After reviewing the small number of WordPress themes that I have, I’ve determined that a good number of designers need to rethink the importance they put on their 404 pages. Some disregard it completely, others treat it as an insignificant notice page and nothing more. Neither could be farther from the truth.
The Importance of 404
Your 404 page may be the only page a visitor ever sees on your site. Yeah, think about that a second. Now reconsider the value of your 404 page by thinking of it as your home page. Think of it as a gateway to your site, in a similar way you would regard your home page. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you will be offering your site to someone in a slightly different way than the person who comes to your home page.
The visitor who reaches your 404 page was looking for something on your site. Now you have to help them find it.
That’s really the guiding light of 404 page design. So after studying and thinking on this topic for some time, here are some tips for improving your 404 page on your personal (or even professional) website.
Tips for Improving Your 404
- Don’t call it a 404 page. Your visitors have no idea what this means. Only geeks know what 404 means. Yes, you’re a geek. Get over it and personalize your 404 page. Be clever if you feel like it, but make sure it is clear that the page they are on is not the page they wanted to be on.
- Provide a way for the visitor to search for what they were looking for. This is very basic. They know what they were looking for, you do not. Give them a chance to try again.
- Show them what you have to offer. How, you ask? Try listing your popular posts. Or even related posts to the content they were searching for—that one really kicks butt. At the very least, give them a sitemap (or a link to one) that shows them what you are doing.
- If none of the other options work for them (in other words, at the end of all of this, at the bottom of the page) get them a link to your contact form. If they get stuck, you want to know about it. Of course this is a last-resort option since no typically wants to contact the site owner when they have a problem. Just in case.
Using WordPress to Improve Your 404
One of the beautiful parts about WordPress (sometimes I think I sound like a broken record) is that you can very easily fix up your 404 page. It’s as easy as changing a template file. I sometimes forget how much of a pain it can be using other methods to do this.
- Jump into your WordPress Theme Editor under Presentation. Select the 404 page to edit.
- Edit the page using the guidelines above (or those found at the sites listed above). Two possibilities here:
- If you’re a designer you should make this page look like the rest of your theme (duh!). I would suggest the single post template.
- If you’re only a user, do your best to customize what you can. Change the headline, at the very least, to something like “Whoops, it’s not here!” or something of the like.
I’ve gotten into the habit of customizing my 404 page before I do much else. I want to use most of my creative energies on the things which are most important; as I’ve said, 404 is pretty high up on the list.
Theme Playground’s 404
Take a look at our 404. We’ve followed the steps above (go figure!) so you can see them in action.
There are a couple of very good, fairly academic write-ups in the links above. Do check them out. Also, for more of a humorous take on the 404 topic, visit Area 404. I’ve posted about it on my personal blog before as well; it’s good stuff.
Don’t like the way I put it here? Read the WordPress guide in the Codex.