Whether we like it or not, 404 error pages are a common thing on every site that’s been around for more than a year. No matter what we do, there’s always this handful or even incidental 404 pages that seem to appear out of nowhere.
It is, therefore, very important to have a good tactic of dealing with those pages and helping your visitors find whatever they were originally looking for.
Where 404 Pages Come From
The most common situations that lead to visitors ending up on 404 pages include:
- changes to the permalink structure on your site,
- manual URL changes for individual posts and pages,
- misspellings when trying to input URLs manually,
- plugins – always be careful what options you select with a new plugin.
Preventing 404 Errors
To reduce the number of 404 pages on your site to minimum, you should do these things:
- Fix all broken links on your site.
- Locate the most commonly accessed 404 pages on your site.
- Create new pages for the missing URLs or redirect them to other existing URLs.
Fixing broken links is quite simple for WordPress. All you need is a plugin called Broken Link Checker.
Right after installing and activating it, you’ll get a complete list of broken links on your site. The list will include both the links pointing to other sites and the links broken within your site.
Finding 404 pages that are not resulting from broken links is something that can be done through Google Webmaster Tools. Go to your account, and then to Crawl > Crawl Errors. In the center of the screen, you will find a graph presenting all crawl errors and a list of pages returning the 404 error code.
Once you have this list, you can proceed to the last step, which is fixing the 404 errors. There are two main ways of doing so: you can either create new pages and place them under the URLs that are returning a 404 now. Or, you can redirect these 404s to other correct URLs.
The latter can be done with a free plugin called Pretty Link.
Creating a Custom 404 Page
Even despite all the fixes you’ve done, it’s still inevitable that some visitors will encounter a 404 page anyway. This is exactly why you should create a custom page that will help them out and lead them to the content they were looking for.
Depending on the theme you’re using, there might be a step-by-step wizard available that will help you build a custom 404 page. If not, you will have to create it manually. Here’s an in-depth guide at WordPress.org. It explains all the technical details that need to be taken care of.
There are many things you can place on a 404 page, but we actually recommend only three, to make this as easy as possible for the visitor:
- write a short message explaining what has happened – why the visitor is seeing a 404 page; also include a friendly image,
- display a search field,
- display a link to the homepage.
Those three will do just fine in leading your visitors to other – existing – articles and promotions.