Why Do You Need a Custom 404?

There’s a rule in business that says it’s cheaper to hold on to an existing customer than it is to go out and find a new one. And that’s why creating a custom 404 page for your site is so important.

When someone is on your site, you’ve already got them. They’re trying to buy something, they’re looking for information, or maybe they wanted to sign up for your newsletter, etc. There’s a goal there. But sometimes things go wrong. Links break, they’re moved and never redirected or the user just does something wonky. And when they do, unless you change it, they’re going to get a default 404 page. And page that probably look something like this:

And then they’re going to see that horrifying page and leave.

They’re going to abandon because there’s no way to continue the experience from there. There’s no explanation for what happened, no links to fix it, nothing. By using a custom 404 page, you’re able to help save the conversion by letting them know, “oops, something happened, but here’s how you can get back on track!”. You give them a safety line.

If you’re unfamiliar, a 404 error is what a user will see when they try to access a page on your site that, for whatever reason, doesn’t exist anymore. It could be they’re using an outdated link, that you moved the page, or even that they misstyped something.

Why do you need to create a custom 404 page?

It helps users

Default 404 pages are cold. They scream “404 Error”, something a user has no idea about.  They’re confusing.

By creating a custom 404 page, one that explains that something went wrong and provides links to help them get back on track, you give customers a way to “try again” and continue with their mission on your site. It gives them a way off that 404 page. You can send them to your home page, to your product pages, to your blog, and to other high traffic areas of your site. You become helpful by fixing their problem and encourage them to keep interacting with your site instead of just abandoning the process. If a user is already on your site, you want to do everything you can to keep them there. You don’t want them leaving over a bad link.

It helps search engines

Search engines spider your Web site by following links to all the different pages on your site. If a spider is on your site and hits a 404 page with no links, it’s not going to be able to continue. And that could mean that entire sections of your site are left unspidered. And if your pages aren’t spidered, then the search engines don’t know they exist and they won’t show up in the search results.

A custom 404 page ensures that this doesn’t happen by providing links to all the relevant parts of your site (or possibly even a site map) so that spiders have access to your complete site.

What should your custom 404 page include?

Every company handles custom 404 pages differently, but here are some basic best practices for things to include:

  • A brief explanation of what happened (avoid using the terms “404” or “error”. “Oops” is far less intimidating. 🙂 )
  • A search box
  • A link to your home page
  • Links to other prominent parts of your site
  • A site map

Feel free to have fun with your 404 page, too. Just because it’s technically an “error” page, doesn’t mean you have to treat it that way. For example, here’s the 404 for my company Outspoken Media. For technical instructions on how to create a custom 404 page, I recommend Site Wizard.

Additional reading: What is a Custom 404 Page and Why Do You Need One?


Lisa Barone Lisa Barone is Vice President of Strategy at Overit, an Albany Web design and development firm where she serves on the senior staff overseeing the company’s marketing consulting, social media, and content divisions.

5 Reactions
  1. Lisa,

    Funny 404 site you have. I had to click on the YouTube video… 😉

  2. This is a really good idea. I’ve seen some creative 404 error pages — some can get very funny. 🙂

  3. RedHotFranchises

    Excellent Tips. I have experienced the default 404 page many times on other sites, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid if the entire server is down, then you’ll be displayed with a “This page cannot be displayed” page instead which is the real deadbeat. Wonder what’s an alternative to that.

  4. Hi Lisa
    I had a client of mine do this just for the link back to the home page. Why let them wonder what to do next? Will they hit the back button? Or will they just think, “lame, I’m moving on…”

    Your 404 page has to top the list of great ones. Funny. I can hear the office banter in creating it. Keep it up.

  5. What a great idea! Everyone hates that 404 error!