404 Processing part 1

One of the things you need to plan for when making a website is how you handle 404 errors. 404 stands for Page not found. In this post I will deal with the user side of things, in a next post I focus on the technical implementation, where we see that 404 processing can be a useful tool.

First a little bit of definition. A 404 error is a response code send back to the browser indicating that the web server could not locate a suitable resource belonging to the URL. When sending the 404 error to the browser you have the option of sending HTML content along. To inform the user the page the person requested is not there and offering the user navigational options. Most site use this feature, LinkedIn, Yahoo, CNN and Google as examples.

Look closely at these examples: you can spot noticeable differences. Yahoo, LinkedIn and Google make it completely obvious something went wrong, without blaming you. With CNN you need a closer look to read what has happened. Yahoo and LinkedIn offer some suggestions as where to go next, Google offers none and CNN offers you their full navigation. Your choice is a matter of the domain and of preference. Also note the processing of the error on the CNN site is slow.

404 errors can come from many sources including:

  • manual URL typing errors
  • Internal links that are wrong or outdated
  • External links that are wrong or outdated (bookmarks, links, search engines)

If you manage website that has been around for a while it is not uncommon to see requests coming in for URL’s that are years old. Active monitoring of 404 errors is a must for any web site owner. Your visitors are looking for something on your site and it is your job to help them find it. To manage your broken content, create a regular report of the top 100 URL’s, measured by number of requests, that generate a 404 error. For each URL on this list either create a resource for the URL (for example fix a missing image), generate a mapping (telling the browser for a corresponding document at a different URL) or stick with the status quo. Sometimes you just want people to forget about the old URL’s, best way is to continue to report a 404 Page not found.

For more information see the 404 research lab.

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One Response to “404 Processing part 1”

  1. 404 Processing part 2 « Arnoud on Software Development Says:

    […] Arnoud on Software Development About Software Development and Online Media « 404 Processing part 1 […]

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