Lost and 404 Not Found

Jan 16


Meghan Whitmore

Meghan Whitmore

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Are you ... tooling around on the web, clicking your way through links, when suddenly you come to a dreaded dead end: the 404 Not Found page? Do you wonder what those darn error pages are all ab


Are you sometimes tooling around on the web,Lost and 404 Not Found Articles clicking your
way through links, when suddenly you come to a dreaded dead
end: the 404 Not Found page? Do you wonder what those darn
error pages are all about? They are often brick walls that
force you to back track, and they can be very annoying. If
you have a website, you want to make sure that visitors to
your site aren’t led into one of these dead ends. If these
dead links are exasperating to you when you are surfing the
Net, they are exasperating to your guests as well, the last
people you want to annoy. But, if utilized correctly, 404
pages can actually help your visitors find the content they
were searching for. They do not need to be brick walls.

What is a 404 page?

404 is a Hypertext Transfer Protocol status code. Hypertext
Transfer Protocol is the protocol web servers use to
communicate with web browsers. When you type in a URL to try
to visit a web page, your computer sends a request message
to the server and the server sends back the HTTP header to
your browser, which includes a status message before you
even see the web page. Normally, if everything is correct,
the status code is “200 OK”, but you don’t see it because
you see the page you were looking for. But if the server
cannot find the page you are looking for, it reports the
status as “404 Not Found”.

But what does it really mean?

The numbers 4-0-4 each actually mean something as individual
digits. The first 4 is telling you, the client, that there
is a mistake on your end, such as a possibly mistyped URL or
a request for a page that no longer exists. The 0 just
represents a syntax error- it basically just means
“something isn’t right”. Now after the 4-0, the last number
could be any one of several digits that indicates the type
of error. The 4 in that section means that the page cannot
be located. Another status messages could be 401, which
means you are unauthorized to view that page.

There is a clever myth behind the 404 Not Found message. The
story goes that 404 was the room number of the room where
the very first web servers were located. But there story
includes a mystery- there is no room 404 in that building at
CERN, where the first web servers were held. So the 404 Not
Found code is a bit of an inside joke for those who have
heard the story.

How To Utilize Status Code Information

You can use your log files to spot “404s” by reviewing the
logs of your status codes. Take note any of 404 occurrences.
If there seem to be quite a few, more than you could chalk
up to user error, you might have a broken link in there
somewhere. Check the referring page, the page the user was
at just before arriving that the 404, then inspect that page
to find the broken link and fix it. If you do not have
access to your log files, you can request them from your
website host.

So why exactly do these 404 error pages exist?

The 404 Not Found Page comes up on your screen for several
different reasons.

1) The page may have been moved. In this case, it is as
though you are trying to visit a friend when you find a note
taped to their door that says they have moved. But it
doesn’t tell you where they moved to. Not very helpful, is
it? The 404 Not Found page is a note like that.

2) The hyperlink you followed my have a minor error in the

3) The page may simply be gone. Not moved. Just taken down.
And whatever linked you to it doesn’t know it. This is a
form of Linkrot.

Linkrot refers to outdated or abandoned URLs across the
Internet. If you take a page down or change the URL, other
sites that have links to your page will have the wrong URL,
causing Linkrot to occur, and sending people who click on
those links, expecting to come to your page, right for a
lovely visit from the Error Page Fairy.

How do you avoid the Error Page? Help stop Linkrot. If links
continue to lead to dead ends, the flow of the Internet will
be interrupted, dramatically reducing the usability of the
web. You may not be able to stop another site from screwing
up URLs linking to your site and creating a dead link to
your site, but you can at least maintain the links and pages
on your own site.

You must regularly check the outgoing links from your site
to make certain that they still lead to existing pages. It
is your responsibility to ensure that the links on your site
lead to actual destinations and not error pages. Internal
links should be maintained as well. AlertBox’s Jakob Nielsen
believes that URLs should “live forever”; that there is no
reason to let a page you built languish abandoned and

Of course, sometimes you cannot help but remove a page or
change its URL, and you will not be able to always prevent
the occurrence of an Error Page. But if you can’t avoid an
Error Page, at least make it work for you!

Good Error Page: Not An Oxymoron

Turn an error into an advantage by designing your own error
page for your site and making it interesting, informative,
helpful, and even fun.

