Top Blogs Failing at Error Pages

404 Dead End - found at: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/507614Epiblogger is still pretty new and in the rush to open the doors we did not take a lot of time to dust the cobwebs off of all the corners around the place. One of the cobwebs that I wanted to get around to sprucing up is the Epiblogger 404 error page. Many WordPress themes come with a 404 Template included in the theme, but often they are nothing special. As you can see the Epiblogger one does not give you much information.
Epiblogger 404 Page before image

I know what I like in a good 404 error page. I like to let users know that what they were looking for is no longer there and help them to find either what they came looking for in the first place or something even better. That usually means giving them some options to search the site, links to places where they might find what they are looking for and sometimes links to the most popular posts.

I thought I would go looking for some inspiration before I worked on the 404 error page here at Epiblogger so I checked out what the Technorati Most Popular blogs use for 404 error pages. I also checked a few other blogs that I thought might be interesting. I was looking for 404 error pages that helped readers to continue to browse the blog and were friendly. I thought I would find some creative uses of 404 error pages on the top blogs. I started to grade them as I went along. What I discovered surprised me.

Default Web Server 404 Error Page

boingboing 404 error page
These blogs returned nothing but the default web server error page. Not a lot of information is given in the web server default error page. It certainly does not give a user that has lost their way much to go on to find what they were looking for. There is not even a friendly link to the blogs home page. For this reason alone I gave all of these blogs a grade of F.

  • Boing Boing
  • Ars Technica
    Is actually less than a typical web server 404 page. Simply returns “The requested file was not found”.
  • Daily Kos
  • Perez Hilton
  • Seth Godin
    I really enjoy reading Seth Godin’s blog. I am surprised that the 404 error page is the default web server one. Is this not a missed marketing opportunity?
  • ReadWriteWeb
    Returns nothing but a blank page. No error code, no text, nothing. Better not get lost over here. If it was possible to give a lower grade than F they would have gotten it.
  • Kotaku, the Gamer?s Guide
  • Talking Points Memo
  • Drudge Report
  • O’Reilly Radar
    I expected more from O’Reilly. They write some of the best books on web technologies out there (I have several myself) but their 404 page is the default Apache? Sad but true.
  • How to Change the World
    Guy Kawasaki’s blog is one that everyone needs to spend some time reading. Just don’t look at the 404 error page.
  • Wired Blogs
    These aren’t the blogs you’re looking for. You can’t go about your business. Move along to a boring Apache 404 error page.

Prettied Up Web Server 404 Error Page

gizmodo.gif
These blogs returned a custom or modified 404 error page, but they are close to the default web server error page. They also do not offer a lost user much to go on to help them find what they are looking for. Because they offer little to no help to the lost user they also get a grade of F.

Default Blogging Platform 404 Error Page

Techcrunch 404 error page
These pages return pretty much exactly what Epiblogger returns. Just a note saying the page is not there. Some had a search box, but considering most templates have a search box included in them they offer nothing more to help lost readers find something of interest.

  • TechCrunch
    Standard WordPress 404 page. No better than Epibloggers, except full of ads.
    Grade D-
  • The Official Google Blog
    Default Blogger page not found error page. I suppose you can’t do much when you are on Blogger. You take what they give you.
    Grade D-
  • Crooks and Liars
    Very basic. The blog template and error code.
    Grade D-
  • Mashable.com
    Just offers a search box in the sites template. Their sidebar is really long, and a search box does not take a lot of room on a page so, the sidebar runs over the footer and makes the whole page look like a mess. Time to fix it up Mashable.
    Grade D-
  • uthink
    It looks pretty but does not offer much to help you find anything.
    Grade D
  • Search Engine Land!
    Gives you a search box, but the rest is just your basic 404 page.
    Grade D
  • dooce
    Offers a nice Google ad but the rest is the blog template.
    Grade D-
  • Matt Cutts: Gadgets, Google, and SEO
    Has a search box and that is about it. For some reason I thought the famous Google software engineer would have something more.
    Grade D
  • John Chow
    Other than his template advertising the 404 error page is surprisingly bare. Just a little blurb about the file not being found. I am surprised he does not have a specialized ad rate just for his 404 page.
    Grade D
  • Lorelle on WordPress
    I really thought Lorelle would have more than just a search box. Her WordPress blog usually offers so much. I thought the 404 error page would as well.
    Grade D

Links to Categories/Other Pages

Huffington Post 404 error page
These blogs make it easier for lost readers to find what they are looking for. Most offer not just a search box, but also links to the home page, archives, categories or popular posts. They give readers a place to go instead of a dead end while still letting people know that there has been an error.

