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Create a User-Friendly 404 Error Page for Better Search Engine Results

When there’s a problem displaying a Web page on your site, instead of the usual page that says, File 404: Page Can Not Be Displayed, you can present your Web site visitors and search engines with a customized 404 error page that’s actually helpful and friendly rather than the standard browser-issued version.

By default, the appearance of an error page means, “Sorry, you’re out of luck. The Web page you wanted is broken or missing, and you can’t see it right now. So go away!” A user will probably do only one thing when presented with this 404 error page, and that’s hit the Back button.

This issue matters to your SEO efforts. If the search engine spiders find a default 404 page on your site, you’ve thrown a roadblock in front of them that they have no way to get over. Search engines can’t hit the Back button or use the other advanced features of your Web site. All they can do is follow links. If they come across a bad link and you don’t give them anywhere else to go, they leave your site. This may result in entire sections of your site not being indexed. Creating a custom 404 page that includes links to other pages on your site helps prevent this from happening. You have to give the engines something to follow.

Here are tips for creating a user-friendly and SEO-friendly 404 error page for your Web site:

  • Design the page to look like your Web site. Keep your users feeling like they’re still on your site and everything’s under control.

  • Apologize and tell them what happened (such as “Sorry, the page you requested is unavailable.”). Your message should match the tone of your site, but consider making it humorous to keep your readers engaged, such as, “The well-armed monkeys normally operating this Web page are engaged in full-scale warfare at the moment. To avoid the flying fur, try one of the escape routes suggested below.”

  • Offer suggestions with links to other pages they might want to go to. Include helpful descriptions in the links. (“Read about our car customization services. See picture of ‘new’ classic cars. Hear what our customers say about us.”)

  • Include a link back to your home page, with meaningful keywords in the anchor text (visible link text that a user can click). Don’t call it Home.

  • Include a link to your site map. This is especially important for search engine robots because they can follow that map to get around your entire site. Providing access to your site map becomes even more beneficial because the engines continually return to your site to see if those nonexistent pages have returned. If they have, the search engines re-index them. If they haven’t, the robots still find your 404 page and all of your relevant links.

  • If you have a good programmer, customize the page contents based on where the user had a problem. For instance, if the page was supposed to show Ford Mustang steering wheel options, the message and links could dynamically change to offer them a way to get to another Ford Mustang page in your site, rather than just showing them a generic error message.

  • *If you are running a sale, put images linked to your current ads on the page.

  • *Put a search box on your error page, front and center. Let users type in what they’re looking for and go to that exact page on your site.

  • *Put a Meta robots tag on your custom 404 error page. Tell the search engines that they should follow the links on the page, but not index it:

            <meta name="robots" content="noindex, follow">
  • *Do not redirect your 404 error page.

    It’s embarrassing to have your error pages rank with the search engines.
    It’s embarrassing to have your error pages rank with the search engines.
  • *Be sure your 404 error page passes a 404 error code, which stops search engines from indexing it. Many sites forget this step, and their error pages can show up in search results, as shown above.

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