Who Needs a Custom 404 Page? You Do!

3 July 2009 Post Author:
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As I read some of my favorite Travel Blogs, one of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of travel bloggers don’t realize that they can (and should) customize their default “404″ page that comes with nearly every WordPress Theme. Worse though, is that some bloggers don’t have a 404 Page at all, either because they aren’t using WordPress (their site is built using straight HTML or some other platform) and didn’t realize that they should have one, or because their Theme didn’t include one.

A quick primer for anyone who is not familiar with what a “404 page” is: It’s the page that your browser displays when you click on a broken link. Often using words like “File Not Found”, a 404 error is returned whenever your website cannot serve up the page that was requested. A broken link can be on your site or on some other site, or even at a search engine like Google. Typically this happens when a page that was previously linked to gets moved or renamed, or in some cases if the original link was just not correct, such as might happen if there was a typo in the URL.

So why should you have your own 404 Page? Simple – because if you don’t, then your site host or domain registrar can display one of their 404 pages instead, often with links or ads that can lead site visitors away from your site, possibly never to return. Site visitors get frustrated when they don’t arrive where they expected to, and a missing 404 Page means that they have no option but to go elsewhere or “back” to where they came from — meaning that you miss out on potential readers as few people will make the effort to figure out why the link didn’t work.

Another big mistake that some website owners make is to have a generic 404 Page that sometimes has nothing in common with the rest of their site, leaving out important features such as Navigation (your menu) and a Search box (so visitors can find what they came looking for)…..often this is because webmasters operate under the mistaken belief that THEY will never suffer from broken links, thus no one should ever actually see their 404 Page. Although this is common thinking, it’s wrong. You cannot control how other websites link TO you, and may be unaware of some (or many) of your inbound links – thus if someone has linked to you with a typographical error in the URL, and you don’t know about it, someone clicking on that link will get a 404. Likewise if you’ve changed a URL by renaming a page or post, don’t think you have it covered by fixing any links on YOUR site, because someone who has already bookmarked the old URL (or a search engine that’s already indexed it) will have a broken link, creating the dreaded 404.

So what makes for a GOOD 404 Page? First, make sure that you have one. The easy way to check to see if you have one is to intentionally type a bad URL or filename into your browser address bar following your domain name, and see what appears — if your Theme has a 404.php file, you’ll see a page that should look like your website’s overall Theme and says something like “Error 404 – Not Found” and possibly offering a search box. If you have a page like that, then it’s a good start, but it’s not good enough – that’s just the bare minimum.

To be adequate a 404 Page MUST have:

  • The same navigation (menu) as the rest of your site, so that the person who arrived at your site via a broken link can still get to your home page or archives and browse around in hopes of finding the right page;
  • A Search Box, so that they can try searching your site for whatever page they were looking for (in case it’s not immediately apparent in your navigation)

To be good a 404 Page SHOULD ALSO have:

  • A way to contact you to report the broken link (you do want to know about it so that you can possibly get it fixed) – you’ll get a better response rate with an email link than with a contact page link;
  • A link to your Site Map to help expedite finding the page or post they were looking for;
  • An explanation of what’s happened with enough of your charming personality and/or humor to entice the person to stay on your site long enough to find what they came for, let you know about the broken link, possibly read other posts and pages, and maybe sign up for your newsletter, follow you on Twitter, Digg a few articldes, and refer you to all of their friends. It takes a lot of “good will” to get even a small fraction of that, so you need to make an effort to engender that type of good will.

TIP: If using an email address so visitors can notify you of broken links (instead of a link to your contact page form), be sure to use a “throwaway” address (that is, one that you can discard and replace if it garners too much spam), rather than your primary address.

To help you get started thinking creatively about your 404 Page, here are a few examples of some very clever 404 Pages – they may not have all the “must haves” (and I certainly don’t mean them to be literal suggestions of “you should do this”), but they tickle your sense of humor enough that you’d likely stick around if you’d landed there accidentally:

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t show you our own 404 Page, so here it is: http://www.travel-writers-exchange.com/404

Ready to customize your 404 Page? BE SURE to backup your 404.php file before you try modifying it, then when logged into WordPress’ admin interface, click on ‘Appearance’ then ‘Editor’ then ’404 Template (404.php). Be careful to change only the text and add images if you like — don’t change or erase any HTML, CSS, or PHP unless you’re comfortable doing so, and post in the Forum if you need additional help.

What else can you do? Use a plugin like 404Notifier so that you can find what is causing 404 errors and possibly fix them. You can’t prevent them entirely, but the fewer the better.

~Trisha

7 Responses to “Who Needs a Custom 404 Page? You Do!”

  1. Joann says:

    Anyone not visiting your site on a regular basis is missing some of the best technical advice available. Love your 404 page. Gave me some good ideas. Thanks again.

  2. Trisha
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Joann – thanks for stopping by and for your kind words about our 404 Page…. crafting a clever and useful 404 Page is rather like making sure you put on clean underwear every day…….you sincerely hope that you’ll never be in the type of accident that necessitates the paramedics cutting off your clothes, but if it happens you’ll sure be glad you remembered your mother’s good advice! A conscientious webmaster certainly doesn’t want any broken links, but prepares for that event nonetheless. :)

  3. Jamey says:

    Thanks for this post on the 404 Page. I have a few questions…What if you’re not “techie” literate? How difficult is it to create a 404 Page? Can I just copy and paste something into WordPress?

    Sometimes when I mess with a WordPress template/theme things go awry and I end up frustrated because I’m not really that skilled in HTML. I usually just stick with what I have. I guess I could find a “WordPress” guru. Anything advice for us newbies/beginners?

  4. Trisha
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Jamey

    If you can be super careful, then yes – you can just copy & paste into your 404.php template file (be sure it’s backed up first just in case). Here is a great page with instructions on creating or modifying your 404 Template:
    http://1guywebdesign.com/index.php/2007/07/31/wordpress/custom-404-page-for-wordpress

    Here are a few other great resources, including a couple of plugins that will make the job easier:
    Dunstan Style 404 Page plugin – I highly recommend this one – works with versions of WordPress up to 2.7
    Google’s 404 Widget – easy to install and only requires a free Google account to get the code
    WordPress’ documentation on creating a 404 Page Template file

    And of course, if you’re uncomfortable modifying your own 404 Template, and not happy with the results of a plugin, by all means hire a “WordPress Guru”, but creating such a page should take any true “Guru” only a few minutes and therefore should not cost a lot…..

    Post questions in our Forum if you need more technical help!

  5. Adrian says:

    Who would have expected tech tips on this site? Good one though. I checked my sites straight away. Luckily my wordpress themes come with a 404 page that looks like the rest of my sites. Still, it’s a good idea to make it more entertaining or informative. Or put a offer there.

  6. Trisha
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Adrian — thanks for stopping by! And I agree that it’s a good idea to make it informative or entertaining – the point is to encourage them to stay on your site long enough to have a look around, and maybe they’ll find what they came looking for. A boring 404 page generally just sends people packing.

  7. Akila
    Twitter:
    says:

    Trisha: Thanks so much for this tip! We realized that we had some dead links last weekend and, though we fixed those, we are happy to have a customized 404 page that looks just like our home page but with an error message in the middle. I am working on a cool graphic and am going to add it in too.

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