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PHOTO: Alex Guillaume

Many businesses put a lot of effort into creating effective website designs.

They try to build sites filled with intuitive navigation, strong branding and clear customer journeys. But while investing in a functional and beautiful website is necessary, some digital destinations forget one small web page whose appearance can have an impact on their conversion rates: the 404 error page.

When Do Users See a 404 Error Page?

People see 404 error messages when they land on pages of your website that, essentially, don’t exist. There are several factors that lead to people discovering 404 pages: Perhaps you removed a piece of your site that previously existed, or maybe the user typed a URL incorrectly. (In fact, over 45 percent of users land on 404 error pages because of typos, according to SpringTrax.)

Regardless of the reason, every website will have viewers who land on a 404 error page. And unfortunately, a 404 error can drastically impact the number of customers who choose to use your site.

Unexpectedly landing on a missing page can jolt consumers out of the carefully-crafted user experience (UX) you’ve designed, ultimately harming your brand identity. To preserve the experience as much as possible, your 404 page should offer customers a clear path back to their original journey. If it doesn’t, you run the risk of people leaving your site altogether, and thereby increasing your bounce rate.

What’s more, broken links can even impact your search engine optimization (SEO). If errors lead to a decrease in the number of people who peruse your website, Google will determine that your site has grown less useful. Plus, broken links act as red flags for SEO, causing your rankings to drop.

To help you save your brand and your conversion rate even as errors inevitably arise, we have compiled a list of tips to help you create a beautiful, engaging and fully-optimized 404 error pages.

Related Article: 5 User Interface Mistakes That Drive Customers Away

1. Invest in UX

According to a Forrester Research report (subscription required), a well-designed interface can increase conversion by up to 400 percent — and this attention to interface design should extend to 404 error pages as well. You should create a clear and simple pathway off of the error page and back to working areas of your site.

Among other things, standard design elements that appear throughout your digital destination should remain in place on the error page. Hamburger menus, headers, footers and logo designs all act as navigational North Stars that lead back to your homepage. Including elements such as those on your 404 error page will boost the user experience and help visitors orient themselves quickly and easily, lessening the likelihood that people will simply leave your site immediately upon encountering a 404 error message.

2. Create Calls to Action

Speaking of intuitive navigation, a clear call to action is an additional layer of UX proven to boost conversions. When you direct users to a working section of your website, pick a new landing page, product or piece of content marketing that you think they will enjoy.

However, it’s important to correctly frame the information you provide. Explain to customers the benefits of the new page you’d like them to visit and why they will enjoy it before issuing any call to action. For example, Friendbuy found that offering such explanations reduced user anxiety and increased the likelihood that people would choose the desired action by 34 percent.

Related Article: Quick Links, Slow Links and Bad Navigation Design

3. Test Engaging Elements

An easy way to reduce bounce rates and immediately alleviate frustration is to add an engaging, immersive or game-like quality to your 404 page. By quickly sweeping users up into another enjoyable activity, you are facilitating a positive user experience.

In addition, the longer people they stay on your 404 page, the lower your bounce rate becomes. Keeping that metric low can drastically improve your search engine optimization rankings and, by default, help you capture even more new customers.

4. Be Honest

Don’t try to convince people that they landed on a functional web page. They’ll see right through that, and your attempt to manipulate them by creating what looks like an authentic page will likely cause you to lose some loyal customers.

Just be honest: The page they’re looking for is missing. That approach can create an opportunity for some clever copywriting and a new call to action to direct their attention elsewhere. Plus, 91 percent of consumers want the brands they follow to be authentic in their posts, according to Bonfire Marketing, proving that fessing up to the mishap and moving on swiftly will pay off in the long run.

Related Article: Why It's Time to Bring Creativity Back to Web Design

5. Stay on Brand

According to research from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, 90 percent of consumers expect a seamless brand experience across every platform and channel — and that includes visual presentation and general experience. Therefore, your 404 page is not the place to experiment with quirky text or new styles of imagery — particularly if the new elements don’t fit into your brand identity.

A 404 page is already jarring, and an off-brand aesthetic can confuse visitors and cause them to lose trust in your brand, thereby contributing to long-term losses in conversions and revenue. Ensure that your color palette, writing style and overall tone match the rest of your website — and other platforms — to facilitate the best experience possible and ensure that customers stay engaged with your brand as a whole.

A Good 404 Page Conveys Your Brand’s Value

The bottom line is that designing an optimized 404 error page that maintains a strong level of user experience is fairly simple, as long as you do the following:

  • Maintain a strong brand identity.
  • Foster intuitive navigation.
  • Add calls to action.
  • Stay open and honest.

If you follow those steps, users who land on your 404 error page will continue to see the value your brand provides, ensuring your conversion rates and revenue don’t suffer.