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Softening the Blow of 404 Pages

Author: Deborah Harrison
Softening the Blow of 404 Pages
Some of you may have heard of 404 Pages. If you enter 404 on the end of any web address you should see a “File not Found” Page of some description.

Not very interesting to look at, I think you’ll agree, but some thought has gone into this standard document. The page might not be gone altogether: it might only be temporarily unavailable or had its name changed. But all is not lost, try checking the web address is correct or if still no luck, be sure to tell the owner of the site that they have a broken (dead) link about their site or click “Back” on the browser and start again.

You’ll also agree how infuriating it is to find one when you are browsing a website. Picture the scene: you are on a website and you see something on a page you would really like to buy. You click on the link clearly marked “More on this product” and instead of being greeted with the widget, you are greeted with a standard 404 page suggesting that you check the web address for any errors.

Well the average surfer will not even bother to let the web owner know that they have broken links on their site because they would be off the site, onto a competitor’s and the web owner would be none the wiser that he’s losing business.

So how do you stop the same thing happening to your website?

Check your links regularly: Even if you only have a few links pointing to a couple of resourceful pages, there’s always a chance that the page will be renamed or be removed. If you are an online shop, then all the more reason to run a check. There are excellent link checker tools available in both web editor software and online. A good one is W3C’s link checker. This goes through every link on your website and picks out the broken ones.

301 Redirects: If you really have to rename a page that has been established for a while, setting up a permanent 301 redirect will both redirect visitors onto your new web page and preserve the search engine ranking from the old page. A 301 redirect can be easily set up in an .htaccess file on an Apache server (check with your hosting provider if unsure).

But should the worst happen and your client has to be faced with a 404 page (e-commerce or not), creating your own 404 page template for your site is a must. Here are some basic tips on what you should include on your custom page to keep your customer’s inconvenience as brief as possible.

Brand your page: Keep your page consistent with your site, but only use a basic template. Strip the template of adverts, movies and other fancy stuff. By keeping your template as minimalist as possible ensures the page downloads quickly and emphasizes that something may not be right, encouraging the visitor to read on. Que Publishing.com uses their page template so it blends in with the rest of their site. This works as they have a minimalist design with emphasis on the main heading. For the same reason Tesco.com also have a simplistic 404 page.

Keep it polite: It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is: Your fault; their fault or whatever. The bottom line is that your customer has been presented with a 404 page from your website and you want them to do business with you and not your competitors. So apologize to them and reassure them. Firebox.com do both of these. They also bring me onto my next tip;

Offer helpful links: If the page isn’t there, where do they go now? Now you need a few useful links to get your customer back on track. A few more links to your categorical pages would be useful. A site map when designed properly can serve as a great help page or if they get really stuck, can they contact you by email or phone? Firebox.com also offer a list of their latest products, a list of categories or a link back to their home page for the really lost. FirstFairway.com also list their categories to help confused customers back on track.

On one final note, 404 Area is a list of 404 pages that are not at all dull, just funny, shocking or downright peculiar.

About the Author:
Debbie Harrison is Head of DVH Design a web design/SEO firm which specializes in providing affordable websites for small businesses in the East Anglian region. Debbie also writes articles for WebProWorld and The In Place forums.

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