Error Message: You’re Wasting Your Time on a Creative 404 Page

I recently had coffee with a customer service buddy who told me a really interesting story: a customer had emailed in asking for a 404 page.  Wait, what?  “He requested a 404 page?” was my first question?  Yes, he asked for a 404 page.  Turns out, the customer had seen a Ted talk by Renny Gleeson about how powerful 404 pages can be in engaging your customers and reiterating your brand.  So, of course, this customer wanted one.

Now, I’m not saying Renny Gleeson is wrong.  404 pages have actually become incredibly creative lately and they are an excellent opportunity to connect with your customers on a personal level (for most companies this is through humor).  But let’s not get too excited here people, it’s still a 404 page.

What Is a 404 Page?

In case you’ve been living in a hole, under a rock, in the middle of nowhere with spotty wi-fi and no 3G, a 404 page is displayed when a user clicks on a dead or broken link (the browser is able to successfully communicate with the server but the server can’t find the page that’s being requested).  The 404 error message is automatically generated by the server when this happens and, because of bad links, this is one of the most common error messages that web users see.

So why make such a big deal of a customer requesting a creative 404 page?  Simply, because this is the wrong mindset for someone running a website to have.  Instead of spending time and energy on a clever 404 page, this guy should focus on creating a website that never serves a 404 page.  Let’s be real: 404 pages are error pages.  This means that your customer has for some reason, whether it’s their fault or your website’s fault, stumbled to a page that doesn’t exist.  This causes breakage in your customer’s browsing experience and can actually negatively affect your customer’s opinion of your service.

Creative 404 pages have become popular simply because people understand that 404 pages cause customer drop off.  A customer sees a 404 page, doesn’t know how to get back to the original website, or doesn’t have any interest in doing so, and leaves.  There is no purchase made by the customer and no revenue generated by that browsing experience.  So, in an effort to combat this problem, companies have created clever 404 pages to remind customers why they’re there, how cool the brand is and to dampen the blow of a disconnected user experience.

So What Should You Do?

My advice to anyone running a website: don’t focus on your 404 page, focus on not showing a 404 page.  Having a clever 404 page is like carrying a bandaid in your pocket – you’ve got it handy just in case but you hope to goodness that you don’t have to use it.  This should be your mindset.

If you’ve already brainstormed a clever little message and sad face to display on your 404 page, then by all means go ahead.  But don’t spend the valuable time and energy of your product and development teams on this page.  Rather, task your employees with the responsibility of checking links, identifying dead ones, and ensuring the user experience of your website is as seamless as possible.  Understand where you want your users to go and make sure that no where along that path can your users stray to a 404 page.

For example, if your team has figured out that most 404 pages served on your site come at the checkout stage of your process, work on making this experience better.  Why are these 404 pages being served?  What dead or broken links are your customers clicking on?  What are your customers looking for when they encounter a 404 page?  And finally, when a 404 page is served what page should you redirect customers to?  Put your efforts towards fixing your service and crafting a better user experience for your customers.  I guarantee that your customers will appreciate this far more than a picture of a sad looking puppy.