The 404 error page — we all know it; Page Not Found. The 404 error means page not found and the 404 page is the web page people land on when they visit an incorrect path on your website. Maybe that page moved to a new URL, got purged and deleted, or simply never existed in the first place. Regardless, it’s the “oops” page people land on when they visit a non-page on your website. However, is the 404 page truly an error or is it an opportunity in disguise? I believe it’s an opportunity to make your small business WordPress website’s 404 page more useful for people.
Most small business websites aren’t utilizing their 404 pages. People who land on a 404 page are dropped into a content-desert — an abysmal wasteland — with no help, direction, hinting, or notion of what to do next. Should they go to the home page? Should they use your website’s search feature? Should they start at the store front? Many assume your website is not good and make their way back to Google.
Instead of leaving 404-page-visitors high and dry, use it the 404 page as an opportunity to guide people back into their customer-journey — also known as your sales funnel.
How you go about making your 404 page more useful for people depends on what type of small business your website represents, but there are a few common strategies you could consider — and any improvement is better than no improvements.
First and foremost, the ultimate goal is helping people stay on your website. Whether you direct 404 page visitors back to the homepage or suggest they try searching for what they were looking for you want to help them get to where they want to be — and where you want them to be — so they can move forward and eventually reach their final destination.
Editing WordPress 404 Pages
WordPress gets weird with 404 pages. Every WordPress theme is supposed to come with a 404 page template — the website code that loads when a person lands on a 404 page — but WordPress doesn’t support the 404-page-no-found page as a Page in its admin dashboard. In order to customize your WordPress 404 page you need to edit the PHP file using a text editor or via the WordPress theme editor (if it’s accessible to you).
- Login to your WordPress Dashboard.
- Navigate to Appearance -> Editor -> 404.php
- SELECT and COPY all of the code in the file, PASTE it as-is into a new text file so you have a backup, and save the text file to your desktop (or somewhere safe on your computer).
- In WordPress, proceed with editing the code within the 404.php file.
If for any reason your WordPress Theme does not have a 404.php template file you will need to create a 404.php file and add it to your active theme’s directory using your web host’s file manager or an FTP program (like WinSCP, FileZilla, or CyberDuck).
Alternatively, if you’re developing your WordPress website locally on your own computer then you can skip the file uploading step, as well as the editing inside of the WordPress Dashboard step, and go straight to editing the theme from an IDE like Microsoft’s VSCode, Atom, or SublimeText. And if this paragraph sounds like gibberish to you then you’re probably not developing a WordPress website locally on your own computer, so carry on.
Improving WordPress 404 Pages
Add Helpful Links
Perhaps the most obvious — and easiest — way to improve the 404 page on a small business WordPress website is to add a link or multiple links to other pages. You may already have a site wide navigation menu at the top of your website, but that’s always there — like white noise your customer has blocked out — so it’s helpful to add helpful links to the area where people expect to see the normal page content.
You could add a simple link to your website’s homepage.
You could repeat the main navigation links to give people a choice.
You could suggest people visit the most popular pages on your website — as in, other people liked these pages, so maybe you were looking for one of them too.
Add a Search Feature
In addition to links — or in lieu of — you could add a search feature to your website’s 404 page. Searching affords people a new opportunity to figure out where to go on their own. Search is almost like a soft-sell. It’s helpful, has a limited pre-defined set of outcomes, and keeps people under the umbrella of your website. The downside is people might not know what to search for which is why I suggest pairing search features with helpful links if you go this route.
Show Popular Content
You could improve your website’s 404 page experience by showing popular content. Maybe it’s a person’s first time visiting your website and the link they clicked to arrive there brought them to the 404 page — they don’t know what you’re about or what other content you have that might interest them. Showing popular content can help spark someone’s interest in your website and get them started on their customer journey — usually at the top of your sales funnel.
Showing popular content on a 404 page is similar to the user experience you’re accustomed to on nearly every blog post or product page, ever. Whereas, at the bottom of blog posts or product pages you can typically find “related” content you can switch it up for 404 pages and use “popular” content.
Automatically Redirect to a Different Page
Although a redirect seems ingenious from a marketer’s perspective, I will say automatic redirects can create quite a confusing kerfuffle from the website visitor’s perspective. Confusing in the sense that one moment the person was on a 404 page wondering where the content they were expecting is and the next moment — without ever having taking an action of their own accord — are plopped on another page. They might wonder what the new page is for, how they got there, and why they’re there. Essentially, an automatic redirect is like walking into the middle of a movie at the theater and having no understanding of what’s going on — they’re out of their element.
Landing on a 404 page means someone made an Oopsy. It was either you or the person visiting your website, but someone oopsy’d the URL, so it’s a prime opportunity to self-deprecate and add a bit of light-hearted humor if that’s your style. 404-page humor can come as a graphic or a witty piece of content, but sometimes it’s nice to connect with people in a way that says “Hey, I’m human and sometimes I make mistakes” or “It’s not you. It’s me” because you never know if the person visiting your page is frustrated by the misstep, so relax the mood a little. Do your best to create a positive feeling about your brand.
404 pages are contextless landing pages. Add some content to create context — tell people what the page is, why they’re there, and what their new options are. Help people orient themselves before sending them on their way. It’s a chance to introduce yourself and establish your brand in their minds without pretext or prior engagement, so seize the opportunity to create a genuine connection out of a potentially missed opportunity.
Let People Contact You
If all else fails, consider giving people who land on a 404-error page a way to contact you. Say “Hey, I know you didn’t find what you’re looking for, but I’d love to help.” Link to your Contact form, add the contact form to your website, or provide links to all the ways they can reach you right now on social media. Cross-pollinate and expand your brand’s audience by encouraging people to communicate and engage with you through their favorite ways to do so — whether they like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Discord, Twitch, or any of the other social media networks you’re established on that offer direct messaging.