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Is your 404 error page a little too interesting?

You are browsing the web. It might be work related, it might be leisurely. In either case, it is frustrating when you don’t find what you are looking for. More often than not, when I land on a page that says, “We could not find what you were looking for,” it is more than a little annoying. I want to quickly get back to what I was looking for.

So, what would you like to see when you hit an error on a website. Do you want to be blamed for it with a, “You misspelled something!”? I understand, sites that point that out are being either practical or trying their hand at funny. But, when I am looking for something, I will be turned off as soon as I don’t find it.

Your job as the site owner is to make me stick despite the frustration. That is what a good 404 error page will do.

Now, to that end, you could use your wit, you could crack a joke within the theme of your site, or you could point blank say what needs to be done next.

Let’s break down our understanding of a 404 error page.

What is a 404 error?

This error happens when someone clicks on or types in a link that doesn’t exist on your website.

Like most of us know, this error occurs for one of the following reasons –

  • your visitor clicked on a broken link from somewhere.
  • your visitor mistyped a URL
  • the page your visitor was looking for has been deleted or was moved to a new location (without proper redirects).

What should the 404 error page look like?

Now, there are many opinions about this one.

Humor in the 404 Error Page:
One school of thought highly recommends humor. But then, there is good humor and there is annoying humor. Cute humor like that used by say lego works with the image they use for their 404 error page.

Lego Error Page

But, humor like this video of a bleating goat on the error page is plain annoying, even if the idea is novel. Even so, let’s say this kind of humor works for some. However, I just don’t see how insulting a visitor could help anyone, even if it is South Park.

South Park Error Page

But hey, if that’s what the theme of your site is and you think it is palatable to your visitors at the risk of offending the odd one out, go for it!

Error with X-factor:
Another school of thought, does it in style, “So what?” if it’s a mistake. They wear it on their sleeve. You have cool animation and things for visitors to do, so that they don’t leave the site. The mission of keeping your visitor on your site – accomplished.

A couple of examples are this movie website that has its error page designed with a railway station where a train comes in and leaves – complete with sound and all. And there is Blue Fountain Media, a web design company which leaves you to play a game of pacman. Cute!

Missed message:
As cute as all of that is, I think this “coolness” misses the point. For example, Hot Dot, another web design company has a huge 404 in the middle of its page which is made up of dots. The dots move when you move your cursor and they spread out artistically, poetically even, when you click on the 404. Very cool. But, what is the point?

  • Does your visitor know what 404 means?
  • The visitor landed here by mistake, how does he even know that he’s supposed to click on the dots? Or for that matter, even want to play pacman or wait for a train to come and leave a station?
  • What is the visitor supposed to do from here on? My bet is he will leave the page sooner than it takes your page to download.

No message at all:
And yet, the worst of them all is an error page with a quick one-liner saying, “The page was not found” with no instructions on what to do next. Or no error page at all, where it is left to the browser to tells your site’s visitor that your site was broken.

404 Browser error

Marginally worse, is a redirect to some other page. That is just not done. If you were looking for something, and you can’t find it, how frustrating is it if you are taken back to the home page/or a page you are not interested in, again and again?

Solution – Function over Form, First:
An ideal 404 page would straight up, own the error. Whether to apologise for something that might not be your fault is completely up to you and the personality of your website. But, the error page should quickly get to what the visitor can do next. Sample text (appropriately linked, of course) could read as follows –

You were looking for a page, which for some or the other reason, we don’t have. Here’s what you can do –

  • Guessing from what you were looking for, maybe this is where you might find it – [link to related pages, like this plugin does.]
  • Lookup the keywords in the site’s search box. [Alternately and ideally, have the search box, right here.]
  • Start at the very beginning, go back to the home page.
  • Scan through our site map at the end/side of this page to see if you can find what you are looking for. [Alternately and ideally put up a site map here.]
  • You just might want to check for a spelling mistake in the URL.

 

If you still cannot find what you were looking for, please drop us an e-mail telling us more about the problem you encountered.

 

Yes, of course, the plain text sounds dull and dry. But, it is better than leaving the visitor high and dry. The last thing you want your visitor to think is that they have reached the end of your site. ebay does a pretty good job of sticking to the basics.

In addition to this then, if you can add in humor and/or x-factor without distracting, it is a cherry on the top, like Hard Rock cafe does it here.

But, not before thinking about it hard. Is the joke worth alienating your reader? Is the technical wizardry worth not leading the reader to where he wants to be?

Whatever it takes to make the reader stay. In an error page, I believe it is information and direction that should take importance. After all, you have the rest of your site to show your wit and technical oomph.

Your 404 error page is a maintenance page, a necessary overhead, and it needs to be treated as such.

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