One time, when working with an in-house IT manager I was told that his site didn't need 404 error pages because no-one should reach them. I politely explained to him that 404 error pages are needed precisely because people and search engine spiders will reach them, regardless of how well he'd developed the site. If pages or resources are removed, and requests not redirected to other pages or resources, then the 404 error page will be returned.
So what is a 404? Well, 404 is the standard status code that is returned whenever the web site or resource pointed to by the URL doesn't exist. Default 404 error pages look awful and are a real turn off for potential customers / clients that accidentally hit them.
To remedy this, create your own 404 error page. This custom 404 error page should be set up on your server to appear whenever anyone tries to access something that's not there. This custom 404 will help keep them on your site, and can point them toward your site content.
So what should a 404 page look like? Well, it should do more than just state that you've hit an error...
It should not just redirect you to the home page. (Especially if your site has a lot of products / services.)
It should have the same look and feel as the rest of your site, but it shouldn't use all elements of the template if they don't make sense (would you really want to forward an error page to your friends?)
Your 404 page should let users know why they're on the 404 page. It should give suggestions on how to get to the section of the site they may have been looking for. It should also allow them to search to try to locate where they want to be. For search engine spiders, there should be links back into your site to allow them to continue their crawl. Your 404 page should also be set to not index (), as you don't want to run the risk of a listing proclaiming "XXY Company - Not Found" showing up in search results for your company name.
Putting together a 404 page isn't a long and arduous process. It can reap benefits for your company by reducing leakage, and keeping those spiders nice and fed. So go ahead and make sure you get one set up on your site.
(One caveat about the last example, while Yahoo looks to have a good implementation, they do also redirect to their home page after a few seconds, even if you've started typing into the search entry box, which reduces its user friendliness).
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
Simon Heseltine is the Director of Search at Serengeti Communications a McLean, Virginia based digital marketing agency specializing in search engines, social media, word of mouth, Blogs and RSS, digital PR, and online media & advertising for a wide range of clients in both the nonprofit and commercial sectors.
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