While no good web site is ever quite finished as we’re always focused on what current and new content is on it, handling what’s NOT on your site is also crucial.
A web site is a fluid medium, which makes it the ideal information bridge between a business and its audience. Content can be changed and updated constantly with new information, and the organization of the information can be restructured easily as things evolve. If you’ve been online for many years, you’ve probably made changes to the organization of your site and possibly even the platform it runs on (and if you haven’t yet, you will eventually). What’s more, there is nothing that search engines love so much as new content, and honestly, constantly creating new content is just the sort of thing that will keep people coming back to your site.
This puts a high premium on what content you have on your web site – possibly to the point that you forget what is NOT, or more accurately, is no longer on, your site. That is, as your site evolves, content and navigation changes, it’s redesigned and possibly even completely reengineered on a new platform, you are inevitably going to leave some folks facing the dreaded 404 Error: Page Not Found experience. There’s no avoiding it really; it’s going to happen.
The good news is that you can handle this gracefully. The 404 Error is the technical response a server provides a user’s web browser when the file requested cannot be found. It could be an image, a PDF or an entire web page. If this error is not handled, the end-user will get a sparse page with this “nasty” error code, a note that the file couldn’t be found and not many other real options. There’s a good chance that you’ve lost your prospective customer at this point, and that they will just move on to another site. This is the last thing you want to happen to someone looking to browse your business’s web site! Given that you are inevitably going to move things around on your site, you will want to be proactive about this.
Here’s what you can do … most likely your web host provides a hosting control panel, and most likely that control panel provides you an option to assign a custom page to handle this error. If you aren’t sure, contact your web host. Some site platforms, such as a WordPress blog, will automatically handle this part.
At this point, you may have at least done better than the server’s default 404 error page, but not much better. Once you’ve got your potential customer to a page you can control, what should you do?
There are some universal best practices to follow; the gist of all of which is to:
- maintain your site identity
- show a bit of remorse
- give your visitor options
First of all, your custom 404 page should look just like the rest of your web site, including your company logo and all of the normal site navigation options you show on other pages. At the very least, your surfer will either recognize your site or appreciate that you have not lost control of it. They’ll also have something to identify with and somewhere to go. This is absolutely THE most fundamental best practice. The content of this page should let them know that the page or document could not be found as it may have been “renamed, moved or is no longer available.”
Next, make an apology. Many high profile sites have some fun with this, but at the very least show a bit of remorse that your visitor landed here and let them know that you recognize that this is NOT where they intended to land. It could be as simple as “Oops! . . .” (fill in the rest).
Now for the important part: give some options to find what they were looking for.
Having made this page look like the rest of your site, you have a head start here, but you should go further. After apologizing for having landed them here, offer some options:
- Provide a direct link to your home page, something like “You might start from our home page to find what you are looking for”.
- Give them a link to your “Contact Us” page, so that they have a way of addressing their concern to you. Your “Contact Us” page should provide at least a form they can send an email to you through and if possible have a phone number they can call.
- If you have an application (such as a shopping cart, blog or content management system), give them the option to search your site through the application’s internal search. If all you have is a static HTML web site, you could include something like Google site search on your site, but that is likely to produce a circular logic that will just bring them back to where they started from in the first place.
There are many other aspects of handling this one simple issue. My next article will dive deeper.