It's happened to all of us. You're looking for some piece of information online, type in a URL and bam – you get an error on the screen saying this page doesn't exist, basically putting you back to square one in your search.
This is called a 404 page, which is the HTTP error code for "page not found." A 404 page is displayed when someone clicks on a link to your site and the page is not found or is no longer available. This can happen sometimes if Google indexes a page on your site that you later take down or move, or if someone links to your website but mistypes part of the URL.
When this happens to you, whats your first response? (besides frustration) Do you immediately close the window, go back to Google, or click around other links on the site in hopes of finding the information you need? The chances are high that your readers who find your 404 page are doing one of the above, too.
But if you look at these scenarios, you only have a one third chance of keeping that person on your site to purchase your product or services. That one third chance also depends on factors out of your control, such as are they in a good mood today and do they have extra time to search your site.
Instead of leaving your prospecting to chance, you can be proactive and edit your 404 page to be helpful to your prospects rather than aggravating.
Customizing Your 404 Page
No matter what type of website you have whether its created with WordPress or HTML just type in a URL that you know does not exist on your site, and see what response you get in the browser. Most sites have some type of "not found" page.
The generic WordPress 404 copy sounds very generic; it says: "This is somewhat embarrassing, isn't it?" – and doesn't provide specific suggestions on what to do next. It might get a giggle from your reader but it doesn't give your reader any incentive to stay on your site.
If someone comes to your website, you want to help them find what they are looking for. If they get a 404 error page, you should provide them with a short description of what happened, links other resources on your site, or even better, a way to contact you and let you know that you have a broken link!
In addition to your contact information, you could include a list of your latest blog posts, most popular blog posts, blog archives, a link to your services page, and a description of your products. You could also include a search box so they can easily type in what they are looking for. Guiding your visitor will alleviate their frustration at getting the 404 page in the first place.
Customizing your 404 page is very similar to using a call to action in your blog posts or emails. Tell your reader what you want them to do and show them how by providing links or a search box.
How to Edit Your 404 Page
Many WordPress themes have a default 404 page. You can customize or replace them with your own 404 page that is most helpful to your readers. In most WordPress sites you will find a file called 404.php in your theme directory (this would be /wp-content-themes/yourthemename). You can edit that file and add any HTML you want in there to customize your 404 page.
This article in the WordPress codex provides instructions on how to create your own 404.php file if your theme does not provide one.
If you're intimidated about working directly with theme files, you can outsource to someone more knowledgeable about WordPress.
Avoiding Broken Website Links
If you get rid of the broken URLs on your site, you will have fewer people encountering your 404 page. First, you need to know if you have any broken links.
You can verify your WordPress website in Google Webmaster Tools and it will tell you if you have any broken URLs in Google's index. Once you have this information you can fix them!
Of course, you cant control if someone links to you incorrectly from their site or types a broken url into the search box so at some point in time people will see your 404 page. But creating a unique and memorable 404 page will keep people on your site longer, which increases the chances of turning them into a regular reader or customer.
Don is President of Expand2Web, where he writes about WordPress for business and local search marketing. He also created GetFiveStars - a tool for business owners to encourage feedback and positive reviews from their customers.