The Importance of an Effective Custom “Page not found” Error Page

Of all the clients we’ve worked with I’d say about half do not have this important error procedure setup on their servers.

The issue – Many of the inner pages of your web site get indexed by search engines and if you rename or delete them you may loose some prospective visitors if you do not have an effective custom “Page not found” error page procedure setup on your server.

It can take months after web pages are moved or deleted before the search engines update their indexes so a number of people may try to reach pages that no longer exist on your site. This is especially important after site redesigns when large numbers of pages may be replaced with new pages with different file names.

As an example of what typically happens when no custom “Page not found” error page is in place, copy the link below into a web browser and try it

You should have received a standard “The page cannot be found” error page from your browser.

Notice that this error page does include a link to the home page for the domain that the visitor tried to reach. Unfortunately many people don’t notice this link and give up trying to reach the site. Most hit the “back” button and try other pages in the search results.

FYI – You probably saw an “HTTP 404 – File not found” message somewhere on the page. A 404 is the error code that is sent to the visitor’s browser when a file is not found. That is why these errors are often called 404 errors.

Now here are a couple of strong>examples of effective custom “Page not found” error pages.:

These error pages are setup by Microsoft and IBM on their web servers. The server automatically displays the error page for most “Page not found” errors. The pages “look & feel” like regular pages from the web site and they give clear messages and links to help move the visitor along into the rest of the web site.

Check with your IT people or web hosting company to see if they can setup a “custom page not found” error page that is returned instead of the standard browser error page. If so you can develop a web page with much of the same “look & feel” as other pages on the site with clear links to the home page, possibly a link to a site map or site search, etc.

The positive effect of a custom “page not found” error page is almost impossible to measure since you obviously can’t tell how many people didn’t reach your web site. It won’t help your search engine rankings either, but it should help increase the number of searchers who successfully arrive at your web site.

More tips for custom “Page not found” error pages

Reduce the clutter – The main task of a custom “page not found” error page is to let people know they tried to reach a page that doesn’t exist on your site and to give them an obvious and simple path(s) into the main site, without too much clutter that could keep them from seeing the important messages and links immediately.

Sorry Wrong Page – It’s important that people clearly see a message similar to “Sorry, Wrong Page” on these error pages or many people will get confused about what just happened. Notice that the Microsoft and IBM pages include this type of message.

Use Absolute Links – We’ve found that it’s best to strip these error pages down and have very few images and links on them (except in the case where you provide a site map).

The links to the images and any hyperlinks on the page should be absolute links (including the full URL path such as .gif) rather then using the default relative links inserted by most web development tools. Even the link to a CSS sheet if used should be an absolute link. This is because relative links may not work depending what folder on your site the bad link points to. If the missing page was in the root level of the web site (where the error page usually is) relative links usually work fine, but if the bad link points to any other folder on the web site the links may not work. When this happens your visitor may see a page with missing images such as your logo etc. Worse, the links you provided to the pages on your site, such as the home page, may not work!

Ensure correct 404 error code is served – Finally, it’s very important that the correct 404 error code is returned when a custom “page not found” error page is served. If you just redirect to a site map or home page without returning the 404 error code the search engines will not know that the URL in its index is a broken link. They may start indexing multiple copies of the site map or home page or whatever page you redirect too, under all the different bad URL’s which can cause real problems (such as duplicate filtering, pages getting removed from the index, delayed crawls etc)

Here’s a server head check to test that a 404 code is returned, (or search on “HTTP header check” for other tools)

Try testing Microsoft’s Notice the 404 code is returned.