If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve encountered a 404 error page before. It’s the status page that pops up and tells you that the information you wanted can’t be found.
But exactly what are 404 errors? Why do they happen? Could they potentially harm your own website and business reputation? What should you do about them — if anything?
This guide digs into everything you need to know about these common internet roadblocks. Unlike on those frustrating 404 pages, all of the information you want can be found right here.
What is a 404 error?
Even though you’ve seen a 404 error page before, you probably haven’t thought through the error 404 meaning. So what are 404 errors? They’re standard status update pages that tell you the page you navigated to can’t be found and shown.
We’ll spare you a super-technical lesson, but what you need to know is that 404 pages are part of the internet’s Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) response codes — a set of codes that will tell you if a webpage was able to load correctly. Those codes are grouped into five categories:
- Informational responses
- Successful responses
- Client errors
- Server errors
A 404 error falls under the server error category. This status tells you that, while your browser was able to communicate with the server, the server itself couldn’t find the page you wanted — so it gives you the 404 error page to let you know that.
What causes a 404 error?
A server error is ultimately what’s behind the 404 pages you run into while surfing the internet, but let’s dig a little deeper into why this happens in the first place.
There are a few potential reasons that your intended webpage couldn’t be found on the server:
- The webpage no longer exists: If the webpage was taken down for any reason, then you’ll get a 404 error.
- The webpage moved to a new address: Perhaps the webpage wasn’t taken down but moved to a new URL. Unless a redirect was set up, you’ll get a 404 error page when navigating to the old address.
- The URL is incorrect: Typos happen to the best of us. So, if you’re navigating to a URL directly, it’s worth checking that you typed it correctly. After all, www.wrike.com/blog will take you to our blog, but www.wrike.com/bolg will show you a 404 error.
- There’s a problem with the webpage’s server connection: It’s possible that you’re getting a 404 because of an issue with the entire website and not only the webpage itself. Put simply, the entire website could be down — so you might just want to wait a while and try again later.
Why are 404 errors considered bad?
We’ll admit that the question alone is a little misleading — because 404 errors aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they’re an expected part of the internet experience. Even Google itself says: “404 errors are a perfectly normal part of the web; the internet is always changing, new content is born, old content dies, and when it dies it (ideally) returns a 404 HTTP response code.”
As a website evolves, it’s bound to turn out some 404 error pages — and that’s not an immediate cause for concern. It’s more about the quantity. Having a few of these pages is more than acceptable but if your site is riddled with them, you could see some fallout, including:
- Poor user experience: When people can’t readily and easily find the information they need, they understandably become frustrated. While an occasional error page is easy to write off as an issue with an outdated link or another small oversight, a website that’s impossible to use and navigate will irritate your users — and likely send them to your competitors.
- Higher bounce rate: Bounce rate is the term used for the number of people who view a single page on your website (in this case, that would be the 404 page) and then leave your site entirely. They don’t bother clicking another link or finding another spot on your site. Too many 404 pages can increase your bounce rate, which makes it harder for you to keep and convert visitors.
- Loss of authority: A site that’s laden with 404 error pages can also cause some reputational damage. It can make you look sloppy, inattentive, and like you’re unable to keep up with maintaining your website — which inevitably makes users wonder about your ability to keep up with your customers and other obligations.
Some experts also assert that too many 404 errors could hurt your search engine optimization (SEO) as well. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Google explains: “The fact that some URLs on your site no longer exist or return 404 errors does not affect how your site’s other URLs perform in our search results.”
How to fix 404 errors on your website
You can feel reassured that you likely won’t see too much fallout from the occasional 404 page on your site — it’s a normal and expected part of maintaining a presence on the internet.
But while you don’t need to track down every 404 error you can find, it’s worth navigating your website and revisiting some old links and content to see how many of these error pages you come across. If it’s happening a lot, you can take steps to patch some of them up accordingly.
Wondering how to “fix” a 404 error page? There are a few steps you can take to keep these status pages from overwhelming your website — and your visitors:
Double-check your link
First, confirm that the link is actually correct. You could’ve missed a character or two when copying a link or made a mistake when typing it in. Addressing a 404 page could be as simple as replacing an incorrect link with the right one on your website.
Restore deleted content
If you’re landing on a 404 page because the content has since been removed, you could restore that deleted content. Doing so means the server can find the page and you’ll get rid of the 404 error. However, this option isn’t always ideal — especially if there’s a reason you removed the page in the first place.
Redirect the URL
Many people choose to redirect URLs when they delete old content. With a redirect, when someone types in a designated URL or clicks a certain link, they don’t land on the page they intended to but are automatically brought somewhere else. For example, if someone clicks a link to your blog post about 2021 industry findings, it might automatically bring them to your newer 2022 report.
Redirects are an effective way to avoid a 404 page, but it’s best to use them strategically and sparingly. Whatever new content you redirect to should be relevant to the original page the user was looking for.
In many cases, a 404 page that lets users know the content they’re looking for no longer exists is a better, clearer, and less frustrating option than bouncing them to unrelated pages all over your website.
