Custom error pages (with bonus server-eating monsters)

404 error page monsterAs part of all the tweaking I’ve been doing since my website donned its new outfit on Monday, I made myself a custom 404 error page.

Usually, that “File Not Found” page generated by a 404 error is pretty boring. I mean, nobody wants to spend time on a dead-end page that doesn’t have anything useful or interesting on it, right?

Now, my custom error page makes me giggle. It has monsters! Drawn by The Oatmeal!

(And no, I totally didn’t steal these images — he gave them away and said that anyone could use them without even crediting him. A lot of people have used and riffed on them, so actually, I’m terribly behind the times on this trend.)

Have you checked your 404 error page lately?

Do you even know what your visitors see if they come to your site via a broken or misspelled link, or try to visit a page that you’ve taken down or renamed?

Try this: Go to your home page, and then type something random after the slash, something like …unless your site actually has a page with the title “Blah,” of course. Then you’d want to use something different.

What do you see?

The default WordPress 404 error page simply says “Error 404 – Not Found,” which is frustrating and unhelpful. Your theme may come with its own 404 template, which might or might not be an improvement.

The Genesis Theme Framework 404 template, for instance, is based on your site archives, and includes links to every page, author, and category on your site, plus the last 100 (!) posts. That’s super-complete, but I didn’t want my thank-you pages showing up in that list, so I’ve edited my archives template to show only categories and posts. (Yes, that’s an affiliate link — I’m using the Prose child theme myself and am happy to recommend it.)

You might need a new 404 error page

Ideally, your visitors would never need to see a 404 error page, but we all know that weird things happen to websites. Permalinks get changed, site structures get reorganized, pages get renamed. Even scrupulous site owners who set up their permalinks perfectly the first time can’t keep other people from misspelling or mistyping URLs.

So as long as there’s a need for an error page, you might as well make yours helpful, interesting, or both.

Some do’s and don’ts of custom 404 error pages

  • Do make it clear that it’s an error page. No tricks, please.
  • Don’t blame the error on your visitors. They didn’t do anything wrong. And even if they did misspell something, pointing fingers doesn’t help the immediate situation. Have the decency to say you’re sorry.
  • Do provide a search form so the visitor can take action instead of just leaving in frustration. If your search form is already in the sidebar, be super-clear and say something like “Use the handy search form in the sidebar.”
  • Don’t be cryptic or jargony. Even “404” is machine language, not human. Just explain in regular words how your visitor can search or browse your site.
  • Do provide a link to your archives or sitemap as an alternative to searching. Or, as Genesis does by default, include the archives right on the 404 page.

Have you said hello to your error page lately? What did it say to you?


Comments are closed.