What comes to mind when you come across a dull 404 page? WTF comes to my mind, which more than likely leads to a click on the good ole’ back button!
A 404 error basically tells you that you were able to connect to the server, but was unable to find what it was looking for. 404 pages are visible to a user who either followed a dead link or typed a wrong URL in the address bar. We have all seen the “Top 50 Creative 404 Pages” posts before, dont worry – this isn’t one of them! Lets talk about how you can make a valuable 404 page, and how to capitalize on any link opportunities you might not even know you have!
What should you do with your 404 pages? Some experts recommend 301 redirecting your 404 page to the homepage, I disagree. Redirecting traffic to another page what may not have the content the user was hoping for can be worse than a 404 page.
We have all seen the attempts at “funny” 404 pages, good for a quick laugh and a quick bounce! So what goes into making a valuable 404 page? Assuming your using a modern CMS like WordPress your 404 page should already be setup. In WordPress you can modify your 404 page by editing “404.php” in your theme folder.
Capture the users attention and get straight to the point! Let the user know they are on a 404 page, but be creative with your word choice to make them stick around for a second.
Explain why the page is showing up, include what may have gone wrong, either they followed a bad link or typed in the wrong URL. Let them know there was a mistake with that specific URL, not your whole site. Ask the user to help by adding a quick link to “report this page to the webmaster“.
Provide useful links to popular pages on your website. Think about the most valuable sections or pages on your website to link to, just keep it short and sweet and dont forget a link to your contact page. Do you have an ecommerce website? This is a great opportunity to show your popular items.
Now that you have a decent 404 page, open up Google Webmaster Tools and navigate to the crawl errors page. From here you are able to see any crawl errors Google has encountered, which is pretty accurate! There are 4 columns: URL, Detail, Linked From, & Detected.
Now you can easily see your error pages and incoming links to these pages. If you have just a few URL’s showing up, you can check the “linked from” column to find any incoming links to your error pages. If you have quite a few error pages, click the “Download all sources of errors on this site” link to download a spreadsheet of all of your 404 URL’s and the URL’s linking to your error pages.
Now since we have our list of broken URL’s and dead links lets capitalize on these opportunities! There are a number of things you can do to create good from your 404 pages, including:
Build or rebuild content to take advantage of the incoming links. If you have a large number of sites linking to a broken URL its a good idea to develop a page around it. Re-build the page with relevant content to take advantage of any incoming links.
Ask linking sites to change the link pointing to your site. Reach out to the webmasters linking to you and let them know the page has either moved or they have it misspelled.
301 redirect broken URL’s to a relevant page. Check your list, do you see any URL’s that look like they could be related to existing content on your site? 301 redirect them to pass on any existing link juice. Any random, weird or irrelevant URL’s you can redirect to the homepage. Redirecting these pages will also remove the error from Google Webmaster Tools since you are letting Google know you have moved the page.
37 Signals does a great job of explaining the problem, and provides visual links to all of their products
Carsonified’s creative design and typography keep you interested all while directing your eye to relevant links
AWESOME! Distilled’s 404 page uses a creative illustration explaining the error and what to do next!
You can search for a hotel on hotels.com 404 page. Not looking for a hotel? They also provide links to other pages on their site
KISSmetrics keeps it simple. Classic example of a helpful 404 page