It’s rare to find a website to be completely free of errors. This is usually because most website owners are either unaware of the errors on their websites, or do not realize the importace of fixing these errors. Most web designers on the other hand ignore errors thinking they are non-critical, because they have other priority things to attend to. One such common error on websites is the 404 error.
What does 404 error mean?
When someone tries to visit a non-existent page on a website, there is no page for the server to send to the visitor and it results in an error. There are different types of errors that servers encounter and a page not found error has the error code 404, and so is called the 404 error. In other words, when a 404 error occurs, it means that someone tried to access a page that does not exist on your website.
When websites are redesigned, changed or naturally evolve, it’s natural that pages on the site would get outdated and be changed. If you changed the name or URL of a page in your website or if a page was deleted as part of a site change, the old page would no longer exist on your website.
If a past visitor to your website had bookmarked that page or if the visitor shared the page with someone who tries to now access it, the server would return a 404 error or a page not found error. Most people do not realize how much damage a 404 error can cause to the image of the business. People can think that the site is down or — even worse — that the site has wound up. This can hurt your reputation.
From the SEO point of view, when search engines try to access pages in your website, or when they follow a link to a page on your website, if it doesn’t find the page, then it encounters a dead-end and leaves your website without crawling it further. This can hurt your website’s performance in search results.
How to fix a 404 error?
There are many ways to fix a 404 error depending on how the error was caused.
- If the 404 error was a result of a change in the URL during a site redesign, then the old URL can be redirected to the new URL using a 301 or permanent redirect. As a result, when someone tries to access the old URL, they will automatically be sent to the new URL and a 404 error will no longer appear.
- If the error was a result of a mistake while linking pages in your website (say someone made a typing mistake and the URL linked was wrong), then you can correct the link. Once corrected, the link would lead to the correct page and not return a 404 error.
- If you have verified your website with Google Webmaster Tools, then you can see all the 404 errors that Google found on your site. In Google Webmaster Tools you can see which page is linking to a wrong page resulting in a 404 error and then fix that erroneous link.
- Another way to do this is to use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or Microsoft IIS SEO Toolkit to find errors in your website and fix the links causing 404 errors. Both these tools are free and can be downloaded and installed from the links above.
- If someone else is linking to a wrong page, you may not always be able to get the link fixed to point to the correct page. Building a custom 404 error page on your website is the way such a situation can be handled.
Custom 404 error page
A custom 404 error page is a page you can design and have your website. This page gets shown whenever anyone tries to access a missing or non-existent page. Since you have complete control over how this page should look, you can be creative in designing this page so that visitors don’t get put off — and can actually engage with the site.
Creative Custom 404 error pages
Here are some examples of creatively designed custom 404 error pages
Custom 404 error page on Propellor.com
Custom 404 error page on 24-7media.de
Custom 404 error page on iFolderLinks
While visitors to these pages may find them cute and funny, these custom 404 error pages still do not allow the visitor to do anything on the website. All a visitor can do is feel reassured that the site is not down and leave. Similarly, these pages are still dead-ends from where search engines have to abandon the crawling of the website.
Custom 404 Error Pages and SEO
When you design a custom 404, make sure it is larger than 512 bytes. If less than 512 bytes, some browsers assume it is the default error page and replace it with their own.
Add <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow”> so the search engines will not index this page.
Once you’ve created the page, you need to upload the page to your server and tell it which page to use. This depends on the type of server: Windows or Unix.
Qualities of a Good Custom 404 Error Page?
While it is good to be creative while creating your custom 404 error pages, keep in mind that a good custom 404 error page has the following attributes:
- A good custom 404 error page has the website’s look-and-feel
- A good custom 404 error page offers an apology for the error (“Sorry, page not found”)
- A good custom 404 error page links to the site map
- A good custom 404 error page links to the home page of the site
- A good custom 404 error page links to the other main pages (can have a mini sitemap on the page itself)
- A good custom 404 error page has site search box (if possible) allowing visitors to find other pages in the site
A good custom 404 error page does not have to be boring. However, if it has most of the above attributes, not only will it offer alternative pages to visitors, it will also allow search engines to follow the links and crawl other pages in your website.
Building a Custom 404 Page
If you have already designed your custom 404 page following the guidelines above, you now need to upload it to your server in a way that browsers and search engines recognize it as your website’s 404 error page.
For a Microsoft IIS Server
Open your “Internet Service Manager”. From here, select “Properties”, and then “Custom Errors” from the list of Radio tabs. Once selected, scroll down until you come to the file associated with your 404 error page. You can then edit this file or upload a new one for your server to display.
For a Unix Server
Name the custom 404 error page you created as 404.html. Next, modify the .htaccess file and include the command(s):
ErrorDocument 404 /404.html ErrorDocument 403 /404.html
This will redirect all 404 errors (File not found) and 403 errors (Forbidden) to your custom page (404.html). Save the modified .htaccess and you’re done.
Professional Web Design Services from Flying Cow Design
Flying Cow Design has a track record of over 20 years of professional web design. What differentiates us from most web design companies is that our focus is not only on web design, but on building a strong online presence for our clients. Understanding the changing search engine guidelines and being proficient in SEO has helped us build a strong web presence for many of our clients through a combination of our web design and internet marketing services. To see how we can help you build a strong web presence, write to us today!
CEO, Flying Cow Design
Attended University of Auckland
Lives in San Francisco Bay Area