Monday, August 18, 2008

Making website error pages helpful - 404 no more

If you've ever mistyped the name of a webpage, or used a hyperlink to visit a page that has been removed, you've probably seen a website's 404 - page not found 'error' page.

This code is meant to communicate that the web server hosting the website could not find the page you requested.

The default 404 error page for websites, as illustrated below, is generally not very helpful for users.

The default is largely a dead-end page, without clear pathways to the site's homepage, top content, search, sitemap or other navigational aids.

There are no mechanism to provide feedback, alerting the website's owner of the issue, and uses codes and terminology which many internet users would not understand.

If your website error page looks like this, you may want to consider creating a custom error page - one that provides a more effective message, and navigation options to your audience.

My personal preference is to remove all mention of '404' or 'error' - the numerical code can alienate non-technical users, and is largely meaningless to them anyway.

Calling the page an 'error' could be construed as it being the user's fault that they reached this page. This is neither relevant nor helpful. The goal is to get the user to the content they need, not to tell them that they are at fault.

Many government agencies have already made these types of changes to their 404 error pages. Below are several examples of them in action.
  • A very helpful page is the ATO site error page, which provides ample navigation to the top sections in the site, plus routes back to the homepage and to leave feedback.
  • Another example is the Australia.gov.au error page, which directs the user to the homepage, sitemap and FAQ page, plus provides quicklinks to three of the top current government campaigns.
  • Centrelink's error page is also helpful, with links to their homepage, search and A-Z list, plus a way to provide feedback on the site.
  • The CSA website error page (which my team manages), is a simple, but communicative page. We've renamed it from being an error, to simply reporting that the page could not be found, and provide some avenues to get to the correct content via search and sitemap.

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