Handling error pages

Paul Boag

No matter how well built your website is there is no avoiding the fact that sometimes the page a user is looking for just can’t be found. What matters is how you handle the problem when it occurs.

When pages cannot be found they generate 404 error pages. This is usually shown to the user as an unfriendly generic web page generated by the browser itself. It does nothing to help the user find the content they are looking for and in many cases doesn’t even give them a decent explanation as to why the page didn’t appear in the first place.

What causes a 404 error?

404 errors can be caused by a number of factors. Some of the most common reasons include:

Pages being moved

Reorganisation of a web site is a common practice and one that often leads to broken links. Sometimes these can be links internally which were missed in the update, however more often than not they are external links from search engines or third party web sites that become out of date.


Where web site addresses appear in printed form it is necessary for users to retype them into a browser. Unsurprisingly this can sometimes lead to mistakes being made and a 404 error being generated.

Designing perfect 404 error pages

As with all web design there is no perfect way to build a 404 error page. However, there are some general principles that you may well wish to take into account:

Avoid redirecting

Many sites choose to redirect users to the home page instead of displaying a custom 404 error page. This can prove hugely confusing. Take for example this web site, imagine you had arrived on this site following a link to a specific article. If I had removed the article it would be confusing to find yourself redirected to the home page which would display totally different content to that which you had expected.

Make it obvious what the page is

It is important to make this page stand out. It needs to be made clear to the user at a glance that they have not been taken to the page they are expecting and how they should go about overcoming this problem. The design should be minimalistic while still containing the navigation and branding from the rest of the site.

Offer a site map

A site map helps a user gain a quick understanding of the overall structure of the site they have arrived at. It provides a context that should help them quickly and easily find the content they are looking for.

User friendly terminology

As somebody responsible for your web site I am sure you know what 404 error pages are (at least you do now you have read this article), however, that doesn’t mean your average user does. Avoid using the term 404 error when creating your custom page. Rather explain that the page cannot be found in as an apologetic way as possible. Avoid giving the user the impression that you consider it their fault they can’t find what they are looking for.

If you have an internal search engine use it. There really is not much more to say on this point. It’s a not brainer really. This will help users quickly and easily find what they are looking for on the site.


The web is a hard enough place to navigate anyway, without the further confusion of pages disappearing when you try and access them. An intuitive, well considered 404 error page makes a big difference to the usability of a web site. However avoiding the error in the first place is even better. Where possible fix broken links that occur. If the page has simply moved try setting up redirects to the new page or ensure the link is updated. Don’t see a 404 error page as a quick fix to fundamental problems with your site.