Custom Made Error Pages

About The 404, Page Not Found, Error Message.

What happened last time you clicked on a link and got a white page with "The page cannot be displayed" on it? Did you read it or did you, like most of us, instantly press the back button on your browser?

Were you aware the page you saw was a "404, page not found" error page? How much do you know about 404 errors? How much do you care?

Perhaps you think, like most people, a 404, page not found error message means the page does not exist because it has been removed or never existed in the first place. You may think none of your web site pages will ever return this message. That is not true. The 404 message simply means the page cannot be found at that moment. There are many reasons why the page might have gone missing and most of them will apply to your site at some point in its life.

The following is not an exhaustive list but vistors to your site will get a 404 error message if any of the things listed below happen:

  • Your visitor makes the slightest mistake typing your url
  • Your visitor clicks a link on a site that is having problems
  • Your visitor clicks on a link that has been spelt wrong
  • A page has been renamed
  • A page has been moved
  • A page has been deleted
  • The search engine robot has not been able to find your "robots.txt" file
  • The search engine robot is trying to verify inaccurate page listings on another site
  • The search engine robot can't find your "favicon.ico" file
  • The search engine robot can't find your "w3c/p3p.xml" file

Those last two files are your windows Favorites Icon and your P3P Privacy policy files. Robots search for them every time they visit your site and generate 404 errors every time they can't find them. This happens a lot and it is the reason why you are advised to refresh the page when you get a 404 message. How often do YOU press refresh?

According to a poll at the 404 Research Lab almost 37 percent of the people who get a 404 error page instantly hit the back button on their browser and forget about the page they just tried to reach. Only 23 percent said they make another attempt to find the missing page or notify the webmaster about the problem. The other 40 percent said they "weep uncontrollably" but there is a good chance they actually hit the back button (after they dry their tears) and forget about it too. That makes a grand total of almost 77 percent of people who will hit the back button on their browser and forget about you if they try to reach your site and get a 404 message.

"Eek", you say, "how can I stop them pushing the button and leaving my site, maybe forever? How can I turn them back into potential customers?"

I'm glad you asked me that.

Your best chance of keeping this pool of potential customers is with a customised 404 page.

What is a customised 404 page did I hear you say?

Good question. A customised 404 page can be anything you want it to be. Some people have created custom 404 pages that are a work of art and attract their own traffic to the site but most custom 404 pages present the visitor with a friendly face and options to encourage them to stick around.

A customised error 404 page will cost you nothing and will need no maintenance but it will give you a chance to keep potential customers on your site ready to buy from you rather than your competitors.

Your custom error 404 page can tell the visitor where they are, why they might be there and where they can go to find what they are looking for. At bywild website design we make your custom 404 error page look like just another page on your site so most visitors won't even notice an error was generated.

We use the same design, links and navigation contained on your home page so the visitor will have links to the home page or other important areas as well as the standard navigation system.

Some other things that can be added to a customised 404 page include:

  • Text links to important areas of your website
  • Text links to new or recent web site content
  • A link that allows the visitor to email you about the problem
  • A form that allows the the visitor to submit a form with broken links
  • A search box so visitors can search the site to find what they came for

You can even include a list of links that are similar to what they typed in to bring them to the error page. This is the most difficult thing to add but it gives you the option to guess what the visitor wants and offer a link to it.

Now that we have covered why a customised 404 page is a good idea and offered you some ideas about what to include on it you may like to know how to make one.

An important thing to note is a customised error 404 document can be served in any directory so this means you should always use full, explicit, file names for any links, images, etc.

If your server runs the Apache web server you just need to add the line:

  • ErrorDocument 404 /custom404.html
  • to your .htaccess file in the root of your website. Create that file if it doesn't exist.

Internet Explorer & 404 Errors

To force Internet Explorer to use the customised 404 page you will need to make sure that your .htaccess file refers to a page on your site that is at least as big as 512 bytes. You can add comments to increase the size of the page if it is smaller than that.

To overcome 404 errors caused by search engine robots seeking your robots.txt file or trying to verify pages listed on an external site you can create real, or dummy, files with the following names:

  • /favicon.ico
  • /w3c/p3p.xml

How do I find 404 page errors and What Do the Error Codes Mean?

There is a technical code generated every time a request is made to a web server. If the request was successful the status code 200 will be generated. Codes in the 200 and 300 range are generally successful requests that resulted in a file being returned. 400 errors, by contrast, generally mean the request was incorrect in some way. As we have seen, 404 means the page was not able to be found, 410 means the page no longer exists.

The only way to find out how many 404's your own site generates is if you have access to your server logs or a good statistics package. If you get 20 visitors a day and only 1% of them get a 404 error that's 2 people per day, 14 people per week, 56 people per month you could be losing so check your web server logs if you can. The logfiles will usually include the page the visitor came from to get a 404 error on your site. If the problem is on your web site you should fix it. If the problem is on the referring web site you can email the webmaster of the site so they can fix the link.

Sample 404 error pages:

For those times when the page you seek seems to have simply gone forever, however, there is one last thing you can try. Services such as Alexa Internet, UC Berkeley's Digital Library Project and the Online Computer Library Center are starting to offer access to the archived, or cached, versions of Web pages that have been taken off the Web. If you get a "404, Page Not Found" error, you may still be able to find the cached page version at one of these sites.

A site named the Internet Archive even has a search facility whimsically named the "WayBack Machine". You can try typing the url of the page you are looking for into Wayback Machine and see if you can find it that way.

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Email: tony@bywild.com


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