In this article we’ll show you how to set a custom 404 page via a .htaccess file. This will allow you to set the error message that visitors to your site receive when they request a page that doesn’t exist on the server.
What is a 404 Code?
web servers communicate with your web browser using a standardized set of status codes known as HTTP status codes. These codes are essential for understanding how a web request has been processed and whether it was successful or encountered an issue.
Among these status codes, the “404” code holds particular significance, and it’s often referred to as the “Not Found” error. But what exactly does it signify, and why is it important?
Understanding the 404 Status Code
The HTTP status code “404 Not Found” is a numerical response from a web server to your browser, indicating that the server couldn’t locate the requested web page or resource. It’s like a digital way of saying, “I searched, but I couldn’t find what you were looking for.”
Here’s a breakdown of what a 404 code signifies:
- Resource Absence: When you request a web page, image, video, or any other resource from a server, the server looks for that resource in its directories. If it doesn’t find the requested resource at the specified URL, it returns a 404 status code.
- Broken Links: 404 errors often occur when you click on a link or type a URL that points to a page that has been moved, deleted, or never existed in the first place. This can be due to a typo in the URL, a website restructuring, or a simple oversight by the website owner.
- User Experience: From a user’s perspective, encountering a 404 error can be frustrating. It typically displays a generic error page that informs users that the page they’re trying to access doesn’t exist. This can lead to a poor user experience if not handled properly.
The Importance of Customizing 404 Pages
While the default 404 error page provided by web servers serves its purpose, it’s often plain and uninformative. This is where custom 404 pages come into play, allowing website owners to create a more user-friendly and engaging experience for visitors who land on a missing page.
By customizing your 404 page, you can:
- Provide helpful information about what went wrong.
- Offer navigation links to direct users to other parts of your site.
- Maintain the overall look and feel of your website.
- Reduce the chances of visitors bouncing away from your site due to a poor error experience.
If you read our previous article about 404 error not found pages it was discussed that handling 404 errors dynamically can be problematic if done very frequently. If you’re running WordPress on your website, you might want to think about installing the W3 Total Cache plugin which has the ability to serve static 404 errors for WordPress.
It’s typically recommended to handle 404 errors with a custom static HTML 404 error page instead of handling them dynamically. If you don’t already have one you can learn about creating a custom 404 error page, and if you’re looking to add advanced functionality to your 404 redirect you can even learn about using Google’s custom 404 page widget.
The easiest way to modify your .htaccess file would be using cPanel’s file manager with the instructions below, although you can also upload a .htaccess file via FTP as well.
Create or Modify a Custom 404 Page via .htaccess
- Login to your cPanel.
- Under the Files section click on File Manager.
- Navigate to the document root folder for the site.
- Click on Settings.
- Ensure Show Hidden Files is selected.
- Then click Save.
- Right-click on the .htaccess file and select Edit.
- If the .htaccess file didn’t exist in the previous step, click on the +File link on the top left, name the file .htaccess, and set the directory for creation to /public_html/ or the document root of your site.
- You might have a text editor encoding dialog box pop-up, go ahead and just click Edit.
- Now that you are ready to edit the .htaccess file, the simplest way to set a 404 error page is by directly setting a 404 error message in the .htaccess file itself:
ErrorDocument 404 "<H1>Page not found</H1>"
If you already have a static HTML page that you’d like to use for 404 errors you can also directly point to that file with the .htaccess file as well. In this example, we have a 404.html page we want to serve up. Be sure to replace “404.html” with your actual page name:
ErrorDocument 404 /404.html
- After you’ve made your edits to the .htaccess file, click on Save Changes.
You should see a green Success pop-up
- Now if you try to pull up a page that won’t exist on the server such as /ThisPageWon’tExist you should see the custom 404 error message that we’ve configured. This first image below is the default 404 error page when a custom one is not set:
The second one is the custom 404 page that we just created:
Redirect 404 to homepage using .htaccess
To redirect all 404 errors to your homepage, you can use this directive with a forward slash (“/”) as the target:
ErrorDocument 404 /
This simple line of code instructs the web server that whenever it encounters a 404 error (i.e., a missing page or resource), it should redirect the visitor to the homepage of your website. Let’s break down how this works:
- ErrorDocument: This is the directive that tells the server you’re defining a custom error page.
- 404: Specifies the HTTP status code for which you’re customizing the error page (in this case, a 404 error).
- /: The forward slash represents the homepage of your website. When a 404 error occurs, the server redirects the user to this URL.
When implementing a custom 404 page using .htaccess, it’s essential to consider the potential impact on your website’s search engine optimization (SEO). A well-optimized website not only provides a better user experience but also ranks higher in search engine results. Here are some key SEO considerations to keep in mind:
SEO Impact of Custom 404 Pages
User Experience: A well-designed custom 404 page can keep visitors engaged on your site even when they encounter a broken link. This can reduce bounce rates and improve overall user experience, indirectly benefiting your SEO.
Reduced Bounce Rate: An engaging 404 page can help lower your website’s bounce rate. When visitors find useful information or navigation options on the error page, they are more likely to explore other parts of your site.
Maintaining SEO Integrity
Return Proper Status Codes: Ensure that your custom 404 page returns the appropriate HTTP status code, which is “404 Not Found.” This informs search engines that the page is genuinely missing, helping them update their indexes accordingly.
Avoid Duplicate Content: Be cautious not to create duplicate content issues with your custom 404 page. Make sure the content is unique and doesn’t replicate existing pages on your site.
Include Relevant Links: On your custom 404 page, provide links to important sections of your website, such as your homepage, popular content, or a site map. This helps visitors find what they’re looking for and reduces the chances of them leaving your site.
Monitor Webmaster Tools: Regularly check your webmaster tools accounts (e.g., Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools) for crawl errors and 404 pages. Address any issues promptly and ensure that your custom 404 page is working as intended.
While implementing a custom 404 page is crucial for user experience, it should also be done with SEO in mind. By following best practices and monitoring your website’s performance, you can ensure that your custom error page not only guides lost visitors but also maintains your site’s SEO integrity.
You should now understand how to control how 404 errors are handled for your website, by either setting the error directly or pointing to a custom 404 error page. If you need help on actually creating your custom 404 error page you would want to review our article on creating a custom 404 error page. Check out our Website section for more helpful tutorials to lead you toward success.
- Click on Settings.