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Use 404 pages to your advantage
by Lauri Harpf

"Not found

The requested URL /file.html was not found on this server.

Apache/1.3.14 Server at www.yourdomain.com Port 80"

Does that look familiar? If you've ever accidentally tried to
access a page that doesn't exist, possibly by following an
outdated link or by misspelling the name of the page, you've
probably seen something like the above appear on your screen.
You might have attempted to correct the error by checking the
URL for mistakes, but it is even more likely that you just
clicked "Back" and returned where you came from, never visiting
the site again.

For a surfer, encountering a "404 page" is a nuisance. For a
webmaster, they can be far more problematic, causing a reduction
in traffic which in turn means losing a part of the precious
advertising revenues or sales the site's life depends on. You
can minimize the amount of 404 errors by periodically checking
your pages for broken links, but it is impossible to get
completely rid of them. So, what can you do?

The solution - Custom 404 pages
===============================

The best way to avoid losing visitors to 404's is to replace the
standard and unfriendly error message with a custom page.
Fortunately the task is relatively simple and can be performed
by anyone who owns a site that has its own domain name.

As different server softwares handle things in their own ways,
there is no single method of creating a custom error page that
works with every system. The following instructions can be
applied by those who have sites hosted under Apache, which is a
very widely used program. If you don't know what software your
host is running, contact them and ask.

To start the process, use an FTP program such as CuteFTP to
connect to your server. Search for a file named ".htaccess".
Should you find it, download the file to your home computer for
editing. If the file is not there, don't worry, you'll just have
to create it yourself.

Grab a normal text editor and open the file, or if you don't
have it, open up a blank file. Type the following into the first
line of the file:

ErrorDocument 404 http://www.yourdomain.com/404page.html

After you're done, save the file as plain text and make sure
that it is named ".htaccess", without quotes of course. The hard
part is now over, all that is left is to create the custom 404
page (404page.html) that loads when a 404 error occurs.

What should my 404 page look like?
==================================

Of course, you can put anything you want into it, but if your
purpose is to encourage your visitors to click further into your
site instead of leaving, the page should obey some basic
principles.

1. Don't give users a reason to panic. Including a large heading
that screams "ERROR" is likely to make the visitor feel that
he/she has done something wrong or that your site is not working
properly. A better approach is to first greet them with a warm
welcome and then explain that the URL they were looking for
could not be found, but should they browse around your site,
they will surely find the information they need.

2. Make the page to look and feel similar to the rest of the
pages on your site. Include your site's menu on the 404 page to
give visitors a fast and easy way to continue exploring instead
of clicking away. A well-designed 404 page with plenty of links
is far more attractive than one that has just black text on a
white background and a link to your homepage.

3. If you have the skills, consider adding a search feature on
the page that allows people to search your site for matches.
Often your navigation menu will provide a clue on how the user
might reach the information he/she would like to see, but if it
doesn't there is a great risk of losing the visit. Placing a
search utility on the page increases the likelihood of the user
finding the desired page and thus remaining on your site.

After both the .htaccess file and the HTML page are ready, FTP
to your server, upload the pages and enjoy your new custom 404
error page!

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Lauri Harpf runs the A Promotion Guide website, where he
offers free information about search engines, directories
and other promotion methods. His site can be found at
http://www.apromotionguide.com/
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