Thursday, January 24, 2008

Page Not Found (error 404): Rules of Engagement

Why aren't more people paying attention to 404s? This is a hot button of mine — not only is the fix for this cheap and easy; the cost of not doing it is high.

Open a new browser window right now and enter your domain name or that of your client's. Wait - don't hit return/enter yet, instead, add garbage characters at the end like This simulates a visitor following a search result that points to an non-existant page. Now hit enter. What do you see? Do you see a beautiful page telling you that this URL is no longer a part of the site you wanted to see, and offers you other pointers to interesting pages on the site that are available with a touch of the finger? Or, do you see the dreaded (and ugly) ERROR 404 page served up by the browser?

While search engines catch dead pages and stop included them in their index, it takes time, sometimes up to 3 months. Why drive traffic to your site just to baffle and irritate visitors when they try to visit? There is really no excuse for an irritating and useless page when you can easily make sure that all pages that have EVER been indexed by a search engine — current or obsolete — point to a valid page on your website. All you need do is to TRAP the "Error 404s" and bring up your own tailor-made error page kindly guiding your visitors, and potential profits, right into your website. Of course, redirecting old pages to new ones is the best course of action but no one can do that consistently or completely for large sites. Or you can redirect to the home page but that doesn't return the right code to the search engines so I don't recommend it.

The Components of a Perfect Error 404 Page

While I am on my soap-box preaching about creating a custom-designed Error 404 page for your website, I think it only fair to list the components of a good error 404 page. Each component is geared toward letting a customer know where they are and helping them get to where they want to be. So, the components are:
  • high-lighted links to popular pages on your Web site
  • your standard navigation bar
  • your look, feel & branding of the company/site
  • a search box in case your links aren't what they want
  • a friendly tone, with plain, polite language
  • something that helps sell your products/services
Consider presenting them with specials, teasers or free samples/downloads. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages carefully. If they reached your error page, they wanted something from you and they are a captive audience. On the other hand, they were trying to get somewhere and are probably anxious to get there. Don’t hold them up, unless you are sure they’ll thank you for it.

Good Examples:

WebEx (WebMama client), VMware (WebMama client), BabyCenter , Hewlett-Packard (WebMama client), SpaFinder (sends visitors to an error page that doesn't look like one - certainly a valid tactic)

Bad Examples:

Amazon , WebMD (redirects to home page), Cingular (redirects to ATT Wireless which is inexcusable in its appearance - shame on them), NY Times (takes you into the member center- confusing), Zazzle (just weird)

In the WebMama Journal in November 2001 I pointed out a few bad 404 pages; believe it or not, the are still bad today. [Disclaimer: when visiting the old WebMama Journals the content may still be relevant but they have not been updated to reflect the SEM stragies and tactics of today or checked for broken links.]

Exxon, Macy's (even has an old trademark date), Nasdaq (defaults to browser error page - STILL!)

Tell me what error pages you like (and dislike).

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posted by Barbara 'webmama' Coll @ 12:07 PM     Permanent Link