An Irish Business Guide to Designing the Best Custom 404 Page

Oops, a 404 Error. Do you know where you are?

And really, how do you feel about it?

It’s frustrating when you are the consumer, but deadly if you are the page owner. Those moved, deleted or renamed, or broken links are sending your SEO rankings into the basement. There is a penalty for consistently unreliable information and high 404 error percentages.

Customers don’t want to be viewing your 404 page.

How do you engage and convert your accidental visitors? People just push the back button (and you lose them immediately) if you don’t grab them immediately.

A custom 404 page that gets them where they need to go is the answer. Read on to learn how to keep them from clicking off.

What Are 404 Error Pages?

When a web server doesn’t recognize the page you are trying to open it gives you a 404 error page. A 404 error is an HTTP status response code from the server.

Why is it called a 404 error? It’s leftover jargon from the early days of the internet. It’s the HTTP status code. You might see them as these error messages:

  • 404 Not Found
  • The requested URL was not found on this server.
  • The page cannot be found
  • HTTP 404 Not Found
  • 404 Error

Most servers have a generic page that notifies the system administrator, but it isn’t friendly or welcoming. It’s simply a status message.

How Big Is the Problem?

Outdated links and moved web pages clutter search engine results. It doesn’t matter if you use world giant Google, Yahoo or the Russian web crawler Yandex.

A once-working URL just disappears. The cause could be any of several reasons. Content gets renamed, moved or deleted, or the entire website goes kaput. Content, design, and infrastructure of nearly 2 billion pages evolve on a daily basis.

Good for the internet, bad for permanent information references. Even giant Wikipedia finds itself chasing bad links. More than 217,000 at last count, according to their internal edit page.

88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site if their experience is bad. Those broken links not only wasted their time, but they also drove your prospect away, never to return. They just hit the back button and moved on to the next search result.

Reasons That People See Your 404 Page

It doesn’t really matter why your customer is seeing your 404 page.

  • You redesigned your site
  • You changed your internal links and didn’t update
  • Your search engine link is outdated
  • You or your customer has fat fingers and made a typo
  • You are linked to deleted domains or content

A 404 page doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. But dive in and the truth is that it does damage to your user experience, your reputation, your search engine rank, and your business. In turn, that affects your customers and revenue.

Well, That’s Awfully Dramatic

You might think we are overreacting. We aren’t.

Here’s how we see it. If your site logic isn’t what it should be, your users can’t access the information they want or complete their order. The chaos of misdirection, broken links and slow server response just drive traffic to where the users CAN do what they needed to do.

That’s going to be one of your competitors.

Your reputation and revenue suffer. It won’t matter how much you spend driving traffic to your site if your potential customers bounce right back out.

How do you sell yourself as a secure and trustworthy website if all your potential customers get are errors? Many fraudulent websites are compromised by internal links that actually go nowhere.

Think about it, would YOU trust your credit card number and personal info to an unreliable website? How do you know it isn’t a fake or a scam?

Broken Link SEO Rank Consequences

Worse, how do search engines sift out the bad information?

When web crawlers find a broken link, they verify it is broken. It is then categorised and removed from searches as irrelevant. You lose the SEO value of that link.

Web crawlers have a certain budget of time every cycle to spend on your website. Instead of cataloguing your properly working pages, the crawler is verifying your broken links. This will place you lower on the results page.

Visitors reaching that bad link leave in seconds, so the search algorithms assume the content quality is low or the keywords are less relevant.

It’s up to you to provide a good customer experience. Google claims more than 96% of the search engine market in Ireland.  If you already make the investment in a localized domain, why chase them away?

Use a Custom 404 Page to Engage

Direct your website visitors that encounter error 404 to the right information. Give them a reason to not press that back button. A 404 page that engages your user increases the chance that the user stays and finishes what they were doing.

The best 404 error pages have certain features that work to retain your user. They need to reflect your brand and offer your user a reason to continue their stay on your website.

Components to Consider for Your Custom 404 Page

Eliminating broken links on your website is your first priority, but some visitors will always manage to stumble into errors. Skip the generic error page and build something that speaks to your users’ needs.

After all, the only reason this page exists is to tell your user where to go next. Look at both function and style with creativity. The best 404 page examples include:

1. A Search Bar

Don’t let your user get away. This seems basic but some 404 pages just dead end. Your user won’t need the back button if you give them a way to navigate your website.

