Improve SEO With a Custom 404 Page

Editor’s note: For an updated look into custom 404 pages, see our How to Design a 404 Error Page That Saves a Sale post.

Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood (No relation to Ryan) has a great post about Creating User Friendly 404 Pages (via Creating Passionate Users) and kicking those ugly, intimidating and worthless default 404 error pages to the curb once and for all. Jeff, we couldn’t agree with you more.

Creating a unique 404 page really is one of the most overlooked elements in a search engine optimization campaign. Clients become so consumed with creating content, links and all the other on-page and off-page factors that go into optimization that they ignore the importance keeping users on their site once a problem arises. By neglecting your 404 page, you’re missing a valuable opportunity for customer retention.

At some point, users are going to meet your 404 page. They’ll click on a broken link, try to access a bookmarked page that no longer exists, mistype a URL, or maybe they’ll just get bored and start making up their own URLs for your site. Stuff happens. Leaving them a piece of rope to help them find their way back can be crucial to your search engine optimization goals.


Let’s play a game. Imagine you’re a searcher looking for a puppy. You’ve landed on a new and promising site for the very first time. The puppy information sounds trustworthy, the navigation is easy enough that you don’t need a doctorate to figure it out and you’re about to click on the squeal-worthy face of the puppy you want to call your own and save from the vile Susan Esparza Puppy Mill. You click on your almost-puppy and get this:

(Image taken from Jeff.)

No! There’s no navigation, no links to relevant pages, nowhere to go but back, and worst of all, no puppy.

Now not only have you disappointed your user who thought they had just found the puppy of their dreams, but you also hit them with a 404 page that does nothing to help them get back on track. Bad links and errors happen. If you want to keep users happy, the best way to do that is to leave them something to hold on to for when they get lost.

Let’s be frank. Default 404 pages suck. They’re cold and don’t offer any value to users.

The best 404 pages are the ones that blend in with your site, are simply written, don’t scare away users and encourage visitors to continue interacting with your site. Your 404 page should absolutely have:

  • An apology for the error
  • A prominent search box
  • A link to your site map
  • A link to your home page
  • Links to the other main areas of your site

If it’s appropriate to your site, it also never hurts to insert some humor in there. If you’re that puppy site, throw a picture of a sad-eyed puppy asking visitors to continue their search and save him from becoming a jacket. My all-time favorite 404 page is this Mario-inspired one. It’s not exactly helpful or search engine optimization friendly (yours should be!), but it still makes me giggle.

If you’ve ever come across the Bruce Clay 404 page, you know that our page includes an apology for the error (even though we KNOW it’s your fault you ended up there. Kidding!), our full navigation, a home page link, an SEOToolSet log-in area, site map link, and links to other popular areas like our Search Engine Relationship Chart, SEO Methodology page, and our Code of Ethics. We make it really easy for you to find where you were looking to go. We do this because we like you. Sites that make you feel dumb for getting lost do not like you. Find better friends.

Something else worth noting is that you’ll never see a reference to "404" on our error page. This is done to make the page more user-friendly and not send visitors away intimidated because they left their geek-speak books at home. There is no reason to label your error page "404 ERROR!" This tells users nothing; all most people know about a 404 page is that they have no idea what a 404 page is, nor do they care. Acknowledge that an error has been made and then lend a hand to help users get on their way. Don’t scare them by throwing around jargon they’ve never heard of.

Jeff points out something in his post that I didn’t know. He says to make sure your customized 404 page is larger than 512 bytes or some browsers will assume it’s the standard Web server 404 message and replace it with their own. That’s excellent advice.

Basically, the 404 page mantra is this: Be polite. Be helpful. And then get out of the way.

For more information on how to correctly implement a custom 404 error page based upon your server type, please refer to the following:

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (9)
Filed under: SEO
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9 Replies to “Improve SEO With a Custom 404 Page”

Excellent, Just what i was looking for…

Awesome article! Thank you.

I know this is rather old post and nobody may ever have the chance to appreciate my brilliance but any opportunity to pick up on a reference to The OC can’t be missed! Who doesn’t know who Ryan Atwood is??

Thanks for the article.The 404 error page is something i’ve overlooked when i built my site.
No wonder the searchbots are angry when faced
with these pages.
Thanks again.

As the CEO of an SEO & SEM company in Israel, I usually recommend to my clients to implement their 404 error page as a sitemap page that shows links to all other pages in the website.

Well, that’s swell. Margaret Atwood is Frank Atwood’s mother. It’s all in the family, then.

Margaret Atwood, the author, came to my mind. Mostly because her Handmaids Tale book totally freaked me out and left a big impression on me :)

Heh, that’s very possible. I was going to throw a link in but I figured I’d live dangerously. Also, I’m hoping it confuses Bruce into thinking Ryan Atwood is some hip SEO he just hasn’t heard of yet. :)

“Jeff Atwood (No relation to Ryan)”

I seriously wonder if I’m the only one who is going to get that. :)


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