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19 Jul 2016

Writing your 404 Error page message

By: Nadine Ishani

Your 404 page might be the first contact a customer has with your organisation. How can you make sure it's not a bad experience?

Reading time: 3-5 mins

As part of every project and website launch we have a pre-launch flightcheck. One of the tasks is to set up a 404 error page and ask our clients to update it with a message - and usually an image - to help their customers along their journey.

Customers find 404 pages annoying so you can improve your customers experience of your organisation and your website by understanding how and why they end up there and by making sure that the page they land on is as useful as possible. It's also a great opportunity to build your brand and let out a little bit of personality.

A 404 page is an error page that displays when a URL doesn't not exist. This most frequently happens:

  • after a website launch when some redirects have been missed during set up
  • a page title or url has been changed but no redirect set up
  • a page has been deleted and no redirect for the old url set up
  • there's a typo in the link that the visitor has followed

How to reduce the number of 404 errors on your site

For a new website

As part of your content audit, get a list of all the urls on your website. You can either build this manually or you can grab it from your existing developers. Once you've signed off the sitemap for your new website, you'll be able to start thinking about where you'll want to point them to on the new site.

As part of your content load, make sure you set up these redirects. Once your website has launched, test that they work properly by clicking a snapshot of links in your original list and making sure they land where you want them to.

After that, the redirect module in Drupal will allow you to see what urls visitors are trying to access - this will allow you to set up any missing redirects to more appropriate pages on the site.

Maintaining your content

If you change the title of a page on your website at any time, the url of the page will change. Making this change should automatically create a redirect for this page to capture the old links and make sure you don't lose anyone who has an old link saved. 

Ideally you should only do this very rarely. If you do find yourself changing a page title a second or third time, make sure you don't end up creating a redirect loop. This will stop anyone being able to view the page at all. A redirect loop happens when you reuse the same page title (and therefore the same url) and this creates in a redirect being sent to a page with the exact same url. 

The redirect module in Drupal allows you to see what redirects are set up for a page when you're in the edit view - scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the tab on the left labelled 'URL Redirects' to see what's there.

When you think about deleting a page, make sure you're not going to end up abandoning your customers/audience. Have a quick check in your Google Analytics to see how well used the page is, and how people get to it. If the traffic is high and the source is high profile and likely to push visitors to your site in the long term then you want to make sure that you make the most of that link. You may find that editing the page content, rather than deleting it will serve you well in the long run. 

How to make better 404 pages

Firstly, take a few minutes to watch this TED talk about 404 pages. Renny Gleeson talks about how the 404 page can be used to build your brand and shows some interesting and fun examples of 404 pages from around the internet.

Monitoring how people get to your 404 page (using the Drupal module and Google Analytics) can help you craft more useful content for the page.

Take inspiration from other good examples - there are so many of them out there. Let your imagination run wild!! (within the confines of your brand and tone of voice of course)

Further reading

Google image search results showing some great 404 pages

30 brilliant 404 pages from Creativebloq

50 creative 404 pages from the design school at Canva

12 clever 404 pages from The Next Web

Check out the Natural History Museum Shop's 404 for inspiration

Tumblr also have a great 404

Get in touch about your next project!