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404 Errors and Best Practice and Ideas

4:12 pm on Sep 18, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Just as I was reviewing my handling of 404s, along comes a piece from Google with timely advice.

In this post I propose a few techniques to help improve error pages, engage visitors and improve the website experience. 404 Errors and Best Practice [analytics.blogspot.com]

Whilst it didn't give me new ideas, it did remind me about Google Analytics and how that may help.

I do monitor the errors closely, but not using GA.

I find that most 404s I see are caused by users (scrapers or hackers) searching for pages that were never there. They are, im sure, taking a pop at a generic page name seeking a hack opportunity.

I'm more concerned over the occasional error that has crept in and is user facing. Stuff happens, files get moved or deleted, or an error creeps in at the last site update.

We all work hard enough to win traffic, so the last thing I want is users stumbling over a lost file or a broken link with nowhere to go, so I serve them a friendly 404.

We've all seen the funny 404s, right? Well, they are just a little bit of fun, of course. I guess i'm probably a little more serious about the 404s, so I like to help the user as much as possible with additional links, help opportunities, and reporting. I admit, too, that I run ads (not AdSense), where appropriate, on some of them, too. Why not? It seems a shame to not promote and market the site, its business, or its special offers.

What are you doing to make effective 404s?
4:38 pm on Sept 18, 2013 (gmt 0)

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We've all seen the funny 404s, right? Well, they are just a little bit of fun, of course.

Just too good of an opportunity to pass up replying to that. I often keep that page for last when a site is ready. Then I sit back in a relaxed attitude and get creative for a custom 404 page.

My crowning piece was for a doctor's website! I used an image of a heart rate monitor displaying normal rhythm with a few peaks and valleys...then flat-lining across the rest of the page horizontally.

The peaks and valleys of the normal rhythm were in green and then faded to red on the extending flat-line.

However as funny as I thought it was I quickly realized not everyone shares in my understanding of death as being a transition to a new form of continuing life, not to be feared, and would certainly think it was in very poor taste, bordering on morbid.

A much more tame version went live, minus the graphic!
10:30 pm on Sept 18, 2013 (gmt 0)

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Another serious question:

Is the 404 page targeted primarily at people who are already familiar with the site, or people who arrive via a broken link from outside and have never been on the site before? They've got different expectations and different types of prior knowledge.

Overall look-and-feel would be the same either way. (If they don't like my color scheme they're not going to like the rest of the site, so may as well introduce them to it at once!) But page content may differ.

I have a custom 4xx page for one directory (same page for all), where the only visitors are people coming in with some prior knowledge, possibly following links from old posts in a particular forum. They may even know me personally. (For www page purposes, online via a forum = personal.) So this page gives more information than the generic 4xx. Among other things it says "contact me directly" without giving contact info, because anyone landing on the page for legitimate reasons will already know where to find me.

:: detour to update link I'd overlooked ::
12:25 am on Sept 26, 2013 (gmt 0)

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My approach:

1. Dealing with 404s means we have to keep in mind visitors who already know the site and expect the content to be there, we must provide them a way to find it because in this case, it means it was moved. Of course this can be avoided using redirects on the server, so whenever we move content to another place or when we rename the url, the visitor shouldn't notice it. Still we should be careful on providing the right headers so SEs can update the content, So, this is the kind of 404s that must be turned into 301.

2. Considering new visitors then the 404 should be useful providing other content and still displaying the right headers. I believe that most people using plain 404s telling their readers that the content is not there... is a waste of time and space. That page should count for something! So let them know you don't have that content (in cases where someone got there by mistake because the page never existed) let them know if the content was moved and let them know what other content can be useful. Or at least suggest them a sitemap, I mea, new visitors should get "something".

3. Suggestions. I use the URL, try to parse it and detect important words, then my cms looks for pages that might be related. So, if you get a 404, the cms lets you know about it but it will build a list of suggestions regarding content that DO exists on the site.

I strongly advice AGAINST 404 redirecting to the homepage. Many have this on and it only confuses new visitors. Also, keeping the right headers will avoid problems with dup content.

It's important to check the 404s from time to time to see if something is going wrong on the server.
1:49 pm on Oct 10, 2013 (gmt 0)

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I include search box and recent post links
2:15 pm on Feb 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I have a short friendly video in the middle and 3 search fields around it >> [example.co.uk...]

should work as a charm :)


[edited by: phranque at 8:49 pm (utc) on Feb 23, 2014]
[edit reason] exemplified domain [/edit]


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