Advice for Your WordPress Blog: Customize Your 404 Page

107 Comments

A simple Google search will show you the importance of customizing your 404 page.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. Jump into your WordPress Theme Editor under Presentation. Select the 404 page to edit.
  2. Edit the page using the guidelines above (or those found at the sites listed above). Two possibilities here:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.

In Closing…

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.

107 thoughts on “Advice for Your WordPress Blog: Customize Your 404 Page

  1. Good idea…I just checked mine and it’s not the standard 404 yadda yadda. The creator of my layout already got a little creative with it. Thanks for calling this to our attention.

  2. I checked out your 404 page — I assume that the two links to your Sitemap.xml file are for the benefit of the SE bots? I would think that user would find an actual sitemap more useful…

    I only just realized that the theme I’m using has no 404 template. Duh! Thanks for reminding me to take care of that.

  3. Hmm, I’ve just been updating these on my Joomla sites and had completely forgotten the level of sophistication that would really be to a users benefit.

    My theme does have a 404 page but it’s pretty generic and not nearly as helpful as yours. I do want a Sitemap for humans in my WordPress sites. Do you have one you recommend? I already use the Google Sitemap plugin on my wireless blog to update the search engines.

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  12. I already had mine changed, but I wish I would have found this sooner. It had me thinking about possibilites for my 404.

    One COULD consider adding a few extra ads on the 404, but still make sure your viwers know that the page was not found.

    If you just added ads, and no other information, viewers might think thats the result of the page they were looking for.

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  22. Thanks! I incorporated some of what you suggested into my 404 page – http://blog.ivman.com/help

    Then I found the link to check out YOUR 404 page and learned that you still call yours a 404 page, even though you said not to. :-/ Did you change themes and forget to update your 404 page? :-)

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  88. How serendipitous! A client stipulated that a custom 404 be included in a job and I stumbled onto this via Lorelle while researching something else! Thanks for calling attention to something that a lot of developers might not realize that they can customize to great advantage.

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  90. I agree its important but overlooked.

    I try to use good themes which have customized 404 pages. I particularly like themes like Hybrid News which have widgetized 404 pages. I can then put in a note to the reader, followed by a Google Search bar (using a text widget), and then I add a category widget, archives widget, and even maybe a tags widget. That way I hope the visitor will be able to find whatever he was looking for.

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