No matter how well made you think your website is, visitors will somehow manage to confound it and end up at a URL that doesn’t exist. Making a custom 404 page ensures that, when this happens, your website handles it in the best way possible, and gives you the best chance of rescuing that visitor.
What Happens Without a Custom 404 Page
Encountering a message that tells you that the page you are looking for on a site – a page that you are pretty sure should exist – cannot be found, fills a user with despair, and destroys their confidence in your website. A visitor is much more likely to go back to Google and attempt to find the information or product somewhere else, than go back to your home page and start again, even if the page they’re looking for does actually exist.
Custom 404 Pages – The High Tech Option
If you have a pet developer, or you’re handy with PHP and MySQL, you can easily make a dynamic 404 page that helps the user to continue along on their journey. Some ways of doing this include:
- Taking the search keywords they used to arrive at your page, searching your own site for those keywords, and suggesting some pages. This only works for search visitors, and is usually only effective in situations where a page has moved, but Google has not re-indexed your pages since the move.
- Suggesting alternative products/pages based on where the user was. This can use the categories/tags associated with the visitor’s origin page, or any other visitor metrics you can reliably capture and use. This is also useful in cases where visitors did not arrive straight at your 404 page from Google.
In both cases, these options help to keep a visitor on your site. They aren’t guaranteed to work, but they will do a much better job than your server’s default 404 page.
Custom 404 Pages – The Comedy Option
Some sites don’t bother with expensive code that may or may not rescue a visitor who couldn’t find the page they were looking for. Instead, they go for humour. Google does this excellently, by means of a simple message.
The important thing to recognize here is that Google, the almighty search giant, is admitting that it didn’t do something right. More often than not, it was actually the visitor who made a mistake, but Google takes the blame, and makes a little joke about it.
This has an important effect on visitor psychology – it elicits sympathy from the visitor, making them more likely to try again, and continue using the site. In the case of Google, the visitor seldom has any other choice, but in the case of your website, where they probably have an alternative, it can make them more likely to go back to your home page, and try to use your search functionality or find the page via your navigation menu.
Creating a custom 404 page doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and it can save you a large number of visitors, especially if you are in the process of a site restructure. The best way to see if it is worth it is by simply looking at your site analytics, and seeing how many people end up at your 404 page. If saving half or even a quarter of these visitors would be worthwhile to you, then you know what you have to do.