page of the website.  At the very least, include your logo.  This way, visitors will know that they did, indeed, reach the target site, but the page they want cannot be found. An effective 404 page should look something like other pages of the site, so that users will know that the site exists and they ended up somewhere close to their target.

2. Explain the Problem

Include a brief explanation of the problem.  Let users know that the page they want cannot be found.

Offer a polite apology such as: “We are sorry, but we cannot find the page you are looking for…”  After this apology, provide options…

3. Show Popular Links

Offer visitors links to reach popular destinations on your site, aside from the URL that they initially used.   Include navigational menus, site maps, and link suggestions that will direct users to different pages on the site.  How about a search box?  Yes.

4. Contact You

Offer a link to contact you.  Either reporting the issue, or initiate the conversion process manually. Visitors may want to give feedback on their 404 page experiences.  This can help let you know how much of an impact this has on your visitors.

5. Keep it Light

Adding a little humor to 404 pages is highly effective and can help keep visitors on your site.  This can be in the form of cute, funny graphics, a funny phrase, or both.  However, when opting for humor, skip the tasteless jokes or graphics.

6. Reward Your Visitor

Some site owners have also had success offering a token gift on their error pages.  This can be in the form of a small gift card, a free ebook or a special discount.  Another effective idea is to add a link to the site’s subscription or product page and offer a free gift or discount with an order.

7. Add Analytics

Of course, one essential is to add analytics to the 404 error page.  Each webmaster should be keeping tabs on the number of times the 404 error page is displayed.  Of course, it will help to track “referrers”, or the purveyors of links to your site that make you look bad.

Finally, be adding analytics to your 404 error page, you’ll be able to see how improvements to your 404 error page lowers the bounce rate.

Creating your 404 Page

Creating a 404 page is no different than any other page in your CMS.

First, create the 404 page in your CMS.  If you use WordPress or Center Stage, just create another page somewhere convenient — root directory, errors folder, etc.  Offer your polite apology, list popular links, and the use of your navigation or search.

Once that error page is ready, let Alpine or your other hosting company know that you’d like 404 errors redirected to your spiffy new error page.  Soon enough, you’ll be sparing your lost visitors the unfortunate fate of browsing your competitors.

Custom 404 Error Pages: An Example Gallery