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Actually, Include the 404

 |  Interwebs, Work

While doing some random surfing, in between mocking up a potential new disaster (layout) in Photoshop, and whilst avoiding the washing up/ignoring the oven (oh shit my flat is on fire) I found a post at codinghorror.com about Creating User Friendly 404s.

The post is not terribly old and does include some relevant and interesting information, however, the first piece of advice is “drop the 404”. This is supposedly because non-savvy Internet users don’t have a clue what the number means and therefore will be baffled by its usage. I agree — users that don’t spend 16 hours a day at their computer won’t have a clue about it — but that doesn’t mean that we should leave it out altogether in favour of a long and probably boring message about what steps I can take to avoid doing this again.

As a developer, leaving the number 404 on the page is helpful for two reasons.

Firstly, when a client or colleague says to me “I’m getting an error and I don’t know what to do”, I can easily get them to tell me information that means something to me. People notoriously ignore what’s right in front of them, so asking someone to quickly look for a number is likely to prove more fruitful than explaining to them that they must read 12 paragraphs explaining the concept of a Page Not Found error.

Secondly, I do not need my ass wiping for me. I know what a 404 error is, I do not need to be coaxed into searching archives, browsing your top 5 recent posts or how to Google for a more relevant page. Instead of giving me these instructions, simply slipping in 404 (in the title perhaps) means I can immediately pick it up and be on my merry way.

Of course, the better solution is to not delete the pages or to set up redirects so that users don’t happen upon 404s in the first place.

I’m not sure if this was supposed to be advice or a rant, but it sure felt good to write about it. Excuse me now while I enquire about purchasing one “life”. I hear they’re going cheap these days.

Jem Turner jem@jemjabella.co.uk +44(0)7521056376

18 comments so far

  1. Grant said:

    I have droped it and usually create a page saying something slightly amusing like you have gone and done it now, broke the internet. Other geeks find it funny buy some people are like OH SHIT! ROFL Great article thou Jem!

  2. Casey said:

    OK, you could just do what Neopets does and say like: 404 Error: This page cannot be found *USERNAME*. It may have been deleted. I always liked that, it states the Error in a user friendly way and the normal way.

  3. Amanda said:

    Even if you don’t spend 16 hours on the Internet daily, you’d still know what 404 meant…I got the Internet at age 14 and learnt the basics within a week even though I was only on for what, half an hour a day?

  4. Dee said:

    I agree that dropping the ‘404’ is a bad idea. The first thing I ask people at work when they ring up with proxy errors is what the number is; it’s not really -for- users, it’s for admins attempting to debug the problem. Agree with the ‘send automatic notification’ thing, though; my error pages do this. It was actually quite eye-opening for the first week or so after I put it in just to see where people were getting ‘lost’ on my site. Now I’ve got a whole host of 410s and 301s in my .htaccess file to clean up old requests.

  5. Bobbi-lee said:

    I agree with you there 100%, because when I read articles that say list this and that, do this blah, 2 paragraphs long I am likely to forgot what I wanted in the first place, or have just pressed back.. Also agree with you on the client side too, as one client of mine kept calling me to say her website was broken, I asked her what does the page say and shes like uhh 404 page not found. So I knew to fix it right away.

  6. Sarah said:

    I like seeing the ‘404’ in there, too. There’s no reason why you can’t cater to all kinds of visitors, the geeky and non-geeky alike, by having ‘404’ included in the title along with useful things like the site index, a search form, and other information relevant to the URL the user went to.

  7. Lene said:

    Great article, you just inspired me to write page for my own website. I’ve been avoiding to do it out of my incredible laziness. It’ll be something simple but I will have your tips in mind.

  8. Vera said:

    I’m too lazy for that. My domain is set up for automatic redirection to the index page, should someone looks for a nonexistent page. If I did get off my lazy backside to compose a friendly and professional apology message (with a dash of humor obviously) for the 404 page, I would have to do the same for the 403 and 401 and… the rest of the pages. This way it’s easier: none of my visitors get to an error page (unless I ban their IP).

  9. Annie said:

    Your flat is on fire, yet you’re looking to buy a life? :P. Even the average users will know what “404” means but I do agree that the pages should be more helpful.

  10. Hayley said:

    Why get a life when you’re obviously trying to lead three already?* I actually get annoyed with custom 404 pages, especially when people have deleted pages etc. and not created redirects. For some, slightly illogical reason, a default 404 page actually implies to me that this person had no intent of you ever seeing their 404 and is deeply sorry about it. Weird, I know. *Words of wisdom paraphrased from Mr. Pratchett, of course.

  11. Jordan said:

    I think one thing to always consider is to periodically check error logs. That way you can see what pages are being error’d out to viewers, and attempt to assess the issue a little better. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile, because I know I have a few sites were people are linking files that have since been renamed, and I forgot to redirect. That way I can keep their attention, hopefully! :P

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