Three Recommended Practices When Building Custom 404 Error Pages

This past week the Google Webmaster Central Blog had a good FAQ-style post on Google’s treatment of 404 error pages. It is worth the read as the post addresses common questions site owners have regarding 404 error pages, and the impact on search engine optimization.

We always recommend developing custom 404 error pages to clients and prospects. The primary reasons are twofold:

  • Provide visitors options for finding appropriate content on the website.
  • Provide visitors with a better user experience overall (rather than a generic, server-based 404 error page that does not have the same look and feel of the main site design)

Here are three recommended practices to consider when building custom 404 error pages for your organization’s website.

  • Customize the Error Message
    The most important piece is to simply notify the visitor that they’ve come across a page no longer available. This can be easily done with a sentence or two, acknowledging the issue.

    A simple example:
    The page you were looking for could not be found. Please use this site map to navigate through the site.

  • Provide Navigation Options
    The traditional and simplest way to enable this is to generate a similar set of cross-links as may be found in an end-user sitemap (example). The more detailed webmaster may provide visitors with a few core navigational elements, including key product/solutions pages, the home page, and more popular website resources.
  • Offer Immediate Communication Opportunities
    A visitor finding a broken page might be a blessing in disguise. Consider offering navigation to a contact form or immediate email information. While most visitors will probably navigate away to another section of the website, there is certainly a chance a prospect (or even a customer) might decide it is simply easier to contact your organization directly.

Don’t forget to check website reporting tools, and places like Google Webmaster Central regularly, to make sure 404 error pages are not being displayed as a significant percentage of overall visitor traffic. Mistakes in site navigational updates, cross-linking, etc can certainly happen.

Need some design inspiration?
Finally, for a little fun and inspiration at the end of the week, here are two collections of creative 404 error pages from other organizations and site owners around the web.

404 error page at the top courtesy of the Leen Valley Golf Centre

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