How to create a more useful 404 page

Anytime a site visitor types in an URL incorrectly or clicks a broken link he or she will most likely receive a 404 error message indicating the page was not found. This is especially common on news sites that archive older stories.

For most sites this 404 page redirects to simple page with a banner and perhaps a standard menu bar, but if a visitor is looking for something specific, this often won’t suffice.

You only have a few seconds to capture the user’s attention so if they don’t find what they want, it’s off to the next site. If the user hasn’t found what they are looking for, offer them something they might find interesting. Include links to your most popular section or recent news stories, anything other than a blank page and your standard menu bar.

A quick poll of the websites of the nation’s 25 largest newspapers (though this applies to any site, regardless of the medium), showed 16, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times have relatively blank 404 pages. Most of the pages have a message indicating the page is unavailable, a link to site map and/or to customer service.

Two of the 25 had an automatic redirect to the main site (The Denver Post and The Seattle Times) and three had absolutely nothing. No redirects, no search boxes, no links (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The San Diego Union-Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times).

Only four, including the New York Daily News, the Arizona Republic, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had links back to useful or interesting content.

The golden rule for most news sites is keep the visitor on your page. Having something else for the casual visitor to experience when they don’t find what they want is a sure way to do so.

Changing the 404 page is relatively easy to do and should be created collaboratively to fit your sites needs. The actual changes to the .htaccess file which regulates the 404 page should be handled by a web administrator. For more info on how to change your 404, check out Mighty Coach or HTML Source.

Smashing Magazine also has collected some pretty clever and/or well-designed 404 pages (which may or not be appropriate for a major news site, but are nevertheless fun).