Writing Useful Error Pages

You and I know what 404 means — page not found — but to your average Internet user it could be the number for your favourite dish on the local Chinese takeaway menu. 404, and its friends 403 and 500 are the three most common error pages that you’re likely to come across while browsing. Despite your best efforts, perhaps, this is likely to occur on your website and more often than you think. So why risk confusing your visitor? Let’s make those error pages more useful…

  • Ditch unnecessary page elements
    Error pages shouldn’t have your full layout/navigation system on them. It simply adds clutter and confusion. Make sure, though, that you link to your home page so that users can start again if necessary.
  • Make it clear in plain English what’s wrong
    You can keep the number 404/403/500 in there somewhere for uber geek friends, but “page not found”/”server currently unavailable” (or something similar) needs to be big, bold and obvious.
  • Accept responsibility and try to fix it
    There’s nothing more annoying than coming across an error page when you’re looking for something important. Don’t make out that it’s the fault of the visitor (even if sometimes it is) simply accept that the problem is yours and offer ways out: a site map, a search box, a list of recent/most popular articles and if all else fails, a quick way to get in touch so that if they’re really lost you can show them the way.
  • Don’t rely on the visitor to notify you
    Keep on track of your error pages so that you can pre-empt complaints and fix problems as they happen by regularly checking your logs or setting up error pages to auto-notify you when they’re loaded (include the referrer in case it’s a broken link on your site causing problems). Your visitors are not responsible for your site maintenance.

If you have the time and inclination, you might also like to pop a little image or joke on your error page just to lighten the mood. However you decide to play it, just don’t rely on the default error pages: they’re confusing, boring and not in the slightest bit helpful!

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