404 Error Pages
Contributor: Lauri Harpf
Harpf shows how the notorious 404 error page can
be used to the advantage of web site owners. Special
instructions for creating custom 404 error pages
are also provided below for site owners whose site
is run under the 'Apache' hosting solution, among
the most widely used hosting system on the Internet.
"Not found. The requested URL /file.html
was not found on this server. Apache/1.3.14 Server
at www.yourdomain.com Port 80"
Does that look familiar? If you've ever accidentally
tried to access a page that doesn't exist, possibly
by following an outdated link or by misspelling
the name of the page, you've probably seen something
like the above appear on your screen. You might
have attempted to correct the error by checking
the URL for mistakes, but it is even more likely
that you just clicked "Back" and returned
where you came from, never visiting the site again.
For a surfer, encountering a "404 page"
is a nuisance. For a webmaster, they can be far
more problematic, causing a reduction in traffic
which in turn means losing a part of the precious
advertising revenues or sales the site's life depends
on. You can minimise the amount of 404 errors by
periodically checking your pages for broken links,
but it is impossible to get completely rid of them.
So, what can you do?
The solution - Custom 404
The best way to avoid losing visitors to 404's is
to replace the standard and unfriendly error message
with a custom page. Fortunately the task is relatively
simple and can be performed by anyone who owns a
site that has its own domain name.
As different server softwares handle things in their
own ways, there is no single method of creating
a custom error page that works with every system.
The following instructions can be applied by those
who have sites hosted under Apache, which is a very
widely used program. If you don't know what software
your host is running, contact them and ask.
To start the process, use an FTP program such as
CuteFTP to connect to your server. Search for a
file named ".htaccess". Should you find
it, download the file to your home computer for
editing. If the file is not there, don't worry,
you'll just have to create it yourself.
Grab a normal text editor and open the file, or
if you don't have it, open up a blank file. Type
the following into the first line of the file:
ErrorDocument 404 http://www.yourdomain.com/404page.html
After you're done, save the file as plain text and
make sure that it is named ".htaccess",
without quotes of course. The hard part is now over,
all that is left is to create the custom 404 page
(404page.html) that loads when a 404 error occurs.
What should my 404 page
Of course, you can put anything you want into it,
but if your purpose is to encourage your visitors
to click further into your site instead of leaving,
the page should obey some basic principles.
1. Don't give
users a reason to panic. Including a large heading
that screams "ERROR" is likely to make
the visitor feel that he/she has done something
wrong or that your site is not working properly.
A better approach is to first greet them with a
warm welcome and then explain that the URL they
were looking for could not be found, but should
they browse around your site, they will surely find
the information they need.
2. Make the
page to look and feel similar to the rest of the
pages on your site. Include your site's menu on
the 404 page to give visitors a fast and easy way
to continue exploring instead of clicking away.
A well-designed 404 page with plenty of links is
far more attractive than one that has just black
text on a white background and a link to your homepage.
If you have the skills, consider adding
a search feature on the page that allows people
to search your site for matches. Often your navigation
menu will provide a clue on how the user might reach
the information he/she would like to see, but if
it doesn't there is a great risk of losing the visit.
Placing a search utility on the page increases the
likelihood of the user finding the desired page
and thus remaining on your site.
both the .htaccess file and the HTML page are ready,
FTP to your server, upload the pages and enjoy your
new custom 404 error page!