404 pages come up a lot in SEO audits and also with designers looking to be a bit more creative. Blending good design with SEO compliance and usability sometimes doesn’t always go to plan, which may be surprising given how trivial a 404 page may seem. But 404 pages are not rare – they occur on even the most well maintained site. So it’s worth looking at Google Search Console to find out if there are any 404s, look at why they’re being triggered and what message you give to users when they happen.
Recently, one of my favourite web design sites, Web Designer Depot, discusses 5 ways to use 404 pages well written by James George.
I generally agree with the sentiment behind the article. The 404 page on your website should be customised (as opposed to a plain server driven one) and it should be useful. Otherwise it’s not working in your favour. As someone with a background in design and an even bigger background in SEO & Digital Marketing, I’m throwing in my my tuppence worth on the matter. I’ve had many battles with clients when it comes to the 404 page, often just trying to keep things ‘within brand guidelines’.
The 1st point talks about linking to your best content. I agree with this. Giving people suggestions of where to explore (even though those pages may be in the site nav) is a great way to keep them on the site and to help them continue their journey. Just make sure your link placement is clear and it wouldn’t hurt to use a heatmap tool to see how people interact with this page.
The 2nd point suggests giving out a freebie in exchange for their email address. I haven’t come across this in my experience and I understand what this tries to achieve but I’m not sure of how well this would convert. Some sites have great success when they throw an email subscription box in your face randomly but in the context of a 404 page, I guess it remains to be seen how effective this would be. But I don’t disagree with this point – I’ve just not seen it in the wild in my own limited experience. If you use this, I’d love to learn more about how this works for you, especially if you’ve got other ways of capturing email addresses on your site.
The 3rd point recommends adding a search box and the example screenshot shows twitter’s 404 page. this is excellent because of the context – it’s not like twitter has landing pages to send you to (like e-commerce or a service provider) so it merely suggests searching by username, first or last name. I like this and think for an online store, this would work well in combination with linking to your best content (refer to 1st point). Like the 1st point, using a heatmap tool would be insightful. I highly recommend Hotjar for this.
The 4th point says to add a contact form to the page because although the user didn’t find what they were looking for, for whatever reason, the contact form still gives them a quick easy way to contact you – and this would be useful if they were short on time, for example. it also views this tactic as a way to get bugs reported more easily and that’s always a good thing.
The 5th point is something I don’t agree with – because it says don’t use humour but the example used isn’t funny – it’s just condescending and rude. A lot of great 404 pages use humour and it’s really about being in good taste. Accusing your users of being stupid isn’t funny – and I say this having done a bit of tech support in my time! Sure, more often than not, it’s a classic case of PEBKAC but doesn’t mean your 404 page can’t be funny. If however your attempt at humour gets in the way of being helpful, then it’s not worth the effort. So what if you’ve got a funny comic or caricature? Does it help the user understand what’s just happened or why they ended up on this page? does it give them options on what to do next? if it doesn’t, then you need to rethink your 404 page strategy.
As with the conclusion of the article, I agree – you shouldn’t really be doing all of the above on your 404 page. What you should be doing is looking at what will work best within the context of your site. Above all else, being useful to your site visitors should be your primary focus. Which is why I agree with one of the commenters who says not to label it as 404 (to users) because most people don’t now what it is. I know people are getting smarter and many will associate 404 with an error but look beyond the status code and do something practical with your 404 page.
Pro tip: setup Google Search Console for your website to monitor how Google crawls your site and identify 404 errors that may come up – you’ll be richer for the experience, trust me!