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Error 404: what the error page means and how to use it

You know the page: you click on a link, but instead of getting the site you want, an error pops up indicating that the requested page is not available. Something along the lines of '404 Not Found'. A 404 error is the standardized HTTP status code. The message is sent from the webserver of an online presence, to the web browser (usually the client) that sent the HTTP request. The browser then displays this error code.

Fact

Links that don’t lead anywhere are known as 'dead links' or 'broken links'. The HTTP status code 404 is often referred to as 'error 404', 'HTTP 404', or '404 code'.

We’ve gathered information on error messages and will show you how to create your very own 404 page.

How does a '404 error' come about?

The typical trigger for an error 404 message is when website content has been removed or moved to another URL. There are also other reasons why an error message could appear. These include:

  • The URL or its content (such as files or images) was either deleted or moved (without adjusting any internal links accordingly)
  • The URL was written incorrectly (during the creation process or a redesign), linked incorrectly, or typed into the browser incorrectly
  • The server responsible for the website is not running or the connection is broken
  • The entered domain name doesn’t exist (anymore)

Dead links are often left for long periods of time since operators have no idea that the linked content has been deleted or moved. Many websites still appear in the search engine results pages (SERPs) even though they aren’t available online anymore (or at least not at the specified URL). Other linked websites such as blogs, news portals, etc. are often not informed that the site has been removed or can now be found under a new URL. Many website operators don’t check their external links regularly and therefore a functioning link could easily become a dead one.

HTTP 404 errors can damage a website’s ranking and reputation

Search engines, such as Google and Bing, will have a negative impression of a site if it has many 404 errors. Once the crawlers have established that many requests are being met with 404 codes, it presumes the site isn’t very well maintained. Dead links affect a site’s ranking and Google can decrease its placement in the SERPs or even stop indexing it if there are too many 404 error pages occurring. This may result in a considerable decrease in visitor numbers for the website.

The visitor loses trust in the site if it’s full of broken links or if the landing page (the page that is accessed from the search engine results) is dead. If the site is experiencing this problem regularly, many users won’t take the trouble to continue to search since they aren’t even sure if the desired content is still available.

Identifing 404 errors on your own website

It’s important for website operators to prevent HTTP 404 pages. This applies to internal 404 error pages on their own website as well as external 404 error pages on other sites. There are numerous free tools available to help you find these broken links more easily. Three of the best and most well-known are:

  • Google Search Console (formerly known as 'Google Webmaster Tools'): if you already have a Google account and have registered your website there, you should make use of the Google Search Console option. Any 404 errors found by the Google crawler are displayed in the web tool and can also be marked as corrected here too. Additional functions enable you to find errors in robots.txt files and use crawling statistics to work out how often your site has been crawled by Google crawlers.
  • Dead Link Checker: one of the simplest and fastest tools for finding both internally and externally linked 404 pages is the Dead Link Checker. With this web app you simply enter the URL of the site you want to inspect and then start the check. Here you have the choice of checking a single web page or a whole site. The app lists all the tracked error pages with status codes and URL.
  • W3C Link Checker: this online tool from World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is particularly detailed when it comes to testing individual website pages, so the process takes longer to verify links than with other websites. The W3C Link Checker works just like the Dead Link Checker: you enter the URL and let the tool do the rest. It’s also possible to add further details

Creating a 404 error page

Some content management systems (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal automatically generate a 404 error page when a website’s URL can’t be found. The HTTP 404 page is just a simple standard error message, but most of them can be personalized using special CMS extensions.

If your CMS doesn’t give you the option of creating or changing your 404 page, or if your website is solely based on HTML, PHP, etc., it will prove a bit more complicated. You can create an error page as follows:

  • Create an error page ('404.html' or '404.php') in the root directory (if there isn’t an existing one already).
  • Open the .htaccess file (or create one if needed) in the root directory, enter this in 'ErrorDocument 404 /404.html' and save the change. The error page will be generated with this code.
  • To see if it’s worked, try to access an unavailable webpage and hopefully the error 404 message should appear in the browser.

Why should you personalize your 404 error page?

Having a standard 404 error page is better than having none at all, although a customized page is more preferred for several reasons. On the one hand, you can be sure that visitors receive an accurate HTTP status code: for example, if the requested content is no longer present on the site, this should be conveyed with the '410 Gone' message. The visitor then knows that this content has been permanently deleted.

On the other hand, you can provide a specially-designed error page containing related links (i.e. links to your homepage or subpages where the content overlaps that which the visitor originally requested). You could even add a search function for your website. By taking these extra measures and providing incentives, you might be able to prevent visitors from leaving your site straight after seeing the 404 code.

With a creative 404 message you may even find that visitors are more forgiving. Naturally they will be disappointed at not finding content they were promised, but an original or funny 404 page could make up for it. If done properly, error pages do have some potential.

Make sure that the design of the error message matches the style of your website and you already have the foundation for a good 404 error page. If you let visitors know in a funny and light-hearted way that your content isn’t available, you’ll hopefully get a smile out of them and they won’t hold a grudge. For inspiration, check out our article on cool and creative 404 pages.

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