A 404 page is an error page (or a not found page) that appears if a visitor clicks on a link or types in a URL that doesn’t exist. 404 pages also appear if a page has been moved or deleted. Although 404 pages are extremely common, it is best to minimize them.

If you spend much time browsing the internet, it’s likely you’ve encountered your fair share of 404 pages. For large websites with a lot of pages, it can be difficult to avoid them entirely.

If a 404 page appears, that means the website is active, but the page is not. When possible, site owners should limit the number of 404 error pages that are found across their website, as they are usually deliver a poor user experience and are seen as low quality by search engines.

Custom vs. Default 404s

There are two types of 404 pages: custom and default. Without a custom 404 page, visitors reach the browser’s default error page, which doesn’t offer any options for remaining on the site and can easily result in lost visitors – and lost sales (for ecommerce sites). The default 404 page looks something like this:

A custom 404 page matches the rest of the site, may explain how the visitor got there and may link to other popular products or related pages to encourage users to keep shopping or browsing. Here is an example of a custom 404 page:

Notice the site’s top navigation menu is still accessible in this example, so users can easily visit another page. Having a custom 404 page in place is good practice for any website, even if there are no broken links. This is because there is always a risk that users will mistype the name of the website.

Why 404?

So where exactly does the 404 designation come from? In the early days of its use, there was a rumor that 404 was the number of the room where the first web servers were housed at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. However, this is not true – and the servers weren’t actually kept in a room of that number anyway. Another false notion: World Wide Web inventor Tim ­Berners-Lee’s office was in room 404 (and he often couldn’t be found).

So where did it come from then? As the world of the internet took shape, errors developed – and so a system of error codes was created. A system of three-digit codes was developed to distinguish the errors. The first digit of each code designates the category of error. All codes in the 400-range stand for client errors. The second and third digits stand for the specific error encountered.

What To Do About 404 Pages?

There are several options for webmasters looking to address the 404 pages on their sites. Tools like Broken Link Checker or Screaming Frog can provide webmasters with data on all the 404 pages on their site, and where on the site they link from so they can be easily fixed. The issue is fixing broken links from other websites, which can be done by auditing the site’s external link profile and then reaching out to the webmasters of linking sites to request the correction.

Once 404 errors within a site are found, webmasters will generally want to set up 301 redirects to an alternate relevant page on the site. This involves designating the 404 page and then assigning it to another URL to which visitors will automatically be directed.

Setting up 301 redirects can easily be done on the Volusion platform by following these steps:

  • Login to Volusion backend
  • Navigate to Settings > Maintenance
  • Select “Manage 301 Redirects” option on the left
  • Add the 404 error page URL in the next available field under the “Source Path” column*
  • Add the new page URL you’d like users to be directed to instead in the corresponding field under the Target Path column*

*Note: be sure to use file path of the URL rather than including the domain (that is, use the part of the URL that comes after the .com, .co, etc.)

If the content of a 404 page is no longer available elsewhere or there isn’t a relevant page to link to, feel free to ignore the 404 page. Search engines understand that 404 pages are going to appear on pretty much all sites at one point or another. As long as there is a custom 404 page in place, users will easily be able to continue browsing on the site.