When was the last time you clicked on a link, and instead of getting to the desired webpage, you ended up with an error that said the page does not exist? Maybe you got a message that read, “Error 404 Not Found”.
What is Error 404?
What does error 404 mean? A 404 error is nothing more than a standardized Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) status code, which you get to see in the form of a message sent from a server. The error message comes in response to an HTTP request sent through a web browser. It basically works in indicating that a user is successful in connecting to a server, but the server is unable to find the requested information.
A 404 error happens when users try to follow dead or broken links, and they get 404 error messages in return. These errors are among the most commonly encountered on the internet. You may come across them in different forms, which include:
- 404 error
- Error 404
- 404 not found
- HTTP error 404
- 404 error page not found
- Error 404 not found
- HTTP 404 not found
- Error code 404
Causes of Error 404 Not Found
The most common reason you get to see a 404 error page is when a website deletes content or moves it to a different URL. Other reasons that 404 error not found messages appear include:
- A URL or its content has been moved or deleted without making suitable adjustments to internal links.
- A URL is not written correctly during development, it is typed incorrectly by a user, or it is linked incorrectly.
- The requested domain name is no longer in use.
- The domain name system (DNS) cannot convert the requested domain name to an Internet Protocol (IP) address.
- The server that hosts a website suffers from a broken connection or is not running.
It is not uncommon for dead links to hover around for long periods because not all webmasters know that their linked content has moved or been deleted. There are numerous instances of websites continuing to appear in search engine results pages (SERPs) despite not being available anymore, either at all or at the specified URL.
Other websites that are linked to dead or broken links are usually not informed that the website in question no longer exists or has moved to a new URL. Several webmasters don’t run regular checks with the external links, which is why they can end up sitting on dead links for a while before taking any action.
What Problems Can 404 Errors Cause?
Popular perception is that 404 errors have a negative impact on the indexing of websites and their positions in search results. However, this is not entirely true in most scenarios. What do you think happens to a missing page when a bot is looking for it? If the bot finds a trace of the page, it removes it from the index. If it does not find it, there’s simply nothing to scan.
What you need to remain wary about is soft 404 errors. These error messages are not sent by servers. Instead, they function as tags assigned by search engines to specific pages after a crawl. Soft 404 errors have an adverse effect because, in some cases, they are indicative of pages with little to no content. They come with redirections to pages, which usually do not meet user expectations. In addition, the non-existent page does not come with a 404 or 410 server message.
Checking and Tracking 404 Errors
Now that you know what an error 404 means, you may move toward what you can do to track them on your website. You may find various online tools that crawl through websites and find pages that come up with 404 error codes. You may use such tools to good effect when it comes to finding links within a given website. However, they tend to ignore 404 error messages that arise because of links on other websites. An easy way to overcome this problem is by running a periodical analysis of all external links.
Some of the more popular online tools that let you find dead and broken links include:
- Google Search Console. All you need to get started is register your website with Google. The crawler that is part of the Google Search Console displays all found 404 errors in an easy to use online tool. You get to mark the errors as done once they are fixed. You may use this tool to find errors in robots.txt files. It also lets you check how often Google crawlers crawl your website.
- W3C Link Checker. W3C Link Checker is an easy to use online tool that you may turn to without registering as a user. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), this tool tests all individual pages with great detail, which is why the process takes longer than most other similar tools. All you need to do, though, is enter you URL, and then wait for the link checker to do the rest.
- Deal Link Checker. Dead Link Checker is a simple and quick online tool that lets you find internal and externally linked pages with 404 errors. Like W3C Link Checker, using this tool requires that you enter your URL and sit back. The results come in the form of a list with all the error pages and their corresponding URLs and status codes.
Custom Error Pages
It is fairly easy to configure web servers to display customized error 404 pages. Customized pages that you get designed can take from your website’s branding and they can come with natural descriptions. They may also include search boxes and site maps to make for aetter user experience.
