Whenever a web server is unable to locate a requested page, it returns a 404 error. These errors are often caused by users who input wrong addresses, but a site redesign can also result in a lot of incoming links that point to nonexistent pages. A visitor who arrives at a 404 page is highly likely to bounce, or immediately leave the website, because default error pages cause users to disengage from the content. That means a custom 404 page can be a perfect opportunity to reengage a portion of the readership, which can pull those valuable users back into the content of a site. Default 404 pages have changed very little over the years. Web servers provide bare bones 404 pages, and some browsers also include default error pages that are a little more helpful. These error pages are just designed to convey basic information, which means they do an extremely poor job of retaining users. Over the years, most people have become accustomed to simply closing their browser windows whenever a 404 error shows up.
Make a User Friendly 404 Page
It’s a common misconception that 404 pages actually have to contain the number 404. Error codes are useful to administrators, but strings of incomprehensible numbers aren’t helpful to actual users. Instead of plastering an enormous 404 code across the screen, a friendlier error page should convey that same information in everyday language.
Another way to make a 404 page more user friendly is to remove any kind of reporting feature. That type of reporting can be automated, and forcing users to manually report broken links is an example of lazy design. Instead of presenting users with a search box and report form, an effective 404 page needs to reengage them with the site content.
The best way for a 404 page to retain readers is to integrate it with the rest of the site design. This type of 404 page should have a similar look and feel to the rest of the site, so it needs to include all of the typical navigation features. Instead of providing the user with an incomprehensible error message and a search box, a 404 page can also provide a list of related content, recently updated pages, or other popular items.
Customize Your 404 for Your Audience
There are a lot of different ways to handle a customized 404 page, and the best method depends on the particular audience. Some businesses use their 404 pages to inject a little humor into corporate sites that are otherwise dry and lifeless. Since error pages can include images, rich media, and other types of content, customized 404 pages have very few limitations.