404 Happens: But It Should Not Spell Disaster

by Marcel Ayers on April 22, 2015

404 (file not found) is the error code returned by the server when a URL does not resolve to a valid location. Most commonly referred to as “Page Not Found,” but it could happen to any resource. When it happens to a page your visitors are looking for, you want to provide a friendly message and recommended navigational options.

Plan to handle 404 errors, especially following a change to your information architecture. Setting up 301 redirects will resolve old URLs to new locations, but they do not account for users who mistype a URL or are arriving on your site from older resources. Be prepared with a 404 page that will engage your visitors and keep them on your institution’s site. Yours doesn’t have to be funny or clever to be engaging. The important thing is that it is helpful.

These are just some things our OU Campus™ content management system users have done for their 404 pages:

1.  Provide Useful Links

404 Error

The number one thing you should probably do is provide links. You don’t want to strand your visitors; you want to guide them to safety. In order to do that, you could link them to the following:

  • A-Z index
  • Site map
  • Contact information, like an email address
  • Link to previous page
  • Home page
  • Popular resources

Giving visitors the option to navigate elsewhere gives them the option to stay on your site.

2.  Make It Obvious

You don’t want visitors to land on a generic screen splashed with “The page cannot be found.” That could be scary. Make sure your branding is still there, and provide a friendly message explaining that the page does not exist.

404 Error

3.  Suggest That They Keep Searching 

404 Error 
Maybe the link to a page was edited by one of your users, but now no one can get there. Providing a search bar allows visitors to search for the page’s subject matter and find what they are looking for.  

4.  Allow Users to Submit a Report

404 Error

Letting people report on a broken link or even directing them to submit a support ticket (with a link!) gives you the ability to fix it.

5.  Provide Recommendations

Along with your friendly message, you can suggest that the user check the link for typos. It could be user error that is the issue. Or, you can take what was trying to be searched and do a search for the user. It’s one step beyond making the search bar available. 

404 Error

The Dependency Manager in OU Campus is also a great tool for avoiding 404 errors. If a user decides to rename a page or move it to a new location, the Dependency Manager automatically updates the URL found in the associated pages and updates those pages on the live server. If a page is deleted and causes broken hyperlinks, the user is notified to take action on those pages. In addition, OU Campus’ Final Check feature helps you avoid publishing pages with links to pages, files, or assets that don’t exist.

So what’s your strategy for 404 errors? Comment below with your best example!

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