404 pages – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Every once in a while someone goes looking for something on your website that doesn’t exist. Maybe you moved the page and didn’t 301 redirect the old URL, maybe they typed something wrong, maybe an incoming link was wrong… but regardless of what happened, your visitor isn’t getting the content they were expecting, and that’s not good.

Error recovery is an important part of good user experience – if you can’t avoid errors altogether (and a 404 is, in some cases, completely unavoidable), then you need to make sure that it’s easy for your visitor to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. So what does that mean for 404 pages?

The Ugly

If you want to do a 404 page totally wrong, don’t do one at all. That way, your visitor gets a default browser error message – sure, it tells them a little bit about what went wrong, but you have zero opportunity to keep that visitor engaged with your company.

404 page : The Ugly

The Bad

A step up from Ugly is Bad – you’ve got a 404 page, but there are a few things that make it less than visitor-friendly:

  • It just says “404” – will your average Joe web user know that 404 means you couldn’t find the page?
  • It blames the visitor – “you typed in a bad URL”, “you were looking for something that doesn’t exist”, “you must have made a mistake”… you get the point.
  • It doesn’t provide any options for fixing the problems – ok, great, an error happened, but what should I do now to fix it?

For example, Google does nothing to help you find the page you were looking for:

404 page : The Bad

The Good

So what should you do to make a good 404 error page? Try this:

  1. Make it obvious that the visitor is still on your site – company logo, same page design as the rest of your site, all that good stuff.
  2. Tell them what went wrong – “We couldn’t find the page you were looking for” or something like that. Make sure this is written in language they can understand.
  3. Take the blame – “we couldn’t find it”, “we must have moved something”, “we’re sorry”.
  4. Keep it short – they don’t need to waste time not finding stuff.
  5. Help them find what they were looking for:
    • Give them some navigation options to get into other parts of your site.
    • If you can parse the URL they entered and take a guess at what they were looking for, give them direct links to that content.
    • Include a search box.
    • Provide contact info and ask them to let you know about the problem.
  6. Merchandise – you can use your 404 page as an opportunity to showcase a few products, resource downloads, etc. But don’t go overboard and give your visitor a whole bunch of unrelated content.
  7. Humor – if it fits with your brand image, you can poke a little fun.

404 page : The Good

Seen a good, bad, or ugly 404 page lately? Tell us below so that we can check it out.

Need some suggestions for how to improve your 404 page? Leave a comment below and we’ll take a look!