website best practices error pages 404 pages opportunity

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You may have been considering a new approach to your 404 error page. Before we get into 404 errors specifically, it helps to briefly survey the various types of error message pages you want to have.

404 page

It is important to give a user a 404 page if they try to go to nameofyourwebsite.net/whateverthisis that is nonexistent. You want the URL to register properly if the page does exist of course. If the URL does not exist, you might think it would work to simply send a 200 page – one that indicates normal operating status – and just tell the person they are in the wrong place. If you did that, you would end up with a large volume of duplicate content, meaning your words appear multiple times – resulting in (negative) redundancy. The search engines do not want their spiders to just have to scan over the same content repeatedly. Avoid duplicate content with the 404 page.

410 page

This code can be considered a variation on the 404 page. It sends a status code to search engines that can also be read by browsers, and that sends a message to remove the page from search. While that message is particularly key to get to the search engines, you also are able to use it to feed a standard page that has a similar message to a 404. A 410, like a 404, does not need to be dry and lifeless. It can be crafted to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience along with strong usability. Distilled.net is a good example of an entertaining error page, according to Moz.

Unlike a 404 that simply is telling the site visitor that the page cannot be reached, the 410 lets the search engines know explicitly that you do not want anyone going to that page. It allows you to pull a page from the search engine listings. The 404 message suggests that the page could possibly just not be immediately reachable. Those pages are being kept set aside until it’s clear if they are not needed. The 410s are certain removals.

301 page

A 301 page is the solution when you have a certain URL that would be a 404 but either is getting a lot of traffic, or that you would like to end up at a live page when someone enters the address. The 301 page lets the person know that the content they were trying to reach is now at a different page or is no longer active. Your page lets them know that they are in the wrong location but that you can 301 them to a page that probably would meet their needs.

Best practices for 404 pages

As indicated above, you want a couple of other types of error pages beyond the 404, but the 404 should get significant attention. Here are best practices specific to it:

1.) Deliver great UX.

A typical 404 page will force the person who has arrived at it to reverse course. It is interesting to consider that the principles that underlie gamification suggest users want to believe that they are making progress as they interact with an environment. Since progress is so fundamental, it is strong for your 404 page to guide people forward to additional areas of the site, such as the features page or homepage. Visitors will be much likelier to convert if you can keep them on your site, of course. One example of a little bit more helpful 404 page is from Justinmind. Its 404 page says, “SORRY / This is not the page you are looking for / 404,” followed by 4 links: “Home,” “Free Download,” “Support,” “Enterprise,” and “Blog.”

You can also greatly improve the user experience that occurs on a 404 page by incorporating search so that people feel they have control of their forward movement and can meet their needs. Designer Steve Lambert brings together a search box and a well-thought-out video to keep people intrigued – demonstrating how to make an opportunity out of what would otherwise simply be erroneous.

2.) Inform your visitor rather than just giving them an error message.

You want the user to efficiently understand the situation and be able to move on, hopefully by exploring more of your site. You do not want people to have to put the error message into a search engine to understand the predicament. An example is a 404 page that is truly just an error message from the server, as when you get a “Windows – No Disk” error, labelled as an “Exception Processing Message” with a bunch of strings of alphanumeric characters.

3.) Keep it clean for the best retention.

It can be easy to want to give people every possible solution they might need on your 404 page. Consider that the person is already a little irked that they have landed in a problematic place. Keep their life simple given that downturn by letting them cleanly understand where they are and where they can go. You want a 404 page with a number of important links so that they can get to the homepage and other critical pages (such as your blog and features page).

4.) Leverage the chance to brand.

Some people who hit a 404 page may have never experienced your company. Since it is a first impression for those users, it is a good idea to ensure your error page is aligned with the look and feel of the rest of the site. Error pages should also have a similar tone to the rest of your content. Any images should look like the visuals that are already recognizably attached to your brand.

Bear in mind as you attempt to make your 404 page more pleasing to the eye that its function is the most important aspect ultimately (especially since the page is an experience of dysfunction).

5.) Throw in a few jokes.

When someone arrives at an error page, they will not feel satisfied because they were not able to get to their intended destination. You can certainly guide them appropriately. You can also make a joke to lighten the mood, as suggested by Digital Doughnut. By implementing just a bit of humor, you are able to distract from the annoyance. A joke is just one option; the error page can also be an opportunity to increase interactivity.

Consider this point from Moz that backs up the need for humor when people experience problems. Citing Mysterious Trousers, Moz notes that the sense of satisfaction that arrives when a person has potential energy that is turned into kinetic energy is the true potential for your site’s design. You have the potential, and with the delivery of strong UX, the highly effective error page “creates surprise, delight, or simply a response that satisfies our desire to engage, manipulate, and shape our experience,” says Mysterious Trousers.

Obviously, when someone comes to the 404 page, they might not like what they experience at first, but you can certainly get them smiling. An example of a funny error message page is the one from Bluegg. It says at the top, “Ahhhhhhhh! This page doesn’t exist / Not to worry. You can either head back to our homepage, or sit there and listen to a goat scream like a human.”

Well, that is giving the user options, but it’s also giving them a silly experience rather than just a direction to turn around and go back.

High-performance infrastructure for your site

The different elements of your site can all be approached more or less strategically. Any independent aspects are challenges in their own right, but powerful infrastructure is essential to great UX regardless the specifics. At Total Server Solutions, when you become our customer, you can trust that all our decisions are driven by our relentless desire to help you succeed. See our high-performance infrastructure.