You can also redirect frequent typos so that people will get to your website or page anyway — even if they type the link wrong. For example, you could set up a redirect so that www.company.com/bolg automatically brings people to www.company.com/blog and saves them the hassle of correcting their own mistakes.
Tips to optimize your 404 error page and decrease your bounce rate
You might think 404 pages are nuisances that could send people running far away from your website. But that doesn’t have to be the case — especially if you implement these tips to optimize your 404 page.
1. Create your own custom 404 page
You’ve likely seen the standard 404 page — the one with black text on a white background that says something like: “Not found: The requested URL was not found on this server.”
Does it get the point across? Sure. But is it interesting and representative of you and your business? No. And does it give your website visitors any sort of reason to stick around? Not even close.
As you create a customer experience strategy and design or revamp your website, don’t neglect the humble 404 page. Rather than sticking with the default, create a custom page that fits with your website and overall brand.
While your 404 page doesn’t need to be anything overly complicated, giving it a little attention can turn a potentially frustrating roadblock into an opportunity to impress your visitors, showcase your brand, and foster loyalty.
2. Capture your brand’s personality
Speaking of showcasing your brand, your 404 page needs to state the obvious: that the information someone wants can’t be found. But beyond that? Get creative. Share that message in a way that fits your brand’s vibe and persona.
Is your brand funny and quirky? Helpful and compassionate? Pop culture obsessed? Is there some sort of concept or inside joke that’s relevant to your industry?
There are tons of aspects of your brand you can play with to create a 404 error page that’s both informative, impactful, and memorable.
3. Feature a call to action or relevant link
A standard 404 page will tell visitors that the page they want can’t be found. But then what? What are they supposed to do next?
A solid 404 error page will give visitors a new link and a clear next step. For example, you could tell visitors to:
- Head back to your homepage
- Contact your support team
- Peruse your knowledge base
- Book a demo
… or anything else that feels relevant and helpful to your business and your visitors. Much like you do with any of your digital marketing initiatives, don’t leave people’s next steps up to chance — push them in the direction you want them to go.
3 great examples of optimized 404 pages
The above tips will help you go beyond the bland and basic to design a custom 404 page for your own website. But if you need a little more creative inspiration, these 404 error page examples will get the wheels turning.
The 404 page for the Financial Times does so many things right. For starters, it clearly explains what happened — the page you need doesn’t exist, either because it moved or the link is incorrect. The page also includes a link to the help center where visitors can easily get more information.
That alone would be enough to get the point across, but the Financial Times highlighted its industry and personality by creating a glossary of common financial and economic terms to explain why the page wasn’t found in the first place.
It’s pithy and unforgettable, but it’s also useful. Many of the glossary terms include an information symbol that users can click to read existing articles from the Financial Times about those terms.
Merriam-Webster does something similar on its 404 page. The dictionary website provides reasons why the page wasn’t found, using an impressive vocabulary. Users can click the lesser-known words and head directly to their definition pages.
As a payroll provider, Everee leaned into a money theme for its short and simple 404 page. When you land there, you’re greeted by Benjamin Franklin’s portrait from the $100 bill — modified to look as if he’s frowning apologetically for the mishap.
It’s a witty and relevant image, but the rest of the page is still clear. It explicitly states why users landed there and also gives them two clear next steps: either head back to the homepage or check out the Everee blog.
Everee is proof your 404 page doesn’t need to be complex to be impactful.
Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has an interesting 404 error page in that it doesn’t stay the same — it shows you something different every time you land on it.
Considering IMDb is all about movies, it makes sense that it would incorporate that in some way and its 404 status page certainly doesn’t disappoint. Every time, it shows a different famous movie quote (or a spoof on a notable movie quote), like:
- “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
- “Where’s the page, Lebowski? Where’s the page?”
- “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.”
Each quote includes the title of the movie it’s from, which visitors can click to be brought directly to that movie’s IMDb page.
It’s not all fun and games, though. IMDB also included a simple link back to the homepage for visitors who want to stop refreshing the page for different movie quotes and go find something else.
Wrike is here to streamline your marketing and tech projects
Putting a little bit of work into your own custom 404 page is a good way to reinforce your brand, reduce your bounce rate, impress your visitors, and maybe even keep them on your site. So, if you haven’t already, add “customize 404 error page” to your to-do list of marketing projects.
As you and your team get to work on those different tasks, Wrike can help you streamline your collaboration and communication with features such as:
- Easy task assignments and due dates to provide instant visibility into work
- Reports to gather and understand what’s currently on your team’s plate
- Auto-generated briefs and creative request forms, along with seamless approvals for creative assets
- Dozens of templates (from a technology roadmap template to an editorial calendar template to an Agile teamwork template and more) to save you starting from scratch on all of your projects
Plus, Wrike offers tons of other customizations and automations you and your marketing team can use to work smarter, not harder.
Sound like something you need? Get started with your two-week free trial of Wrike today.