The Right and Wrong Ways to Use 404 Error Pages on Your Website

How wayfinding and humor can both be used to create better 404 error pages

Man looking at 404 message on computer screen
Man looking at 404 message on computer screen.

The “404 Error” page is a common fixture on websites. This error is what is shown when someone clicks a link / requests a page that is not available. This could have happened because the URL in the link tag was incorrect in some way or it could be because the page in question has been moved or deleted entirely. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same – a person is looking for a page of certain information, but instead they see an error message.

Used correctly, this error page can smooth over a frustrating situation and get the user back on track. Used incorrectly, it will simply add to their frustration and all but guarantee that they leave the website altogether.

The Wrong Way

If you do a Google search for “best 404 pages”, you will find plenty of articles showcasing these pages from across a wide variety of websites. Dig into these articles a bit and you will quickly realize that when they say “best”, what they really mean is “most creative” or “funniest.” Unfortunately, people who land on one of these pages are not looking to be entertained, they simply want the information that they requested in the first place. Too often, web designers, in an attempt to be clever or get their 404 page into one of these “best of” galleries, forget the true purpose of this error page – to help someone find their way to information that is important to them.

The Right Way

A good 404 page is essentially a wayfinding resource. It acknowledges that something has gone wrong, but it then quickly helps a website visitor get back on track with their website experience. Some ways that this can be done are with:

  • Links to key pages on the website – if the majority of visitors to a site are accessing a handful of specific pages, then there is a good chance that one of those pages is what this visitor is looking for as well. By adding links to these destination pages, you play the odds to see if that popular content may be what they are looking for.
  • Search functionality – obviously, not all traffic is looking for those most heavily visited pages. In fact, when someone cannot find a page, it is often an obscure one that may get very little traffic. This is why adding a Search feature is also a good idea on your 404 page.  If a page has been moved due to a website redesign or for some other reason (meaning the old link they clicked from another site is no longer accurate), then a quick search can help that visitor find the location of the new page.
  • Customer support – in some cases, popular pages and search tools still will not help correct the situation. This is when customer support options can be valuable to a user. Make it easy for a customer to reach out and ask for help. This could be done with a live chat option (which is nice since it gives them immediate, online assistance) and even just with a simple phone number to call.

When building 404 pages, also remember to make sure that they work well across all devices and screen sizes so that visitors on mobile devices who get lost have access to these helpful tools as well.

The Best Way

Humor can be helpful when you are trying to defuse a potentially frustrating situation. While it is true that many 404 pages use humor incorrectly, it is because they try to make visitors laugh, but they stop there.

Defusing that frustration is only going to work if, after you make someone smile or chuckle, you also get them back on track! This is why some of the best 404 error pages combine a sense of humor with solid wayfinding tools to help any visitors who have unfortunately found themselves on that page.

When designing your 404 pages, start with the wayfinding aspects of that page and get them right from the start. Then, once you have that in place, you can explore whether there is any humor that can be appropriately added to the page. In some cases, you may find something that is humorous and on-brand that works perfectly (the Lego 404 page is a good example of this – it is on brand, includes a search tool, and a link back to the site’s homepage). In other cases, you may decide that humor is not a fit for you, which is fine, because at least you started with wayfinding and getting your visitors back to what they were looking for.

Edited by Jeremy Girard on 1/24/17