How to handle your errors well

November 20, 2007

Pingdom is a great little service which tests your website for uptime that I use on a number of sites and services. I was lucky enough to get a free account having beta tested it.

Anyway, they often have some quite good insight on their blog. The latest post is one that’s really close to my heart, it’s all about one of the most viewed pages on the web, the good old 404 error page.

In the post ‘23 percent of the top US websites have bad 404 pages‘ they discuss what a difference a well thought out and constructed 404 page can have on your websites usage.

404 pages are an inevitable problem for everyone. They can come about in a number of ways such as badly configured links, badly named files and links from search engines which point to old pages.

Of course, you can put some decent error handling in place if you want to to capture all 404 responses and redirect to the new version of a page or the best match for the page request. However there will always be occasions when you can’t avoid a 404 and can’t do anything to guess where to send the user so you need this generic page to present to users.

The biggest culprits are those which don’t have custom error pages at all and purely present the standard browser error page.

The next worst are those with unintelligible error messages and no links to any useful sections of their websites.

The way to do this properly is to make it light hearted and useful. Admit the error, don’t make the user think they’ve messed up. Offer a way out, provide useful links to the main starting points of your website, don’t make it a dead end. And most of all, make it a valuable page, if you’re selling something make sure users who find the 404 page know what you do, it can even be an opportunity to promote your products.

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