Have you ever stopped to consider the importance of the 404 error page? Or have you turned away in repulsion - paralyzed by nail-biting fear that having such a page will expose your website as imperfect?
The reality is, as long as humans are running things, no website is perfect. Someone will invariably drop the ball at some point and then, bam! A visitor or potential customer comes face-to-face with your 404 error page.
You can liken it to the collapse of modern civilization. Or you can see it as an opportunity. (Your immediate choice will depend to some degree on your personality but we recommend the latter.)
The 404 error page can be hugely utilitarian, yet it’s one of the most neglected web design elements that exists.
Rather than envisioning your 404 page as a giant slap in the face to your visitor, recognize it for its brilliant ability to actually keep the visitor on your site.
Remember, the sole function of this page is to tell the user where to go next (hint - it’s somewhere else on your site) and thus can be incorporated into your website design in a way that’s both creative and functional. After all, they’re not mutually exclusive.
Calm the user.
Here’s the scenario.
A visitor has typed in what s/he believes is your URL and is ready to land on your page in a quick and efficient manner. But a mistyped URL, or a slight variation in it, may land them on your 404 page instead. Remain calm.
Throughout it all, there’s consistency. Even the most unique 404 page can still retain the style and visual language of the rest of your site will help to establish a sense of familiarity while simultaneously encouraging your visitor to explore.
You can tell the user, in simple and plain language, why the page doesn’t exist. Encourage them to check their spelling and then give it another shot. If they land on it again, design in the option of reporting the error.
Feel free to soften the blow by tossing in some humor. (If humor’s not your thing, find a writer who can do it for you.) Your 404 page needn’t by chock full of borderline frightening technical jargon. Unless your users are into that sort of thing. (Some are.)
This is a great example of a 404 page that’s pretty funny and still maintains the feel and design of Steve’s site. The user gets a good sense of Steve’s sense of humor, while still having access to rest of the site. Trauma averted.
Give the user a solution.
Sure, a cool graphic with some amusing text can be soothing. But you don’t want the visitors to get a good laugh and then move on to some other hilarious side-splitting site. Your goal is to keep users on your site as long as possible, so give them some solutions to keep them from leaving.
- If the visitor came to your site from another website, provide a link to your homepage so that they can get familiar with what you’re offering.
- If someone has found a faulty link on your site, don’t you want to know about it? Include contact information which will allow them to send you a message. Maybe even ask them which page they came from and link they followed.
- Including a menu allows the user to target their desired location rather going off willy nilly. It can also help to retain the overall design of your site so it’s not a total departure from your brand.
- If the page has been moved, you can give the user the option of searching for its whereabouts by including a search bar.
- And finally, you can provide a link to post archives also aides the user in finding what they’re looking for much faster.
The example below from Jamie Huskisson is a great example of providing a link to post archives while incorporating some funny text.
Check your broken links.
Ideally, your 404 page isn’t going to be viewed by very many people.
To further avoid this situation, keep checking for broken links within your site. We suggest checking your site for missing articles, videos, pictures, etc. about once per month. Maybe more if you have a lot of content.
But just remember that “stuff” still happens.
By making your 404 page user-friendly and memorable, you have an opportunity communicate in a new way with your audience. And your visitors are far less likely to stray from you - which is really the whole point of the page. So don’t underestimate this elusive page.