Developing an Exit Strategy
The HTTP 404 Not Found error means that the web page a user is trying to reach cannot be found on the server. Sometimes the error occurs when the user types in the URL incorrectly and sometimes it’s because the host removes or moves a page and doesn’t change the URL accordingly.
The generic 404 Error web page of the past was aesthetically horrible, often confusing, sometimes misleading and always unhelpful: “HTTP 404 error” or, slightly better, “The requested URL /xxxx/xxxxx.htm was not found on this server”.
Since then the formerly humble 404 error page has become a new category in web page design competitions and designers write blogs about how to design a good 404 page.
Why do you need a great 404 page?
Mistakes happen, so Page Not Found errors are not unusual on the internet, but a bad 404 web page, one with little, no or misleading information can scare your website visitor off, never to return. It can annoy - http://google.com/404 is a good example - and possibly offend them - http://focuslabllc.com/404 is also a good example.
On the other hand, a good 404 web page can be extremely useful; indeed, it can help to avoid losing visitors when they land on a page not found. An excellent 404 web page is not just about damage control - it’s about opportunity.
- Branding: A useful 404 error page can reinforce your brand by illustrating the way you deal with problems, e.g. formally and logically, and your brand personality, e.g. informal and engaging. Good examples are http://lego.com/404 and https://css-tricks.com/404.html.
- Sales: If you’re trying to sell something, you could point your visitor in the direction of your product pages, inviting them, while they’re there, to check out your wares. The take-a-break graphic of a coffee cup on https://www.nespresso.com/au/en/404 is a good example.
- Link building: People like to serendipitously find new and exciting content. A 404 page is an opportunity to entice visitors to visit your blog or share your amusing error page on social media. http://mlb.mlb.com/404 displays various “OOF!” animations sports fans might find worth sharing or mentioning to friends. You can also provide links to your social media pages.
- Product reinforcement: A 404 error page can be used to reinforce the value of what you offer, for instance, if you’re a security company, you might provide a security warning about 404 pages that redirect users to potentially unsafe websites. Or you can use an appropriate photograph to remind visitors about what you do. See http://www.munchkin.com/404/.
- Do some good: You can register with http://notfound.org to raise awareness about missing children whenever you serve your 404 page.
What to include on an excellent 404 page
- A great headline: You want to grab your visitor’s attention because they hit the Back An example of a bad headline is: “404 not found”. An example of a nice headline is: “This is embarrassing; we’ve mislaid your page. Let’s see how we can help.”
- What’s the problem? Describe the error; in the case of a 404 error, the problem is that the web page was not found. Explaining why appeases visitors.
- Possible reason(s) for the error: Describe the possible reasons the error occurred, e.g. an invalid URL, the page may have been removed or deleted; the server is down, or there is a connectivity issue on the user’s side.
- Possible solutions: List possible quick fix actions the user can take to resolve the problem, e.g. check that the URL is correct, check their spelling, check their connection to the internet or try and reload the page.
- Provide an option to find the elusive page: Rather than forcing the user to go back to the previous page by clicking on the Go back button in the browser, provide a link to your site’s home page where the user can search for the page, or a similar one, they’re interested in. Alternatively, you can provide a search box on the 404 error page.
- Options: You can also give the user alternatives to the web page they were looking for but should ensure these are relevant. If a user clicked on a link for a WP tutorial and is served as an alternative a link to an article about the advantages of using Joomla, they may simply go back to their browser’s home page and try again.
- Broken links: Provide a way for your visitor to report a broken link; it makes them feel useful and vent their outrage, and will help you to fix any broken links on your site.
- Branding: Design your 404 page to fit in with the rest of your site. This will help visitors to feel less stranded and encourage them to take up your call to action. However, make it clear this is an error page and don’t include the navigation links you have on your other content pages. A 404 page tells visitors they’ve landed on the wrong page but are still on the right site. Good 404 page branding - for instance, an intelligent 404 graphic illustrating your product or service - can be an opportunity to engage visitors and tempt them to continue surfing your site.
- Tone: Write wording that’s friendly, helpful and even apologetic. It’s often not the user’s fault they landed on your 404 page. A sense of self-deprecating humour can go a long way to soothing ruffled feathers.
- Call to action: The key is prodding your visitor to go where you want them to go next, e.g. to your home page, a page listing your special offers or a Contact Us form where you can acquire their contact details.
SummaryBesides the obvious, like including a link to your home page, what makes an outstanding 404 error page stand out?
- Amazing pictures
- Witty, clever or informative text
- Powerful brand reinforcement
- A call to action
- A heartfelt apology
- A way to get in touch with you