Do your website’s visitors see the dreaded “404 not found” page if something on your site is broken? They should, but it’s not usually very useful — unless you choose to help your visitors. [First published September 2006. Some details may be a bit dated.]
Calling on Qwerty
If we want to deliberately break a website (to see what happens) we can call on Qwerty. Visit the front page of your website and click in the Address Bar, after the URL. Now add the letters “
Qwerty” on to the end of the Address and press the Return or Enter key to try to visit that address. Unless your website happens to have a file or folder called “
Qwerty” you’ll be looking for something that doesn’t exist; your web server should send you to your ‘
404‘ page. That’s the page that’s supposed to come up when the web server can’t find what the visitor’s looking for.
404 Not Found
If your visitors follow a broken link they’ll probably see a blank page containing an unfriendly notice like this:
The requested URL /Qwerty was not found on this server.
Darn! Now what? Your visitor had followed a link, searched for something or typed an incorrect address. Clearly they were trying to use your website but you’ve just slammed the door in their face and left them out in the cold. They have no options left but to go away and forget you ever existed.
Give the visitor a key
Call up the 404 Not Found page on your site and see if it slams the door or provides a key. Ask your web designer to edit the 404 page to be more friendly. Here are some suggestions:
- use more friendly language: “Oops, we couldn’t help you with that request”, or “Sorry, but we seem to have lost that page”.
- give the visitor some links and suggestions: “You can visit the Home Page, Search for the page, or maybe you’d like to see the Site Map.” Home Page and Site Map should be links, while you could include a search form right on the 404 page.
- integrate the 404 page into your site so it includes all your usual links, headers, footer and so on, and reflects the usual design. It can be confusing to the visitor though, if it appears exactly like a normal page, so make it sufficiently different to stand out.
- tell them what they were looking for, so they can try to make sense of the problem: “You were trying to reach the page http://example.com/Qwerty”.
- invite them to report the broken link.
- make sure to include a form or email address so they can contact you.
Watch your logs
If you have access to logs for your website keep an eye on how many times the 404 page is called up. See if the Error logs provide any helpful information, such as the address that was requested, or where the visitor came from.
Checking the logs can help you deal with these pesky errors. You may find a file is missing, a link from another website is outdated, or even that your visitors expect to find something at a particular address, but you don’t have any pages there.
Communicate with your web designer
Qwerty test on your own website. If you find you’re shut out, in the cold, have a chat to your web designer and ask them to implement some of the suggestions above. Ask them how to check your server logs. If you can’t get server logs ask them to find out what would be involved in tracking some statistics, using a service like Google Analytics.
Avoid it happening
Choose good names for files or directories — all lower case, shortish (but not abbreviated) and descriptive — then don’t rename them. Renaming would mean anyone who has linked or bookmarked that file would get 404s; this includes Search Engines.
Stop it happening
Check your site for broken links and fix them. If you use a tool with a built in link checker, use it before you publish, and after making changes. Or use a free tool like Xenu’s Link Sleuth — [recommended to me as] an excellent checker for broken links both within your site and to other sites.
Written for and reproduced from CommunityNet Aotearoa Panui, September 2006. This article may have been modified from the original.