USING OR AVOIDING ERROR PAGES
by: Cary Christian
It's happened to everyone. You
click on a link or type in a URL and get the following message or some
variation of it:
"HTTP Error 404
404 Not Found
The Web server cannot find the file or script you asked for. Please check
the URL to ensure that the path is correct.
Please contact the server's administrator if this problem persists."
Chances are good that you will give up trying to find the page after
receiving this message. You will probably assume the page no longer exists
or has been moved and that you will not be able to find it. You could type
in variations of the URL or just go to the domain name portion of the URL to
search for the page, but more often than not you'll move on to another site
and won't think much about it.
But what if it's your site people are looking for when they receive this
message? You don't want them to move on! It's a very simple process to help
them find what they're looking for without leaving your site. Here's how to
CREATE A CUSTOM ERROR PAGE
First of all, you want to get rid of that ugly standard error page. Create a
custom error page that explains the URL your visitor was searching for has
moved, been renamed, or no longer exists. Then give them some options. Place
a site search form on the page so they can search for the information they
were looking for. Put a site map on the page so they can browse the
information you provide on your site. Place your normal navigation buttons
on this page. Make the page attractive and inviting. