Have you ever clicked on a website link only to end up at a page telling you that the page you’re looking for isn’t found? How did you feel? Did you know what to do next? Have you ever stopped to think about what your own website visitors might feel when they get these errors on your website?
Good website planning doesn’t stop with honing a great marketing message, an attractive design, and ease of use. Good websites also plan for the unexpected: lost pages, broken links, misplaced files, and more. After all, anyone who’s used a computer for any length of time knows that problems happen! So has your website planned for those “missing pages”?
How do pages go missing? Well, it could be any number of reasons. The simplest could be that the link to the page is just plain wrong— a missing or incorrect character in the code is all that it takes. Perhaps your visitor was typing in the URL and misspelled something. Maybe you renamed, removed, or consolidated pages on your website, and you thought you changed all the links…but missed one. Sometimes, your host server computer may just make a mistake. There are any number of reasons, and even the most carefully planned website suffers from these issues. So what’s the contingency plan for this?
Well, this is where the 404 error page comes in. Perhaps in your own web browsing, you’ve come across these pages that say that the page you were looking for isn’t found. You may have even seen the actual 404 error code. While these error pages serve a purpose to let the visitor know that this page isn’t here, you, as a website owner, can also upgrade the page to make it more user friendly. You don’t have to rely on the plain error page from your host.
For example, you can design the page so that it matches the rest of your site. But more than that, what would be helpful for a site visitor who’s lost? Why not explain what happened (the page at this URL has moved or does not exist), why it may have happened (the link was bad, the URL was mistyped, or there is some unexplainable error), and what the visitor can do about it. If your site has a site map (a listing of all the pages on your site), you could link to that from your error page. If your site has its own search feature, why not link to that, too? Visitors can use these to help find their way. You could even link to or include your contact information to ask visitors to report the error so that you can look into it and fix it (if it can be fixed). Of course, having your site’s navigational menu on your error page is always a good idea as well.
Don’t be afraid to inject a little light-hearted humor into the situation, too. You don’t have to be so serious in your tone, e.g., “This page doesn’t exist, ” when you could be a little more apologetic, e.g., “We’re sorry that this page doesn’t seem to be here, ” to fun, e.g., “Oops! We can’t seem to find that page. It might be around here somewhere. You can try searching below to find it. ” Take a look at some of these clever ideas for error pages.
In order to upgrade your error pages, you need to know how to make a web page and also how to tell your web host to use your error pages instead of their defaults. If you don’t work on the technical side of your website, your web designer should be able to do this for you.
So don’t let the inevitable errors get you—or your website—down. Think about what your site can do to make these more friendly to your users, and have fun fitting them in to the overall feeling of your website.