|How to Set
Up A Custom 404 File Not Found Page
By Christopher S L Heng
|Let's do a quick survey:
what do you often do when you click on a URL and encounter a
"404 File Not Found" error? Do you:
1. Click on the BACK button of your browser and go somewhere
2. Try to back up one directory in the URL and try again?
3. Write to the webmaster of the site and the referring site
to inform them of the situation?
If you are like most people, you'll simply click on the BACK
button and try another place. The majority of people don't even
know that there are any other alternatives.
You thus need to do something so that you do not lose this group
of people who come to your site by following an old link or
by typing your URL incorrectly.
Requirements for Customizing the 404 File Not Found
It is not possible to customize your 404 error page if your
web host has not enabled this facility for your website. For
example, at the time of this writing, if you host at Geocities
or Tripod, you would not be able to customize your 404 Error
If your web host has this facility, you will usually find mention
of this somewhere in their documentation. In fact, if they mention
somewhere that you can customize a file named ".htaccess", it
probably means that you can also customize your 404 File Not
Found error page.
The .htaccess file is what Apache web servers use to allow you
to fine-tune your web server configurations at a directory level.
Other types of web servers handle the customization of 404 error
Step One: Creating/Modifying the .htaccess File
This step may not be necessary in all situations. Some web hosts
already configure their web server so that it will look for
a specific file in your web directory when a certain document
cannot be found. If so, simply skip this step.
If your web server is not an Apache web server, you will have
to find out from your web host what you need to do to enable
the server to serve your customized file when a file cannot
Otherwise, the first thing you need to do is to add the following
line to a file named ".htaccess" (without the enclosing quotes
and with the preceding period). In most instances, no such file
will exist, and you can simply create one with a text editor.
ErrorDocument 404 /notfound.html
You will of course need to put a notfound.html file in the main
web directory for the above directive to work.
The "ErrorDocument 404" directive essentially tells the Apache
web server that whenever it cannot find the file it needs in
that directory and its subdirectories, it is to use the document
specified in the URL that follows.
One .htaccess file in your main directory will do the trick
for that directory and its subdirectories. However, if you want
a certain subdirectory to show a different 404 File Not Found
message, you can always place a .htaccess file into that directory.
This will override any .htaccess files you have in the parent
Step Two: Creating Your Error Document File
What should go into your custom 404 File Not Found page?
It is insufficient to simply let the visitor know that the file
could not be found. In order not to lose that visitor, you will
have to provide him some way to locate the document he wanted,
or you would have lost him.
Your page should have one or more of the following things:
1. A link to your main page, with a suggestion that the visitor
can find what he wants there.
2. If you have a search engine for your website, you should
definitely put a search box on that page. Many people prefer
to simply type a query than to scan through your site map.
3. A link to your site map, which lists all the pages on your
4. If you know of frequently mistyped URLs on your site, you
can even put links to the correct location directly on the page,
so that visitors who arrive there from outside can quickly get
to the correct page. Remember, you don't want to lose that visitor,
so do all you can to help him.
5. Any other navigational aids that you may have - for example,
if you have a quick navigation menu on your normal pages, you
should probably put one here as well.
If you like, you can even put a simple form on the page to allow
your visitors to inform you of the broken link. However, the
primary aim of this page is not to help you track bad links,
but to make sure your visitor does not leave your site if what
he wants can be found there.
Step Three: Testing the Error Document
When you're satisfied with your page, upload it together with
your .htaccess file to your website. Then test it by typing
a URL that you know does not exist.
Your error page should load up. From this error page, test to
see that the links here lead to the pages you intended it to
Common Errors with a 404 Custom Error Page
The most common error people have with their custom error page
is making a mistake in the URL they put in their .htaccess file.
This leads the web server into a loop when a visitor tries to
access a missing file. When a file cannot be found the server
tries to load the file specified in your ErrorDocument directive.
But that file does not exist too, so it tries to load the file
specified in that directive. You get the idea.
Make sure you test your error file by typing in a non-existent
URL. Do not test it by typing its real URL - that will of course
work but it will prove nothing.
When a visitor encounters a 404 File Not Found error on your
site, you're on the verge of losing the visitor that you've
worked so hard to obtain through the search engines and third
party links. Creating your custom 404 error page allows you
to minimize the number of visitors lost that way.
Copyright by Christopher S L Heng. All rights reserved.
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