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How Custom 404 Error Pages Improve Usability and SEO

January 8th, 2009 | | Usability

Ah, the 404 error page.  These pages are the bane of frequent internet surfers, and are probably one of the most overlooked aspects of a website.  Personally, I can think of few things more annoying than arriving at a website and being served a page stating, “Page Not Found.”  Ugh.  As a self-respecting SEO (who sees usability as a integral part of the job), this user-experience is awful.  What’s worse, a typical 404 error page has a high liklihood of driving your visitors away.  The good news is that there is a solution that will improve the user experience and will ensure that your visitors stay on your site.  Implement a custom 404 error page!

The most important aspect of a custom 404 error page is providing alternative solutions for your visitors.  They were obviously looking for something on your website before they stumbled on an error, so you should give them an alternative.  Depending on which SEO blogs you read, there are several flavors of content to include on your custom 404 error page.  Here’s a sampling of some of the best ideas:

  • Apologize or recognize that an error has occurred.
  • Provide a link to your homepage.
  • Provide links to your primary content.
  • Provide a link to your HTML sitemap.
  • Prominently display a site search box.

Any one of those choices will give a user a way to navigate your website anew.  However, if you’re wearing your fancy-pants, you can truly customize your custom 404 error page.  With a little extra coding, you can have your page provide custom results for each visitor.  This way, your error page will detect what went wrong and will provide alternatives that fit the profile of the visitor.

Whichever route you take, I think one of the best points made is to never say “404″ on the actual page!  This is courtesy of BruceClay.com:

There is no reason to label your error page “404 ERROR!” This tells users nothing; all most people know about a 404 page is that they have no idea what a 404 page is, nor do they care. Acknowledge that an error has been made and then lend a hand to help users get on their way. Don’t scare them by throwing around jargon they’ve never heard of.

So, if you looking for ways to improve the usability of your websites, implement a custom 404 error page.  It’s relatively simple and you’ll improve your changes of keeping the interest of each and every visitor.

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