The 404 page is a staple of the internet.
If you combined all the times someone landed on a 404 page instead of the page they were trying to reach, you’d have more hits than Google, Facebook, and America Online combined.*
(*Editor’s Note: This might not be true.)
But what is a 404 page? And why does my company’s website need one?
All good questions. Let’s start, as they say, at the beginning.
What is a 404 Page?
Here’s an official-sounding explanation of the 404 page:
A 404 page is also known as an “error page” or “Page Not Found” page. This page indicates that the user reached the domain they requested, but the URL path provided no information.
If that sentence made your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone. Let’s break that definition down.
First, “URL,” or Uniform Resource Locator, is tech-speak for a web address. Generally speaking, URLs have three sections:
- The Protocol
- The Domain Name
- The Path
Consider the web address “https://websitemuscle.com/blog” as an example. The protocol is “https://,” the domain name is “websitemuscle.com,” and the path is “/blog.”
What happens if you slip up and type “https://www.websitemuscle.com/blerg?” They’ve got your domain name right, so the server was able to reach your site. The path they’re trying to follow, however, literally leads nowhere. That’s when your 404 page appears.
In contrast, typing in “https://www.weebsitemsucle.com/blog” gives you a broken link. In this case, the domain name is incorrect, even though the path works.
Finally, “404” refers to an HTML code response. The three-digit signifier has made its way into popular language in other ways. (Look for the guy at your next Halloween party in a white T-shirt that says “404 — Costume Not Found.” Even though it’s still not funny, at least you’ll get the joke.)
Why is a 404 Page Important?
Besides the misspelling issues above, 404 pages cover any broken or dead links on your site.
Another example: let’s say you have products listed on your site, each with their own unique URL path. The domain would read something like “https://fakebusiness.com/products/widget-1/.”
Now let’s say you have those products linked on the main products page — “https://fakebusiness.com/products/.” Simple enough, right?
But then you decide not to make “widget-1” anymore, so you take the product page off of your website. But – uh oh! – the person who took down the “widget-1” page didn’t remove the link from the main product page.
Your 404 page catches visitors who click on that broken link so they won’t get bounced off your site or rerouted to a broken page. Instead, they’ll get a simple error message that says “Page Not Found,” and they can go back and start over.
I know what you’re thinking: “wouldn’t it be better to fix the main products page?” Yes, fixing broken links improves “site hygiene” and organic search results. Web developers also use tools to redirect outdated links to updated ones.
But it’s still important to have a 404 page in place as a backup.
Using the 404 Page
If you are developing a new website, your designer should create a 404 page as part of your standard setup. Content management systems like WordPress make adding a 404 page to your site easy.
Of course, error pages wouldn’t be complete without a few back-end web designers using them to have a little fun. (This is the internet, after all.)