Perfect page not found page (404)

We often see them when browsing the webpages. Usually more often that we would like to… 404 pages – page with more or less polite message explaining that page couldn’t be found. How should it look like, what should be its core elements. Here are some ideas and best practices.

First – such pages needs to very clearly state that page wasn’t found. You might be surprised to see that some popular website put this in fine print and make the page rather look like little site map. You can see such example on Microsoft site. Visitors need to be aware that this is not the page you were trying to find. Put this in big letters in header and in title of the page.

The page itself should be simple and clean. It should have only the most basic navigation elements.  Consider stripping your regular navigation from this page. The basic elements of the page should be:

  • link to homepage of your site
  • search box so people can search your site directly from this page
  • link to sitemap (provided you have one)
  • feedback to webmaster request – and make it sound like you really want to learn on what went wrong. Also – promise to follow up and actually do it!

You can also consider differentiating content of the page based on where visitor is coming from. You can easily check the referrer using JavaScript and then tailor the message to the specific situation. Here is what could happen:

  • visitor can come from popular search engine that has old link – then it’s just matter of days that search engine reindex the page and error should soon be gone
  • visitor can type in the url or bookmark it – than he/she needs to check the spelling and possible update the bookmark that is obsolete
  • visitor can be coming from within your site via internal link – apologize very sincerely, promise improvement and follow up afterwards
  • visitor can be coming via link from other external site – you should avoid finger-pointing but politely summarize what happened. If there are lots of such situation (you can see it in your metrics tool) – may be worth to follow up even outside…

google 404 pageWhen writing this I’ve doublechecked some of the most popular websites and was really surprised. First – not much of the best practices there. What’s more – many of the negative examples.

For some of them – e.g. youtube and blogger – I’ve noticed that there is not even custom 404 page there. Google has page that is very simple – it is very good in telling that page wasn’t found. However it also doesn’t have any single link that you could follow up – not even to Google homepage…

Clearly something that’s worth to address. Especially that 404 page is usually one of the top 20-50 most visited pages on every site. Sad but true! All comments are welcome!


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