The handling of a 404 page is still a topic of discussion where web design is concerned and the fact remains that errors are unavoidable if their role within a site is misunderstood. So, if you’re thinking of taking your website to the next level through a re-design or even creating a website for the very first time, you should take the time to understand everything surrounding a typical 404 page and the role they play within a website’s SEO efforts if employed successfully. With that being said, let's begin with the official definition of a ‘404 page’ to kick start this guide:
What Is A 404 Page? -
A 404 page design (also referred to as an ‘error page’), is the content a user will see if they try to reach a non-existent URL within the realms of a website. In other terms, it is a page which your server will display if it cannot find the URL requested by the user. Just think of it as the page that displays when a site comes up with a blank. Sounds pretty simple to employ right? Well, its purpose is simple, we’ll give you that, and even its appearance is too, but don’t be fooled. There’ s still plenty of room for mistakes to be made and in fact, they frequently are. There is one common mistake that is frequently made across countless websites on the net, so let's explore this together below:
404 Page Re-Directions -
Did you know that a 404 page which re-directs to a website’s homepage is a bad thing? You’re probably surprised if you didn’t know this already, because we can bet that you’ve visited websites in the past that have displayed this very trait. Well, the truth of the matter is that the re-direction of a 404 page design to a website’s homepage is classed as a ‘bad user experience’ for two main reasons:
1. Firstly, users of a website will be confused as to why they’ve wound up on the homepage when they initially clicked a link to a different page.
2. Secondly, the information they were promised is unavailable and they won’t know why.
3. Thirdly, the users of a site would inevitably end up on a web-page that could be completely irrelevant to the link they clicked, disrupting their ‘user journey’.
4. Another mistake which is frequently made across the net is the usage of 301 or 302 redirects to your homepage. Simply put, this is also very bad for SEO practice. Some website owners do this in an attempt to preserve link juice acquired by the removed/non-existent content, but unfortunately, it will not have the desired affect that they’re after. So, if you want our advice for your site’s design, stick to 404.
5. Lastly, did you know that sending search engines such as Google to your homepage instead of a page that returns a 404 status could make Google think your homepage is a ‘soft 404 error’?! Need we tell you how harmful that is to your website’s reputation as a whole?
In conclusion from the listed points above, re-directing 404 errors to your website’s homepage will wind up doing the exact opposite of what was intended. If in doubt, think before you link! That’s just another of our little sayings here at ReWork to help you along your merry way, but remember, we’re here to help answer questions, as web-design is what we do. Check out the projects page for an example list of the digital experiences we have created.
Linking A 404 Page -
So, going back to the topic of a typical 404 page design, what rules should you follow and most importantly, where should the 404-error page lead to? The best advice we could give to you would be to identify and locate a page relevant to the user’s search such as a similar product/ category page and link it up! So, the user may not be able to view exactly what they were looking for, but at least you’ll be doing the best you possibly can to answer their query and aid their user experience across your website. Need we say that a helpful site will always go down well and lead to returning visitors. So, if that was your question, then that answers that, but will you know if you need a 404?
404 Page Design & Purpose -
As we’re sure you would have gathered from the above sections within this article, the main purpose of a 404 page is to turn a potential ‘negative user experience’ by encountering an error page into a positive one by applying a number of our handy tips to a website’s error page. 404 error pages across the net are generally known to be ugly in appearance, unbranded and without value. As such, they can drag down the overall marketing performance of your website.
As we mentioned above, the key within the lock to the positive/ negative door is links. Links inserted within 404 pages across the web are so important because they give users a way out. So, just because a website has technically drawn a blank, doesn’t mean that it has nothing else to offer the visitor. So, instead of forcing the user to close down their window and move away from your site, help them to find relevant resources on another page within your website’s domain.
Some examples of links to include within a typical 404 page would be; your website’s home page, your site’ most popular blogging pages and product/ category pages, contact information and a HTML sitemap. Another handy attribute to add to a site’s 404 page design would be a search bar. This will allow a user to find what they’re looking for directly from that page making the user experience positive once more.
Creating a custom 404 page with helpful links and search bar will successfully tick off the following on your website’s user experience list:
• The reduction of bounce rate, keeping users on your website.
• The ability to keep users engaged within your site and sale process.
• Leaving them with a good feeling after creating a positive user experience.
• The maintenance of consistent branding across a site.
Just as there are things which a successful 404 page can do for your website (such as helping your users to navigate with ease, as well as helping search engines such as Google move on to other pages of a site via links, there are things that a 404 page will not do, such as passing link juice. There is a common misconception where link juice is concerned. Normally your landing pages can pass acquired ‘link juice’ to a homepage or other internal pages on a site, but that is because Google indexes your landing pages. Google doesn't index URLs with a 404 status, so your error page cannot pass link juice. This means they aren’t assigning any of the value passed by links that point to pages with 404 statuses, but don’t panic! If you have a page that has lots of high-quality links and results in a 404 error, you can still redirect that individual URL to a relevant page.
When To Avoid A 404 Page -
There are times when you will not need to serve a 404 page to a user who requests a page that doesn’t exist (or exists no longer). The pages within a website which contain the following characteristics are the ones which will typically require a 404 page design re-direction:
• The page must contain important external links (or lots of links).
• It must also receive a high volume of traffic or a substantive share of your website’s traffic.
• Have an obvious URL that the user/linker is trying to reach.
In these situations, it makes more sense to add a 301 redirect in order to send users and link juice to a more relevant and useful page. Remember, though, that the destination pages you use for your redirects need to be legitimate replacement content. If you’ve got 404 errors for these types' URLs, ideally, you’ll have replacement content for these pages anyways since they are probably your website’s most important pages.