How to handle 404 errors

Error pages are often an unsightly part of the web and with much misguided information it can be hard for webmasters to know right from wrong when handling errors. 404 pages are often viewed as a forehead-slapping error on behalf of webmasters, but in truth, they are a golden opportunity to keep visitors on your website, if you know how to handle 404 errors in the right way.

A 404 page is the page that users will see when they click on a link that is broken, and is usually the result of the page having been deleted by the webmaster, or the user has inputted the URL incorrectly. It happens, and there’s no need to worry about it, and here’s why:

A custom 404 page – which can easily be created if you are the Admin of your website – that isn’t a generic ‘Whoops!’ page with no additional information of any use for the visitors, can do wonders for your web traffic.

For example, a generic page is often ignored and a tad disappointing. The visitor will sometimes head back to Google or click another site and forget about you. A 404 page that has been custom made can contain quirky content, videos, links to other pages on your site and can also contain a bit of humour, something that lets the visitor know that you know what has happened and aware of the issue. Some generic 404 pages look like the webmaster has made an error and they don’t care about trying to keep you on the site. That can be a kick in the privates from a user experience perspective.

Take a look at Google’s advice on how to create a custom 404 page. They spell it out in plain English:

  • Tell visitors clearly that the page they’re looking for can’t be found. Use language that is friendly and inviting.
  • Make sure your 404 page uses the same look and feel (including navigation) as the rest of your site.
  • Consider adding links to your most popular articles or posts, as well as a link to your site’s home page.
  • Think about providing a way for users to report a broken link.
  • No matter how beautiful and useful your custom 404 page, you probably don’t want it to appear in Google search results. In order to prevent 404 pages from being indexed by Google and other search engines, make sure that your webserver returns an actual 404 HTTP status code when a missing page is requested.
  • Use the Enhance 404 widget to embed a search box on your custom 404 page and provide users with useful information to help them find the information they need.

The key here is not making 404 pages sound like an error or mistake. Terminology like that sounds negative, and doesn’t exactly fill the visitor with positivity towards your site. As long as you don’t have a ridiculous amount of 404’s as a result of poor technical SEO on your site, Google, Bing and the other search engines are not going to penalise you for having 404 pages.  In fact 404 pages are a perfectly normal part of the web and spammy tricks to remove them should be avoided. If there’s no need to worry about them in this sense, why not embrace them and do something with them, like these sites have.

Redirecting 404 Pages

Think about why your users would want to be redirected, and where to, before you consider using a redirect.  Google specifically says that redirecting 404 error pages back to the home page (known as soft 404 errors) can cause crawling issues and unique url’s may not be visited as quickly or frequently as the crawlers may spend more time on your non existent pages.

The best way to handle 404 pages – outside of not freaking out about them and making them useful – is to add a permanent 301 redirect to them ‘only’ where applicable. Many SEO’s believe that ALL 404 pages should be redirected to the home page, or in the case with e-commerce websites, to the product pages, but this is often the wrong solution. 404’s should really only be redirected to a parent page if it adds value to the user experience. As an example if you mistyped a URL for a particular blog post, but then were redirected to the Home Page as a result of landing on a 404 page, it might actually be a frustrating experience. What if the Home Page didn’t have a search box to find the blog post? What if the post didn’t exist anymore, but there was no way of knowing this? Being redirected to the Home Page wouldn’t help you, it’d probably just annoy you and cause you to leave.

Many users end up frustrated with being redirected either to a home page or a non relevant page.  Showing a 404 page in some cases is just the most genuine tactic and provides the best UX.  Make sure you help the user out by trying to navigate them somewhere useful if creating a redirect. If creating a custom 404 page, be unique and consider what will keep your visitor interested.

However you choose to do it, make the most out of your 404 pages, and don’t provide a frustrating experience to your visitors.

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