The size of a custom error page plays in role in whether or not it is indexed by search engines. For instance, if a page is less than 512 bytes in size, Google Chrome replaces that page with an alternative page that is suggested by Google’s algorithms. Internet Explorer functions in a similar way, replacing pages less than 512 bytes in size with friendly error pages.
In paying attention to the importance of creating great user experiences, some websites have focused on injecting humor into their 404 error pages. Examples in case include Pixar, 20th Century Fox, Marvel, Airbnb, Lego, iMDb, DropBox, and MailChimp.
Providing additional information through an error 404 page in the form of a search box or a link to the homepage is fairly common. Some websites take it a step further, by trying to locate the page that the user was looking for originally. Depending on the content management system (CMS) you use, you may be able to find extensions to do this for you.
Do You Need a Customized Error 404 Page?
One of the main aims of effective web design and web development is to get users to stay on websites without needing to look for alternatives. This is precisely why you need to think about creating customized error 404 pages for instances when people end up with broken or dead links.
The objectives in creating a good error 404 page include attracting and retaining the attention of users, offering an explanation about why they reached the page in question, and suggesting a solution according to their needs.
This is what two popular search engines recommend when it comes to 404 pages:
- The page should follow the same style and navigation as the website in question.
- The page should include links to popular pages within the website as well as a comments section.
- If should give users the ability to report dead or broken links.
- The page should look different from others that are part of the same website.
- It should make use of different colors and refrain from using graphics.
No matter what the scenario, make sure your error 404 pages include links to the website’s homepage. It is also important that you find a unique yet courteous way to inform users that the page they are looking for no longer exists, either at all or at the given location.
There are no hard and fast rules surrounding what goes into creating a customized 404 error page. Factors that you need to consider also include the website’s theme and its target audience. For instance, if you are a service provider, it makes sense to include your contact information. If you operate an ecommerce website, adding a search box is always suggested.
How to Fix 404 Errors?
When users come across error 404 not found messages, it does not necessarily mean that the information they are looking for is not available. More often than not, the solution to the problem is not hard to pinpoint, and visitors can then be directed to the information they were looking for in the first place.
Here are a few pointers that can help users address 404 errors on their own:
- Reload: There are instances when 404 error codes appear because pages fail to load in the right manner. The solution to this is to simply click the refresh button on the web browser, or the F5 button on the keyboard.
- Check URL. Mistakes in URLs lead to error 404 messages. This can be because it has been entered incorrectly manually, or because of following a link. While spelling mistakes are not uncommon, you might also want to check for missing forward slashes and periods. However, this can be a problem when it comes to checking URLs that make use of letters, numbers, and symbols in no particular order.
- Check directory levels. Going back to the previous directory level is a good way to determine if the missing page is linked there. If you do not find the link for the missing page in the previous directory level, you can look for it by going up one more directory level. Continue this until you get to the website’s homepage.
- Use the search functionality. If a website offers a search feature, make use of it. There is a good chance you will find the information you are looking for by using one or more relevant keywords. If a website does not offer a search function, you may turn to popular search engines such as Google and Bing. What you need to do in this scenario is enter the website domain name along with relevant keywords.
- Delete cookies and cache. There are instances when people can access specific pages from some devices, but they get 404 error not found messages through other devices. In this case, simply deleting the web browser’s cache and cookies might to the trick.
- Contact the website. If all else fails, it might be worth your while to get in touch with the website’s administrator. This information is usually easy to find through a website’s Contact Us page. The website’s representatives should then be able to tell if the information you need is available through the website at all. From the website’s perspective, it might address the problem by automatically redirecting users from the non-existent page to the new one.
This is a time when most businesses are looking at ways to improve user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), and creating custom error 404 pages plays an important role if you wish to deliver a great UX. You let you users know just why they’ve encountered the problem, and then provide them with one or more solutions so they remain on your website. The best place to start, without doubt, is to look for all possible internal and external 404 error pages that link to your website. Then, address them using customized error 404 pages.