This error is one of the most recognisable on the internet, so I'm guessing that pretty much everyone has come across an error 404 message while browsing.
WHY DO YOU SEE ERROR 404?
In tech terms, it's a HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) standard code, meaning that your browser was able to communicate with the server that hosts the website but that the server couldn't find what was requested.
The website hosting server will typically generate a "404 Not Found" web page for the following reasons:
The server is down.
The page moved and wasn’t redirected.
The page never existed.
The user mis-typed the website address (URL)
The URL is broken.
WHY THE TECH LESSON?
Ideally, your website visitors would never land on a 404 page, but of course, it does happen, and here's the exciting thing. You can change what people see when an error 404 page is generated.
This means that you can use an error 404 page to improve your customer experience. You can use the 404 page to show site visitors that you care about them, are interested in keeping them on your website and can help them find what they are looking for. If you really want to go for it, a good 404 page can show off your brand identity and personality.
DON'T OVERLOOK YOUR 404 PAGE
Just because they are the last place you want your users to end up on your website, not having a custom 404 page can be bad for your users and reflect badly on your search rankings.
A generic 404 page gives users no information - they don’t know if the website they were looking for even exists. A typical reaction to a generic 404 page is to click the back button and search for something else, and thats really bad for SEO.
A custom 404 page guides users back to relevant pages of your site and provides you with the opportunity to put valuable links in front of them. As a minimum you should have an obvious link to your homepage, but you can also link to your blog, a subscription page, stick a contact form on there or show any other relevant links that will keep them on your website when they might otherwise have left.
301 REDIRECTS, WHAT IS THAT?
As I've mentioned elsewhere in #TipsOnTuesday in this post about domain names you should think carefully when deciding on your domain name. Terrible domain names can lead to confusion or misspelling, reulting in a 404 error.
Your website address, or URL, is a domain name followed by a path, like catlund.com/blog. Each page on your site has its own path, and therefore its own unique URL. If you change this path, the link will break, visitors will get a 404 error and your SEO statistics will not carry over.
If you find that users are regularly misspelling your website address - which leads them to the 404 page - consider simplifying it and setting up a 301 redirect away from the old address.
301 redirects make sure visitors get to your site's pages, links don't break, and search engines don't lose valuable page ranking data like page visits. Both Bing and Google recommend using a 301 redirect to change the URL of a page.
Wix has a helpful How To article on 301 redirects here
SOME GREAT CUSTOM ERROR 404 PAGES
Here are a few examples of how to own the 404 error.
The Wix Support Centre are pretty apologetic, but cleverly they use a redirect so you know exactly what's going on....
... and they take you to a really useful page so you can easily find what you were searching for.
It's hard to imagine Google not finding anything, but even they have a 404 page, with a perplexed-looking robot.
They break the mould by not having any buttons to get you anywhere else, but they are the world's biggest search engine, after all.
I like the slow-motion ice-cream disaster.
As well as making you smile, the page tells you exactly where you are and offers useful options for what you might be looking for.
What is there to say? Everything is indeed, still awesome.
I thought I would check out one of the UK's biggest retailers to see what they do. Turns out they have a gentle sense of humour.
Each error page clearly offers options to the user. They seem pretty keen on getting you signed up to the mailing list, too.
I really like the use of animation on this page.
But how is all the shopping going to fit in that tiny little spaceship?
This is a page for one of my clients, and it gives his key message and plenty of links to try.
Finally, I loved this example from Waterstones. It makes you want to know more and introduces you to something new.
All of the above designs are simple and unambiguous yet thoughtful and creative.
If you want to explore some more there are loads of examples on the web, but this blog from Creative Bloq summarises them nicely.