  • The Huffington Post
    Offers a nice search box and links to the different sections of the site.
    Grade C
  • icanhascheezburger.com
    I thought they would at least have a funny picture of a cat, but it is pretty boring.
    Grade C
  • Problogger
    Offers a search box, a way to contact him and links to the most popular posts.
    Grade C
  • Smashing Magazine
    Not only offers links to the home page but they include one of their posts talking about 404 error pages. Lots of great information. Probably the most informative 404 error page I have ever seen.
    Grade A
  • TreeHugger
    Offers a search and links to the home page and recent posts. Informative and useful.
    Grade C
  • Dosh Dosh
    Offers a Google search and links to the most popular posts.
    Grade C
  • Copyblogger
    Offers a link to the home page and some hints at how to find what you are looking for. This was close to being placed in the default blogging platform 404 error page section. To be honest I expected more from Copyblogger.
    Grade C-
  • ShoeMoney
    Lets you know something went wrong and offers excepts of the latest posts. It was surprisingly simple but effective.
    Grade C+
  • GigaOM
    Links to categories and author pages.
    Grade C
  • A List Apart
    I had high expectations for A List Apart. They offer links to the home page articles and the about page. The page is the best written 404 page I think I have seen.
    Grade B+
  • Neatorama
    Offers links to the most popular posts, but uses images. Some are pretty funny. My favorite was the Top 10 Coolest BBQ Grills image. How I wish I could BBQ…but I digress.
    Grade A-
  • Lifehack.org
    Offers you a list of the archives, popular posts and a search box.
    Grade C
  • 43 Folders
    Offers similar options as other blogs. A search box, most searched for pages and popular posts. The popular posts section is divided up between popular now and most popular.
    Grade C+

Redirects to Home Page

These blogs redirected the 404 errors right back to the home page. You would not even know if you had made a mistake or not. I had to watch the headers using Firebug. Often I would not even get a 404 error, but a 301 or 302 redirect. While I can understand why you would want to redirect people to the home page on a 404 error I think the server should at least return a 404 error code to the browser. For this reason I gave these blogs a grade of F.

Conclusion

Overall I looked at just under 50 blogs and their 404 error pages. What did I learn? That the state of 404 error pages on blogs is atrocious! I count 25 top blogs that I consider failing at helping users that find their site by broken links to be able to easily find something useful and interesting on the blog.

I was also surprised at how many of the top blogs listed by Technorati have 404 error pages that are the default. It is so easy in the majority of blogging platforms to create a custom 404 error page that there is no excuse not to do it. If I was not writing this post I would have had the 404 error page here at Epiblogger done in under 30 minutes, and that is if I ran into a problem.

The only blog that I thought made a great use of their 404 error page was Smashing Magazine. They not only gave readers helpful hints on how to find the information they are looking for they also delivered a complete post on 404 error pages. Congratulations you did something creative and useful for people that could have just ended up at a dead end.

I have to give the top blogs a horrible grade of D- for their error pages. Considering how well these blogs produce quality content they certainly did not take the time to look at their error page and how they could use it to help visitors find what they wanted and possibly even become regular readers of their blogs.

Epiblogger 404 error page afterWhat did I decide to do with the Epiblogger 404 error page? Well I added a link to the home page, a search form and our archives. I also added something fun lower down on the page. Many of the 404 error pages are all just dead serious, but there is no reason why you can’t have a little fun with your 404 error page. If I was to grade our 404 error page, well we went from a D- up to a C+. We offer readers options to find the information that they are looking for, but there are no links to our most popular posts or excepts from the most recent posts.

A welcoming 404 error page can be helpful to encourage a lost reader to become a regular reader. Take a few moments to take a look at your 404 error page on your blog and see how you can improve it to help readers find the information they are looking for. What unique features would you add to your 404 error page?

5 Responses to Top Blogs Failing at Error Pages

  1. A strong, customized 404 page should help visitors find their way to whatever they were seeking. I couldn’t agree more! I wouldn’t call it a top priority, but definitely high up on the blogger development to do list!

  2. Thanks Lee, you have reminded me to take a look at mine! I have just got my new website together and this should be of a much higher priority than I have obviously placed it at the moment. The first Ilearnt about the skill of creating a usable 404 page was from reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s book, designing with web standards which uses a very common sense method detailing much of what you have discussed here. The worst thing is to have a ‘robot’ of a page screaming at you that YOU the USER has gone wrong. It should be kept friendly, human and infromative. I will be planning mine this weekend, thanks again!

    Kev

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