Ever mistyped a URL when trying to share your content on social media? Or moved a page on your website and not updated the links to it?
Your 404 error page is there to save the day.
Greeting your users and letting them know something’s not quite right; 404 pages are an important, yet often neglected, part of every website.
Real people and search engines alike hate broken links. Acknowledging and fixing them is an admirable first step.
But consider for a moment fans sharing your blogs on social media. And what about all the external websites linking to your sparkling content? Links to your site are great for brand awareness and SEO. But the fact is, occasionally you, or someone else, will get one wrong.
As brave protectors of traffic loss, I think 404 pages deserve a little more attention.
So I’ll discuss how a few simple improvements to your 404 page can protect your site from some of the negative effects of linking errors.
Have you seen your 404?
Be honest, have you ever taken a look at your 404 page?
Chances are, at least a couple of your customers have seen it – if not, they’ll see it eventually. So why not take a moment to go check it out now?
Just type your website address into your web browser, followed by a forward slash (/) and a made up page name (i.e. not the name of any of your current pages). In the example below, I’ve appended “/unicorns” to our website address:
Still Copywriting unfortunately doesn’t have a page called, Unicorns, so typing stillcopywriting.com/unicorns into my web browser redirects to the Still Copywriting 404 page.
Go on, check out your 404 page now. I’ll wait right here. Feel free to share your made up website URL in the comments below so I can give it a go.
Embarrassing 404 pages
Hopefully this exercise won’t return anything too shocking. Anything along the lines of: “404! This isn’t the page you were looking for. Here’s a search box” isn’t so bad.
But it’s possible you’ve come across something worse, particularly if your website was built using a fancy theme.
Take the Still Copywriting website for example. It was made with the X WordPress Theme – not as restrictive as many themes, but it does have many ready-built aspects.
Including a 404 page complete with terrifying copy.
This is what the default 404 page looked like on Still Copywriting before I got my hands on it. I suggest you look away now if you’re easily offended:
I would hazard a guess this wasn’t written by a copywriter. It certainly wasn’t written or designed specifically for Still Copywriting.
It could be worse – but there’s plenty wrong with it.
Most obvious: the phrase “you blew up the Internet” and the word “bummer.”
I’m no square, but I’d never use the word “bummer” anywhere on Still Copywriting (other than for this blog post).
I also don’t like how it blames our site’s visitors for ending up on the wrong page – after all, it’s far more likely someone else directed them there with a broken link.
And the tone of voice as a whole is completely different to the rest of our site. It doesn’t read well and is almost too casual.
Perhaps worse, the page doesn’t give our reader very helpful advice on what to do next, aside from suggesting: “try searching for what you are looking for.”
I’d estimate somewhere between 0% and 0.01% of people who land on a 404 from social media will go to the trouble of using a search form.
All in all, it would have been an oversight to leave the page as it was. So I did a quick rewrite to bring it into line with the rest of our site.
As always, be nice to your readers and be nice to search engines: check your links are working as they should, take a look at your 404 page, and if it’s not up to the standard of the rest of your site, do something about it.
You never know when someone will stumble on a 404.
As a minimum your 404 page should:
- Have the same tone of voice as the rest of your site
- Be clear this isn’t the page the user was expecting
- Point to the most useful pages to go to next, e.g. home, blog, contact
- Be welcoming and encourage the user to stay on your site
To improve the user’s journey it’s a good idea to include an obvious link from your 404 page to your home page – maybe a large button. Don’t redirect errors straight to your home page though. Getting rid of your 404 page completely is only going to cause confusion. It’s better to be clear to your lost user they’ve reached the wrong destination, before leading them elsewhere.
You could edit your site’s 404 page directly, but we chose to use a WordPress plugin instead. The plugin we use is called Custom 404 Pro and you can check it out here.
This plugin allows us to build a page as normal and redirect any 404 errors to that page. It’s extra useful as it logs a record of all 404 redirects, allowing us to quickly check out and address broken links.
When 404s are too clever
A trend emerged over the past few years to use 404 pages as a place to show off a bit. I guess that’s why we’re subjected to default 404s like the “Oops!” example above.
While it’s nice to show some personality on your 404 page, I don’t recommend getting too carried away. Unless “getting carried away” is what the rest of your site is all about.
If your 404 page is too out of kilter, you’re tarnishing all the hard work you’ve put into your other pages and your content strategy as a whole.
So go ahead and check out what’s lurking on your 404 page, and if you don’t like what you see, address it. Just like you would any other page on your site.
This post was originally published at Still Copywriting.