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Ever since the first time I presented an Internet strategies seminar for radio stations, back in 2000, I’ve marveled at how few companies seize the opportunity to convert a potentially annoying Web visitor experience into a positive one. An enjoyable one, even.

What happens if someone mistypes what they think is a link to your website? Or, worse, when they click on a link on your site, and the link is broken? (That means, by the way, that it’s the fault of your website, not of your Web visitor.)

The odds are overwhelming that they receive a typical, soulless, “why should we care?” 404 Error Message.

I picked a radio station website at random and deliberately searched for a non-existent page. (I added “/uj” to the home page URL.) Sure enough, here’s where that led me:

I suspect most people think that error message is just somehow “part of the Internet.” In reality, it’s an element of that station’s website. When someone navigates toward a non-existent link on your site, you can present them with any message.

Why Did I Suddenly Think Of This Again?

Last week I was in Germany, and I tried to access my Gmail account. Oops! No Gmail in Germany. But look at Goggle’s error message:

We can’t provide service under the Gmail name in Germany; we’re called Google Mail here instead.

If you’re traveling in Germany, you can access your mail at http://mail.google.com.

Oh, and we’d like to link the URL above, but we’re not allowed to do that either. Bummer.

For general information about Google, please visit www.google.com or www.google.de

How cool is that?

They explain the problem.

They give you the solution.

They apologize for not being able to offer you a direct link.

And huge, monolothic, all-powerful Google adds, “Bummer.”

Meanwhile, what does your 404 error message say?

For the record, if you click on this non-existent link, you’ll see the error message people receive on my website.]

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  • Drake Donovan April 23, 2009, 9:51 am

    Because your 404 message is aloof and malevovlent!

  • henry April 25, 2009, 12:53 am

    hey dan!

    talk about irony. at the bottom of your blog … just below the calendar banner … reads this:

    HTTP ERROR: 504

    Gateway Timeout



  • Dan O’Day April 25, 2009, 1:09 am

    Henry: Sorry, but that’s a 504 Error message,and it’s generated by your server. It means it took so long for your server to make the connection that it gave up.

  • Olly May 11, 2009, 2:24 pm

    Better still, why not turn your 404 errors into a search query?

    Ages ago I was a BBC brainstorming session when someone proposed “bbc.co.uk slash anything”. The idea was you could put anything after forward slash and if there wasn’t a dedicated page it’d just return search results.

    It’s a simple idea, that’s pretty easy to implement, and I’ve increasingly seen sites do it. It still generates a 404 header, so Google knows it’s not a real page.

    Sadly the BBC is not, yet, doing it.