Signs of a good WordPress theme: error or 404 page

With hundreds + thousands of WordPress themes in existence, everyone has an opinion on which is the best. I think it’s tough to label a clear winner, but there are specific features + functions that a good WordPress theme will have. And one of those often overlooked details is a custom WordPress 404 page.

What is a 404 page?

We all try our best to make sure our sites are user friendly** + free of broken links. But shit happens + when a link doesn’t work because the page has been deleted or the original link was typed incorrectly, WordPress will show a 404 page.

**Except that one time I purposely broke my site for anyone using Internet Explorer to look at it.

Before the error page is displayed, WordPress will try to guess what the user was looking for. Then they’ll show anything that is close to what they typed or clicked. If there’s nothing close, 404 page it is.

This does not mean that it will catch errors. But if you were to type into your browser, you would get sent to because WordPress guessed that you just gave up typing all of that out.

Checking your WordPress 404 page

So how do you know if you have one of these essential pages? Easy peasy. Go to your website + at the end of the domain, add /error/. If for some reason you have a page with that permalink, try something odd like /mackay/.

It’s common for the WordPress 404 page to show if you add 404 to the link as well, but I don’t recommend it. Why? Because when I build new WordPress sites for clients I create an easy to edit page in their dashboard titled 404 page. That way it’s easy to find + they can make copy or image edits as they want.

How to add an error page

Where does your WordPress 404 page live? You might want to check for a page titled 404 or Error in your dashboard. If that’s a dead end, look at your theme options for something with either of those words in the title. There’s a chance your theme doesn’t have this option. This doesn’t mean you need to pick a new theme (though you might want to). There are ways to add an error page without a full overhaul.

When your theme isn’t taking care of you, grab a plugin to add this customization to your site. Here are a few options to try out — but first check to see if you have any of them installed.

  • SeedPro (can be used for maintenance or coming soon pages too)
  • 404Page (has settings that include disabling the URL guessing I mentioned)
  • Custom 404 Pro (a simple + lightweight plugin that will get the job done)

I don’t love adding plugins when your theme ought to be doing this basic thing for you. But… I know that a site rebuild can take some time + some budget. So if you’re left without a custom WordPress 404 page, spend 15-20 minutes installing a plugin and setting up an on-brand layout. It doesn’t have to be complicated!

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