Customizing Thesis 404 Pages

I like to think that my websites are error proof. WordPress does a great job handling cases of mis-typed URLs, outdated or broken links, and general server-farts.  But no matter how bullet proof the system is, it is possible to crumb up your own system as it gets older, obtains more internal links and posts and others link to who-knows-what on your site.  These will often create a 404 error condition and how you handle them on your site can be important in order to keep visitors from leaving your site too soon.

That being the case, I have been amazed lately how many well-known websites that run Thesis theme (I’m not naming any names.) use the default 404 error-page text. The text on the standard Thesis 404 page is, to put it simply, icky and a bit condescending to your potential site visitors.

You 404’d it. Gnarly, dude.

Surfin’ ain’t easy, and right now, you’re lost at sea. But don’t worry; simply pick an option from the list below, and you’ll be back out riding the waves of the Internet in no time.

* Hit the “back” button on your browser. It’s perfect for situations like this!
* Head on over to the home page.
* Punt.

After all, it’s not their fault they’ve ended up on a non-existing page on your site. (How many people actually type in URLs to any but the homepage.)

If you aren’t sure what a 404 error message is, here is a definition from Wikipedia:

The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code indicating that the client was able to communicate with the server but the server could not find what was requested.

It could be an outdated or moved page that was indexed a long time ago or maybe you’ve updated your site, moved things around. Who knows, but finding and fixing broken links is the website owners responsibility. There are some useful plugins to help to check for broken links, here’s a good one.

Rather than scare off a potential (future) visit, you can easily adjust the language (that’s why Thesis is so great, right?) to make it more user friendly. At the same time you can give the user a few options that make it more more likely they will stay on your site for awhile and then go off and tell their friends how much a genius you are. (Okay, maybe I’m gettiing a little hopeful, but you get the idea.)

There are a couple of simple methods to add a customized 404 page if you’re running Thesis:

1. The easy way using OpenHook plugin.

If you use this plugin, you’ll have things easier. You can find a simple tutorial on how to change the page title and text here. (I find it humurous that the author of the tutorial doesn’t actually use the technique she demonstrates. Oh well, it still will work for YOUR site.)

2. The code way, with the custom_functions.php.

This way involves working with a little bit of php, nothing too challenging, but if you aren’t comfortable doing that then I would suggest method #1 or asking someone for help.
Rae Hoffman has a straightforward guide to making the changes on her website here.

Now that we know how to do it, what should a 404 error page contain?

Some good ideas include:

  • A link to the homepage.
  • A category listing or page listing.
  • A search box front and center.
  • Something humorous to keep them there. Rae put a video on her page. I’ve seen someone give away a free eBook as an apology gift, how much more generous could you be?
  • Try something new and creative. You can check out some ideas at Smashing Magazine.

Ideas to Avoid Confusion

I would suggest removing the “404″ from the error message as 99% of visitors usually have no idea (and don’t care) what that means. Why show them an error code at all and risk them thinking there is something wrong with your website. You should just tell them there’s a problem and that you have a solution.

The most important of all is: don’t confuse them. Help them find what they were looking for and give them as many ways as possible to get them back on track. Do that and you’ll be able to retain more visitors and get them to return again and again.

What If I Don’t Have Thesis?

Well, then go here and get it! :) Seriously, life is just easier with Thesis, but I’m biased I guess.

In the case you don’t have Thesis, there are some options.

The WordPress Codex on creating 404 error pages

You can find the WordPress Codex page  for handling 404 pages. Do this if you want to code it yourself or want to modify an existing theme.

404 Notifier Plugin

This plugin will help you catch 404 errors that come up on your page. Useful if you’ve moved things around on your blog.

Smart 404 for WordPress

This plugin goes even further.  Here’s the description:

When a page cannot be found, Smart 404 will use the current URL to attempt to find a matching page, and redirect to it automatically. Smart 404 also supplies template tags which provide a list of suggestions, for use on a 404.php template page if a matching post can’t be immediately discovered.

What If I Don’t Run WordPress OR Thesis theme

This was originally an article geared toward WordPress-centric websites, but I’ve had a few questions about non-blog issues or HTML/PHP-based websites.  The answer is pretty simple and direct but requires you customize your .htaccess file.  If you’re not comfortable with that, I suggest calling in a professional. But it’s pretty easy if you follow these basic instructions. It’s essentially editing a text file on your server and pretty straightforward, assuming your web hosting company gives you that kind of access (most do). Follow this and you’ll be up and running in no time.

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4 comments… add one

  • Lisa Angelettie May 20, 2:57 pm

    Hey Jim,
    You are sooo right. I customized my 404 pages on my other site (girlshrink) and never got around to doing it on my writing site. I’m going to do it tonight! Thanks for mentioning the tutorial though – trust me it works:)
    Lisa Angelettie

    • Jim May 20, 3:21 pm

      No worries. I know it is challenging maintaining more than one website, not to mention a crapload of work. Hopefully I didn’t increase your work-load, but you have Thesis and OpenHook so you’ll be done in a few clicks right? :D

      Thanks for the note!

  • GeorgWP June 7, 11:24 am

    Nice entry! Thank you.

    I am not a native English speaker and doubt that I understand the word “Punt” anyway, but it does not look too helpful.

    • Jim June 7, 12:39 pm

      Good point. Something I didn’t consider when writing it, but being understood is another great idea. Thanks for pointing this out!

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