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Custom 404 error messages and how NOT to do them

User friendly error messages are an important part of good site usability, especially if you do not want to scare away a lot of your less web savvy users. A 404 page not found error message is one of the worst kind because if it is a new visitor there is a high probability they are going to click away to the next best site. If you have a friendly 404 you might be able to salvage the situation.

A 404 error message means that the server was successfully contacted but could not retrieve the file requested by the client (browser). This can happen because of an outdated or expired link, a linking error on the site itself, or a user typo.

Dealing with a 404 the wrong way

I can’t believe how many sites throw up cryptic nonsense that the vast majority of people will have no clue as to what it means and even for the people who do, why do we need all the gritty details? One of the worst things you can do is post a 404 Error and call it a day. What the heck does that mean? For the majority of us, (even the ones who know what a 404 is) that is when we close the tab or return to Google to find what we need.

Here is an example of a horrible 404 I saw recently on a large well known corporate site.

Bad 404

This error message is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. It’s so comical that it was the inspiration for this article. Why does this 404 suck?

  1. It breaks out of the site losing all navigation.
  2. Not one single link back to the actual site.
  3. Main title is Error 404–Not Found (useless).
  4. Spews out some silly nonsense about status codes and we all know that 410 SHOULD be used if blah blah blah.
  5. Absolutely way too much detail that no one other than the developer needs to know and they should be able to get this from their logs.
  6. It’s super ugly and scary.
  7. I’m sure there’s more bad things to say about this message.

Other mistakes to avoid

Another bad thing to do is pop up a 404 message telling the user that the page was not found and then asking them to email the web master telling them about the error. Don’t you think your visitors and clients have better things to do with their time then testing your site and reporting back to you when it blows up in their face? You have log files, look for your own 404 errors and if you see a lot cropping up either find the error or redirect that traffic somewhere useful.

Good 404 practices

Don’t break the user out of your site. Load the 404 error message into the body of the page leaving all of your site navigation as it would be on any other page. This gives the user the option of quickly returning to other parts of your site instead of leaving it for good. Don’t make your visitors work harder than they have too. Offer up an alternative link or even a search box.

Have a good message and if you really want to have 404 in your message make it the smallest text on the screen, not the largest as so many 404’s do and don’t make it the first thing that greets your visitor. The wording should vary depending on your demographic and target audience. Some sites use a funny 404 messages, I use the one below on this blog.

Oh No! Something has gone horribly wrong!

This page has probably been the victim of foul play at some point — the Internet can be a rough place sometimes. We will miss this page, but it is time to move on. Try visiting the leader of these pages, it may know what to do next.

I love funny 404 messages, they grab your attention and make you forget the fact that you can’t find what you came for and just maybe you will continue browsing the site. Have fun with your error messages and always give the user a way of getting back into the site, even if it’s just a link to the main page.

If you would like to see my real 404 message type some junk after www.ianhoar.com/. I have not linked a broken page directly because I don’t want 404 errors showing up in my logs and stats unless they are real.

Feel free to post any good or bad 404 messages you have found in the comments section.

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