According to Jakob Nielsen there are 5 rules for making a
good Error Page:

1) Design an error page specific to your site, rather than
sending your visitors to the browser’s standard Error page.

2) Politely apologize and tell your user that that page
cannot be found on that URL, and apologize for the

3) Include a list of suggested links of pages that might
hold the information they are looking for, after studying
your log files to see which errors are made the most.

4) If you can, have your server automatically run a spelling
check on the requested URL to search for any spelling
mistakes and suggest possible corrections, and make those
suggestions direct links to those pages.

5) Lastly, have your error page contain a search field so as
a last resort your user can search your site for what they
were looking for.

“Area 404”, a website dedicated to creativity and usability
of error pages, has performed what they call a “highly
scientific” survey of 1375 people regarding the usability of
error pages. Their survey consisted of one question:

When you encounter a 404 do you: A) Hit the back button and
forget about it. B) Try to get to the homepage to locate
the missing page. C) Write to the Webmaster. D) Weep

The results were: 36.92% hit the back button and forgot
about it. 20.37% tried to get the to homepage to locate the
missing page. Only 2.82% actually took the time to write to
the Webmaster (Webmasters take note of this). And 39.88% of
those surveyed said they wept uncontrollably.

What have we learned from this ultra-scientific survey?
People do not like error pages! But if you can make your
page catchy and helpful, you will keep people on your site.

Area 404 has their own guidelines to what makes a good 404
page. In addition to the ones listed by Jakob Nielsen, they
add that you could include a link to contact the Webmaster
to inform them of the error. They definitely suggest that
you at the very least include a link to your homepage.

Make Sure They See Your Error Page

Sometimes you may find that the Internet Explorer browser
does not display your own homemade error page and instead
insists on displaying it’s own friendly version. Though
their version may be nicer to look at than the classic “404
Not Found” page, it is not as helpful or useful for your
customers as your own page, so you will want to make sure
your page is the one that is displayed.

You can force Internet Explorer to stop ignoring your page
and start displaying it by making sure it is greater than
512 bytes, not including graphics. At that size, IE will not
ignore it and will display your page instead of its standard
one. 512 bytes gives you a great deal of space to work with,
which you can fill up with text on the actual page or in
comments in the source code.


Ok, so we know what sort of information you should include
on your error pages to make them usable for your visitors.
But what creative ways can you make your 404 pages a
pleasure rather than a pain? Here are some examples from
Area 404:

404 Something went screwy!

I have all good intentions that you should never, ever see
this page, but the best-laid schemes of mice and men oft' go
astray...uh...in this case, it's the URL you were attempting
to access that seems to have gone astray.

If the link you followed resides on foo.net, please send
e-mail to example@foo.net. You can return to familiar
territory by using your browser's BACK button, or start
fresh at the front door and perhaps you'll find what you
were looking for. www.foo.net

Of course if you just found this page because you're hooked
on 404's, you'll enjoy following these other links instead:
404 Error 404 Research Lab

To see other examples of how creative 404 pages can be,
either purposefully go out and look for them by mistyping
URLs willy-nilly, or check out Area 404’s treasure trove of
examples at http://www.plinko.net/404/area404.asp.


Now there is an alternative to displaying an error page. If
you find there is a page that is consistently getting
mistyped, or if you have moved a page that you know many
people will be trying to view, instead of just showing them
an error page you can automatically redirect them to the
correct page. You can use a 404 in correlation with
redirection, by having a 404 page that informs you visitor
“We’re sorry, that page has moved. In a few second you will
be automatically redirect to the correct page.” That makes
it easy for your visitors, since they just have to sit back
and wait, rather than having to click links to find the new
page themselves. Have that page be displayed for about 4 or
5 seconds, and then have the server send them to the right

The HTML for redirects is simple. It will tell the server to
automatically “refresh” the page, but by refreshing it will
bring up a different URL. Here is the code:

The “CONTENT” is the amount of seconds before the page is
refreshed. In this example, it is 5 seconds.

Conclusion: 404s CAN be fun

As you can see, there is more to error pages than the
boring, dreaded, stereotypical 404 Not Found page. Website
usability extends even beyond your working pages and into
the realm of Pages Lost And 404 Not Found! Make it ALL work
for you.

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