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Not Found. The Page You Requested Was Not Found. You loser. Better luck next time. It’s demoralising, those old 404 error messages. It seems as though the only page with the information you need displays those, and “Page Not Found” is like a slap in the face. Why not make it a nice slap in the face for your visitors? Custom 404 error messages allow you to differentiate and brand your site, inform and advise visitors, and perhaps make tired, weary need-that-website users a little less frustrated!

There are scores of creative 404 error messages that make getting lost in space a bit more fun. Heinz, for instance, features an empty catsup bottle and the caption, “It appears the page you’re looking for is empty.” Firefox has cartoon animals playing poker: “Whoops! What are you doing here? Did you make a left at that last URL instead of a right? No problem. Unless you want us to deal you in, here are some tips to get you back on your way.”

Here are some 404 best practices:

  • Give the visitor some information. Why is this page they need not here? Has it moved? Is it gone? Who’s to blame for this travesty?
  • Give them options. Like the Firefox example from above, give your users some options. Can they try again? Contact you to report a bad link? Some 404 messages contain a search box, which is a convenient way for visitors to get back to cyber civilisation. Home links are also great.
  • Use a familiar interface. Whether it is your text, color scheme, or branded images and logos, make sure visitors can identify your site with the 404 error message. Now, if they are familiar with your site, this is reassuring; if not, it helps them get familiar.
  • Be creative with a purpose. The goal is not to wow the lost visitor with an outstanding error message. It is to give him/her the information needed to get somewhere. Now, that being said, certainly a creative look and feel helps you distinguish yourself from the other, boring 404s out there.

Now, ideally, you won’t have any 404 errors to display because your site is in tip-top shape all the time. Because that’s an impossible ideal, an error page is a must – just in case.

The specific steps for creating a customised 404 error message vary depending on the host or platform you use. Let’s take a quick look at creating an error message for WordPress. It’s one of the most popular platforms, and it’ll give everyone a peek at how arduous, tortuous, and intimidating creating a custom 404 is.

  1. Go to your Dashboard. Then Appearance > Editor.
  2. Select your Theme and select 404 Template (look on the right side menu).
  3. So, here is the basic coding:

<?php get_header(); ?>
<?php get_sidebar(); ?>
<?php get_footer(); ?>

Your header may be modified with your message:

<?php get_header(); ?>

<h2>Whoops! You’ve been led astray!</h2>

Say you want to add a search function. You would enter:


<?php include(TEMPLATEPATH . “/searchform.php”); ?>

You can also enter in other options, such as allowing the visitor to look at recent blog posts. Check out WordPress for more tips on customisation.  For non-Wordpress users, customising your 404 is just as vital, and it should be about as painless. If you can’t get the hang of fancy graphics, no worries. Just a personalised message with some helpful hints will do the trick.

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