When looking through website statistics, one question we invariably get from clients is them asking why there are 404 errors showing up. A 404 page is a server error when something's missing. Here's how Wikipedia defines it:
The 404 or Not Found error message is a HTTP standard response code indicating that the client was able to communicate with the server, but the server could not find what was requested.
The web site hosting server will typically generate a "404 Not Found" web page when a user attempts to follow a broken or dead link; hence the 404 error is one of the most recognizable errors users can find on the web.
There's a variety of reasons why this page might show up:
Whatever the reason, it's important to make sure your website visitors aren't see this page very often. There are some things you can do to make sure that this page doesn't show up. Also, when it does, you want to make sure the page is helpful and looks like your website.
I was inspired to write this article because of this article that I found, which you should check out, too:
404 Page Best Practices (searchenginewatch.com)
There are a number of tools you can use to check for 404 errors. Once you know how they're being created, there's a good chance you can clean most of them up - at least the ones on your website.
First, you'll want to make sure that you are signed up for Google Webmaster Tools. Doing this can help you a lot and I really think this is about the best SEO tool you can use for your website if you're just getting started with SEO.
Second, here are the additional tools that are available:
Your server stats program (like AW Stats or others) or server log files are also good places to check for 404 errors.
Now that you know the errors, fix them! Is it as easy as it sounds? Yes, pretty much. You can use site search tools to find the bad links. Heck, even Google can help. Again, the best tool, I think, is Google Webmaster Tools since they even tell you which pages have the bad links on them. That's some valuable info there, buddy!
My favorite thing is the funny 404 pages that are out there (see fab404.com). Seeing one can help take the edge off. You don't have to go that far but your 404 page should at least be using your website's theme or template so that things like your website's navigation and search form (box) are visible. They'll help your website visitors find what they're looking for.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can have a 404 error generate an email that goes to you, notifying you that someone got to a 404 page. You could look at this as either being annoying or helpful (depending on how many emails you get - and remember, some of this is people just typing things in wrong).
If you are interested in getting a funny 404 page developed, just let us know... sounds like fun!
Having a website that's technically set up is important. The great thing is that once you fix it, you'll take advantage of the benefits going forward. You really just do it once and you're set.