best practices for 404 pages

Crafting Perfect 404 Pages: Best Practices From Successful Sites

When you click a link and are greeted with a “Page Not Found” message instead of the content you expected, you’ve encountered what’s known as a 404 error page.

This happens when the webpage you’re trying to reach either doesn’t exist or has been moved without redirecting the old link. While it might seem like a minor hiccup, the way a website handles this situation can significantly impact a visitor’s experience.

Understanding the importance of a well-designed 404 page is crucial for maintaining user engagement and ensuring a positive interaction with your site. A thoughtfully crafted 404 page not only mitigates frustration for the user but also serves as an opportunity to reinforce your brand and guide them to other relevant content on your site.

In this post, I’ll explore how to transform a potential setback into a productive part of your website’s user experience.

The user experience of a 404 page

When a user encounters a 404 page, their initial reaction is typically one of frustration or at least confusion. This experience can be jarring, especially if they were expecting to find specific information or complete a task. If the page merely displays a technical error without any helpful guidance, it can leave the user feeling lost, potentially prompting them to leave the website altogether. This not only disrupts their immediate experience but can also harm the overall reputation of the site.

Here’s an example of a bad 404 page that doesn’t achieve much other than frustrating the user:

generic 404 page

The impact of a negative encounter with a 404 page extends beyond the immediate irritation, though. It can influence how users perceive the website’s reliability and professionalism, affecting their decision to revisit or recommend the site in the future.

On the other hand, a well-handled 404 error can actually enhance user satisfaction. By offering helpful alternatives and maintaining a positive tone, you can turn an otherwise frustrating experience into an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to service and user experience. This thoughtful approach encourages visitors to stay on your site, exploring other content instead of leaving disappointed.

Key elements of an effective 404 page

A well-designed 404 page can greatly soften the blow of missing content. Here are some essential elements that can make a 404 page effective:

Clear notification that the page is not found

The primary function of a 404 page is to inform the user that the requested page cannot be found. This should still be communicated clearly and prominently to avoid any confusion.

Use large, readable text to ensure the message is straightforward, such as “404 – Page Not Found.” This direct approach helps set the user’s expectations immediately, letting them know exactly what the issue is.

Here’s a good example of this principle in the wild by IKEA:

404 page by IKEA

User-friendly language

The tone and wording used on your 404 page can have a significant impact on how the message is received. Instead of technical terms – like default messages from your web server – or bland statements, opt for friendly and conversational language.

Try to create a supportive atmosphere and encourage the user to stay engaged with the site. Here’s an example of a website you might know that does this well:

Spotify 404 page

Visual design that aligns with the rest of the website

The design of your 404 page should feel like a part of your website, not an afterthought. Keeping the color scheme, typography, and general layout consistent with the rest of your site helps reinforce your brand identity and maintains a seamless user experience.

Additionally, including elements like your logo or familiar imagery can reassure users that they haven’t left the site entirely.

Humor and creativity to lighten the mood

Adding a bit of humor or creative flair can transform the annoyance of hitting a dead end into a memorable experience. For instance, an amusing illustration related to the error, or a playful message like “We must have misplaced that page!” can make the encounter more pleasant. This approach not only lightens the mood but can also make your brand more relatable and friendly, potentially turning a negative into a positive user experience.

Here’s an example of how dashthis uses this principle and presents a quite fun 404 message:

Cool humor on dashthis 404 page

To further enhance the user experience and retain visitors even when they encounter a 404 page, providing clear navigation options is essential.

Here are some effective ways to guide users back to useful content:

Positioning a search bar prominently on the 404 page gives users a proactive tool to find what they need without backtracking. Make sure the search bar is easy to spot and use, ideally placed near the top of the page or in the center.

This feature is simple, but it allows users to directly engage with your site’s content database, potentially leading them to discover more than what they initially sought. GitHub is always a nice example of that:

A friendly 404 by GitHub and a search bar

By showcasing links to popular or related content, you guide users towards areas of your site that are frequently visited or relevant to their interests.

This could be in the form of thumbnails, hyperlinks, or even a dynamic section that updates with trending articles or posts. Codecademy has an interesting spin on this. On their 404 page, they link to a simple interactive game as well as to the course that teaches you how to build a game like that:

Codecademy interactive 404

This strategy not only captures the user’s interest but also increases the time they spend on your site, which can positively impact user engagement metrics.

A clear and concise navigation menu on the 404 page can serve as a quick way for users to reorient themselves. This menu should mirror the main site navigation, offering links to major sections like Home, About Us, Services, and Contact.

Additionally, a prominent “Home” button can act as a reset button for users, bringing them back to a familiar starting point from which they can easily navigate to other areas of the site.

Here’s how a popular email newsletter tool, Mailchimp does this:

Mailchimp homepage link on their 404

Offer a way to report the missing page

Providing users with the option to report a broken link or contact your team about a problematic page shows that you value their input and are committed to improving the site. This could be a simple form on the 404 page itself or links to your site’s contact page.

Such transparency not only helps in building trust but also aids in maintaining the quality and accuracy of your website as users contribute to identifying and resolving issues.

Enhancing brand engagement

A 404 page doesn’t just have to be about managing an error; it can also be a strategic tool to enhance brand engagement.

Here’s how you can use a 404 page to reinforce your brand messaging and make memorable connections with your audience:

  • Use your 404 page to reinforce brand messaging. The 404 page is an excellent opportunity to remind visitors of your brand’s core message and values. Use this space to reinforce your brand’s voice – whether it’s professional, whimsical, or compassionate. Including elements like a brand slogan, mission statement, or a brief reassuring message can strengthen the user’s perception of your brand, even in the context of an error page. Here’s how Medium – a popular blogging platform – achieves this:
Medium 404 page
  • Try creative ways to incorporate brand characters or themes. If your brand uses mascots or distinctive themes, the 404 page is a perfect place to feature them creatively. For instance, an animated mascot could be shown “fixing” the error or guiding the user back to useful resources. This not only entertains the user but also gives a unique personality to your site that can make your brand more likable and relatable. Check out this example by Figma; given they are a design tool, they also incorporated a nice interactive feature right on this page – try grabbing the dots and playing around with the vector setup of this 404:
Figma's tool demo on the 404
  • Share special offers or pitch your products. Turning a 404 page into a conversion opportunity can help salvage a potentially lost visitor. You can offer special discounts, free trials, showcase some of your products, or make it a chance to sign up for a newsletter right on the 404 page. This approach not only mitigates the disappointment of not finding the desired page but also provides an incentive for users to engage further with your brand. Here’s an example by Ahrefs and how they take this opportunity to invite people to use their broken link checker tool:
ahrefs 404

Seizing the moment: wrapping up best practices for 404 pages

In conclusion, transforming a 404 error page into a proactive tool for user engagement and brand reinforcement involves several key strategies:

  • Communicate clearly. First, ensure the error is communicated clearly and without technical jargon, making the message immediately understandable.
  • Have consistent branding. The design and tone of your 404 page should reflect your brand’s identity, reinforcing your message even in moments of error.
  • Use engaging navigation: Provide multiple ways for users to navigate, including search bars, links to popular content, and straightforward menus, helping to keep them on the site.
  • Experiment with interactive elements. By incorporating elements like signup forms for newsletters or special offers, you can turn a potential exit point into an opportunity.

By addressing these areas, you can not only mitigate the negative impact of encountering a 404 page but also capitalize on the chance to enhance the user’s experience and build stronger connections with your audience. This proactive approach showcases the potential to turn an error into an opportunity for growth and engagement.

Have you seen any interesting 404 page lately that got you inspired to rebuild your own? Let me know, I want to see it too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *