Full article below – Not an actual 404 error

404 errors typically occur when a user clicks a broken link. Instead of accessing an actual page on your website, the user will encounter a “404 Not Found” message in his or her web browser. And when this occurs, many users will leave, believing there’s something wrong with your website. Thankfully, you can encourage users to stay on your site by creating and optimizing a custom 404 error page.

How 404 Errors Work

A lot of technical stuff happens when a user attempts to visit a website. The user’s web browser tells the server that he or she is attempting to access the web page, at which point the site’s server responds with a three-digit numerical code. A 404 code indicates the page was not found.

Ideally, you should try to avoid 404 errors when possible. Double-checking your links can help prevent 404s caused by mistyped URLs. And if you to move web pages to new URLs, update all links so they reflect the new location. Even if you take these precautions, however, some visitors may still encounter the 404 error, which is why it’s a good idea to use a custom 404 error page.

#1) Use Hard 404s

There are hard and soft 404s, the latter of which should be avoided. Both hard and soft 404s indicate the requested web page was not found. However, soft 404s return a web page with the “200 OK” code, telling search engines the page successfully loaded when it really didn’t. This is troubling because search engines will crawl and index the page. And without content, this may have a negative effect on your site’s search rankings.

To prevent soft 404s, define a relative path to your 404 error page in the .htaccess file instead of an absolute path. The path should look like “Error Document 404 /custom-404.php” instead of “Error Document 404 http://www.yoursite.com/custom-404.php.” Using an absolute path is the single most common cause of soft 404s.

You can identify soft 404s encountered by visitors in the crawl errors section of your Google Search Console account.

#2) Prepare Your Custom 404 Page

Now that you know a little about the differences between hard and soft 404s, it’s time to create your custom error page. This process is pretty much the same as creating any other web page- the only difference being that it’s used for 404 errors. You create a new HTML document, include your preferred images and content, and upload it to your server.

You can prepare your custom 404 error page in several ways. If your website uses cPanel or a similar back-end control panel, you may have access to a file creation tool from within the interface. If your website uses the content management system (CMS) WordPress, you can simply edit your theme’s default 404 error page file. You can also design a custom 404 error page using a third-party web development tool like Adobe Dreamweaver. Alternatively, you can even make a custom 404 error page using Notepad.

#3) Brand Consistency

When designing your custom 404 error page, don’t just use a basic HTML document. Rather, use your site’s existing template, complete with a header, footer, logo and other brand elements. This helps to reinforce your brand while telling visitors they are at the right site.

#4) Explain What Happened

Not surprisingly, users are often confused when landing on a 404 error page. They didn’t want to access this page, but it happened nonetheless. So, explain to them what happened on your custom error page. You can say something like “We’re sorry, but the requested page doesn’t exist” or “Oops, this page doesn’t exist.”

Additionally, you may want to provide possible reasons for the 404 error, such as mistyped URL, broken link, deleted page or moved page. If the user typed the wrong URL, for instance, he or she may realize their mistake; thus, reattempting to visit your site using the correct URL.

#5) Add Links

Perhaps the most valuable component of a custom 404 error page are links. Without links, there’s a high probability that users will either click the back button in their web browser or close the tab altogether. Either way, it means you’ve lost that visitor as a source of web traffic.

You can keep visitors on your site by adding links to your 404 error page. At minimum, you should include a link to your site’s homepage. However, you may also want to include links to your most popular pages, categories and sitemap.

Another idea is to add a search bar to your 404 error page, allowing users to search your entire site for specific content. This, of course, requires a bit of technical expertise to implement.

#6) Check for Broken or Dead Backlinks

Because most 404 errors are triggered by broken links, it’s recommended that you check for them on a regular basis. Assuming you have a small site with only a dozen or so pages, you can probably check them manually. If you have a larger site, however, checking for broken links by hand is tedious and time-consuming.

A faster and more efficient way to check for broken links is to use a tool like BrokenLinkCheck.com or DeadLinkChecker.com. You enter your site’s URL, after which they’ll check and validate your links. If a link is broken, it will tell you where it’s located so you can update it with the correct URL.

Users are bound to encounter 404 errors at some point, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is displaying a default 404 error page. It creates an unprofessional image while discouraging users from staying on your site. By following the tips here, however, you can users on your site while presenting your brand in a more professional manner.

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