I was asked to design a 404 page but do we actually need to say 404? Even though most people understand what 404 means, do we need to explicitly tell users its a 404?

Why cant it just be an error page?enter image description here

enter image description here

examples like these are really cool error pages. But they can get away without having the 404 in there. The context made it clear already. Why do websites still have it? When is it ok to break this rule?

  • "But they can get away without having the 404 in there." - both of your examples do have the 404 in there. Dec 15, 2017 at 6:06

5 Answers 5


Unfortunately, the 404 page is the only way of diagnosing a missing page (either because the page is missing or because the preceding link is broken) and forms part of a whole system of error pages that a server can produce.

For this reason, you still need to show "404" so that an engineer can distinguish it from the myriad other errors (my personal favourite is "418") that could be showing and could all have "user friendly" designs and messages. Without showing this number the engineer may not be able to identify the root cause of the problem.

By all means make it a less important part of your design visually but make sure it's findable for the engineers.

  • "so that an engineer can distinguish it from the myriad other errors (my personal favourite is "418") " - You might want to replace your engineer if this is the way he finds out about what type of error it is. Dec 15, 2017 at 9:38
  • 5
    @IvanVenediktov When a user calls tech support and is asked what the error is, it's helpful if they can reply with "404" and not "a picture of R2D2".
    – Rob
    Dec 15, 2017 at 11:30
  • IMHO, this conversation can last forever and our arguments will be based strictly on our opinions. I can argue that user getting a picture of R2D2 is a part of defensive design, and you can argue, that is a poor case of defensive design, and I can agree with you just to stop this pointless discussion. Dec 15, 2017 at 16:51

I had little argument with coder friends about 404. They said like this-" You, designers, sometimes goes so wild,creative and funny, it is not easy for us to quickly figure out what page it is. So i ended up like this. enter image description here

  • yeah i remember we had conflicting opinions. finally win-win situation. :)
    – Nicolas
    Dec 15, 2017 at 2:43
  • How is this solution (imaginative message and 404) different from what is shown in the question? Dec 15, 2017 at 6:07
  • By the way, note that the wording "under our radar" can be misleading. Usually, when you say "X is under someone's radar", you mean it is not visible or noticeable. So, by telling users the page is "not under [your] radar", you are actually saying "We can see the page you are looking for; it is here." That seems to be the opposite of what you are trying to convey. Dec 15, 2017 at 11:39
  • @O.R.Mapper what? u made me confused. let me think for a while..... it looks ok. well can u ask someone nearby to u
    – Jivan
    Dec 15, 2017 at 15:49
  • Late by a year. The wording should be "in our radar" instead of "under our radar". And "move" in the phrase "move back" is also quite odd.
    – kettlecrab
    Mar 3, 2019 at 23:48

It can be just an error page. I believe it is even better. It gives you more options to design something that is more suited for your users. 404 is a (mainstream) tech term. Not everybody knows what it means.

Create a better page where you specify what's wrong and what the user's next step can be (return to home, register, etc).

  • The issue is that there is little the user can do about a 404. The only real option (other than, obviously, not trying to open that URL) is contacting the website owner, at which point relaying the displayed "tech term" that unambiguously identifies the issue is more important than knowing (as a user) what it means. Dec 15, 2017 at 6:05

But they can get away without having the 404 in there.

As already noted in a comment: No, they cannot. Both of your examples mention 404 one way or another.

The context made it clear already.

Does it? At least in the Star Wars example, if I got to the error page from a search form, it would not be clear to me that there seems to be an actual error on the page (that tech support might fix if I contacted them), rather than this being just a case of my search yielding no results. (Well, it would be clear to me, because there is a big 404 there and I know what that means.)

Why do websites still have it?

You have to consider the different stakeholders for whom usability has to be optimized here. Maybe surprisingly, I see three groups:

  • Visitors of the website: They need to be able to navigate the website autonomously. When they encounter the 404 page, they should understand what's going on; at the very least, that they cannot find the resource they expected here and should go back. Imaginative explanations may help keep these people in a good mood despite running into an error.
  • Tech support of the website: They need to be able to quickly figure out what is the precise issue, both to fix it and to respond to the visitor in a satisfactorily accurate and fast manner. To them, a unique error number (or letter code, or whatever short identifier can be relayed to them by the visitor) is a lot more helpful than a free-text message (that, due to its natural language nature, even has some risk of being misunderstood and/or rephrased by the user).
  • Visitors of the website in touch with tech support: They need not understand what is going on except that there is a technical issue1. What they do need is a clear indication of what they have to tell tech support in order to get quick and accurate help. Tech support might ask for the exact message the visitor is seeing, but as noted above, there is still a slight risk the visitor might rephrase the message (beside an entire message being possibly cumbersome to type into an e-mail or read out on the phone)2. If a short unique identifier of the problem, such as the error code 404, is displayed in an unmistakable way (as in, explicitly labeled "error code:", with support asking for the "error code displayed on the page"), there is little chance of this part of the communication going wrong.

Therefore, my conclusion is: Yes, it is needed, but it should not be the only thing displayed on such a page.

1: Don't get me wrong, they have every right to understand what is going on if they are interested in it. But if they do not care beyond the mere fact that there is an error, this is totally fine.

2: This can be especially problematic if the original message displayed by the website is already misleading or ambiguous. For instance, another answer here suggests the text "The page you are looking for is not under our radar." Now, to be "under someone's radar" is derived from the working principle of some kinds of radar that might not detect certain objects close to the ground, which can thus go unnoticed. Accordingly, the term is sometimes used figuratively to express that something remains unnoticed, invisible. The page not being under the website's radar might thus be paraphrased as "The page was successfully found.", which will totally confuse tech support staff.


So many answers and no actual answer. The purpose of 404 code is the indication of a missing page. Otherwise your "not found page" is 200 OK.

Without 404 the page is there, but, for example, there aren't any results to your search query, or the page is undergoing maintenance.

As simple as that.

p.s. Don't forget to tell search engines not to index your 404 page.

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