2. Links to Your Homepage or Most Popular Pages

Serve the most popular pages. If other people are looking at them, there is a good chance this user is also looking for them. Link to your homepage or sitemap to start them again.

If you are feeling ambitious, create a dynamic 404 page that links the most recently changed pages. You note that we do not recommend an automatic redirect to your homepage or other pages. Automatic redirects don’t take people where they want to go or change the links they followed.

3. Make Contact With Your Customer

Ask your user to report the error. Of course, you are collecting important information. You are also collecting information for follow-up marketing.

Give the user some sort of contact form or chat window and use the information to engage the customer. Request that they include the page they came from in the message. You can use this to match up with your server logs.

4. Leave Out the Jargon

Talk with your user, not at them.  Skip the technical terms and codes. Use plain language to talk about what went wrong. “Server Error 404” is a whole lot less friendly than “Page not found.”

5. Place No Blame

Address the issue that landed them on your error page. Could it be something simple like a slight variation in the URL or a recent site reorganization?

Give “possible reasons” rather than assigning blame. Use positive or non-committal words. It’s better to use terms like “may have” or “if possible”, rather than playing the blame game.

Be nice and offer solutions to your users on your custom error page.

After all, you don’t want to call a potential customer a fat-fingered, forgetful dolt with poor spelling, would you?

6. Serve the Page in Multiple Languages

If your website uses more than one language, your custom 404 page needs to speak the right language. It should also send the user to the correct language version of the page they want.

Use natural language for your website. Just be aware that if you use humor, make sure to create it in whatever language you use. Direct translations aren’t often funny.

7. Offer Them In On the Action

Convert visitors to customers. Direct users to a contact page to join your mailing list. Offer a coupon or discount. You might even offer a sample of your product “for the inconvenience.”

Your 404 page might not have all of these components, but think of which ones are right for your brand and message.

Custom 404 Page Quick How-to

Your 404 page should fit in with your website design. Customize your page so that your user doesn’t feel like they were redirected out of your site. Colour themes, fonts and artwork are important parts of the whole.

If you can, maintain the header and footers of the rest of your website for continuity. This can help guide people further into your site, not back out of it.

If you coded your website by hand, you will probably need the assistance of the people who did the coding.  If you used WordPress, Joomla or Drupal to create your website, creating your own error page designs will take some time, but it is entirely manageable.

Remember the basics:

  • Speak with your user
  • Use their language
  • Get them where they need to go
  • Add contact details
  • Engage your user
  • Use tone and personality
  • Add a call-to-action

Remember, it’s not a dead-end, it’s an invitation to explore further. There are several top-notch 404 page design examples to inspire you. You can even purchase templates to match your existing website design.

Create your custom page and save it to your website directory.

Installing Your Custom Page

These generic instructions are for Unix servers. If you use cPanel or any Content Management System (CMS), follow the directions specifically for your application.

You need access to your .htaccess file. If you aren’t the system administrator, ask before you muck things up.

The .htaccess File

This is where the magic happens. FTP to your server and look into the top level directory. The .htaccess should be a file waiting inside the top level directory of your website. Take note of the dot (.) that leads the name.

If there isn’t a file there, you need to create one. If you are already uncomfortable with this process, ask your system administrator.

Edit the .htaccess File:

You need to add just one line.

ErrorDocument 404

Replace the with your full URL. Now save. It should all be one line, no spaces. Just a pointer to the custom 404 page you just created.

That’s all you need. Just that one line. Don’t know how to edit or save? Ask your system administrator for the correct permissions.

Activate the Page

If there was already an .htaccess page in the directory then you need to make no changes.

If you had to create an .htaccess file, then you probably have to turn it on. Telenet to the server and get the command prompt.


chmod 644 .htaccess

That’s it. Your custom page should now be active. Test it by opening up a web browser and attempting to access a page on your website that doesn’t exist.

From Oops! to Engagement

A custom 404 page can make a frustrating inconvenience into a call to action for your website. Tweaks in your user interface make all the difference. You can use on-brand talk, humour and help to open a conversation with your visitor.

This sort of personable engagement keeps users on your site longer, which affects your SEO ranking. Better ranking on search engines means better search results and more customers finding you.

Of course, you should endeavour to remove broken links from your site to limit the number of people reaching your error page. Why intentionally frustrate anyone’s efforts? But you can make the experience a happy mistake and stay true to your brand.

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