Heal Your Church WebSite

Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

The Perfect 404

Fatigue, typing too fast, dyslexia, crumbs in the keyboard and bad handwriting are just some of the causes that come to mind that might put your users on the wrong end of a 404 page. I’ve even known a case or two where a typo or programming error on my part has caused a user to bump up against the often ubiquitous “This page cannot be found” error.

In other words, mistakes happen, so anticipate them and give your users a graceful way of recovering from them.

At least that’s what I’m preaching … and will practice once I get back in town on my beefy DSL line at home. Until then, I’d like to direct your attention to a thorough article on the topic by the good people at A List Apart entitled “The Perfect 404” (hat tip to Gadetopia)

There they explain how and why it is important to not make your users feel like idiots. They also go onto explain some things you can do to help keep your users from wandering in the wilderness. Some of these points include:

  • A link to the site map (if you have one) and the home page.
  • A search box
  • A distinctly minimalist look

Along with these excellent suggestions, I’d suggest showing the users what page they actually typed in. If it’s a typo, they’ll see it and correct it. If it isn’t, then provide them a means of forwarding that information to your church or charity’s webmaster.

Why bother? Because users can get frustrated and leave when they don’t find what they want when they want it. Offering them some grace, along with a graceful recovery will go a long way to inviting and encouraging them to stay.


  1. What about a 404 that redirects them to the main page? Is this too ambiguaous. Should there be a page that actually tells the visitors that they are wrong?

  2. Although a 404 that redirects seamlessly back to the index seems like a good idea, it will allow the broken links to persist long past when you should have fixed them.

  3. >> What about a 404 that redirects them to the main page? Is this too ambiguaous.
    Consider clinking on a link to buy that free ream of paper at OfficeDepot.com, only to get their main page. Was the link broken? Do they expect me to find it on my own? Either way, it’s not what I expected when I clicked the link.
    >> Should there be a page that actually tells the visitors that they are wrong?
    The article mentions not pointing the finger… the goal is to acknowledge the problem, then make it as easy as possible to achieve their goal (the reason they clicked on a link to something OTHER than our main page).
    I’m not a huge fan of site maps, but they may be better than some/most site search engines (unless they’re 13 pages long).
    My reason for a custom 404 (www.burtonsvillebaptist.org/no_ones_home.htm, sheesh… just checked and my 404’s gone! FP re-install may have nuked it) was probably when I rebuilt the site, I figured that there would be old search engine links that would still point to old pages (at least for a while). With the article’s script, perhaps we can get the search terms that got the user the link they were interested in, then submit that to our own search engine.
    There’s also probably a good method for retiring old pages without producing 404’s (linking to a replacement page). Wouldn’t be surprised if this has been done in php using a database for web pages.
    Might play with this article’s script at some point…