I was talking recently to a friend of mine who is a bit of a web guru. Now I thought that I knew quite a bit about web design and usage, but maybe I'm not as smart as I thought.
We were talking about error pages and he told me something that I had never heard before. “Of course you can customize your error pages”.
I was amazed. He nearly fell off his chair laughing at me when I said that I always thought those 404 error pages came from some central internet point beyond my reach and that they all looked exactly the same.
When he had calmed down a little, he patiently explained that an there are scores of error codes covering many different situations. They are all three digits, such as 500 – Server Error, 408 – Request Timeout and of course the familiar 404 – Not found, which most of us see fairly regularly.
He went on to say that 404 errors are sometimes caused by users incorrectly typing in a page name, but quite often it can be just a communication glitch between one end and the other and if you hit refresh, you’ll usually get right back on track.
Despite what I thought, the content of error pages does not come from some omnipotent global hub, some kind of web-central, but are in fact pages held on the server of your web host. When an error condition is picked up, the host simply serves up the error page.
Now that means that you can replace their standard error pages with something of your own and simply tell the host to serve that instead. All of which got me to thinking.
What if instead of infuriating my users with a bland standard page of techno-babble, I gave them something to make them smile and help them get back on track. My friend explained that we simply needed to create two files and upload them to my site.
The first one is the replacement error page itself. I decided we should give it the same look and feel as the rest of my site, so we added the banner at the top and some of the navigation links. Then I entered a cheery message saying “Oops, sorry – something’s gone wrong. It happens sometimes, but don’t worry, it’s not serious. Click here and we’ll have you back on track in no time” Then at the bottom is a simple link to take people back to my homepage.
If you have a particularly complex site with thousands of pages, then you might want to lead people to a sitemap first or give them some category links so they could start to figure out at least which section they want to get to.
The second file is one called .htaccess. This is a little text file, which contains a few lines of code telling your web-host which errors to pick up and which page to show in which event. Simple. Well simple for my friend anyway, but he assures me that anyone halfway competent can do it. In fact he says that your web-host will probably have full instructions on their help pages.
So what’s the point of doing this? Well firstly we’re all impatient with the web and as soon as anything goes wrong we want to jump off somewhere else. You don’t want to lose your potential customers that way, so this is a chance to hang on to them, just when they’re about to disappear.
Secondly, as any good web marketer knows, any chance that you have to make a positive impression is worth grabbing. We spend hours agonizing over the wording of our autoresponder e-mails in order to ensure that we build a solid relationship with our prospects, so why can’t we also get a little bit of our friendly personality across on an error page too.
So take a closer look at your error pages and learn to make them lovable.
By Andrew Grant
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Labels: 404 error pages, 408 – Request Timeout, 500 – Server Error, sitemap, Web Design, web guru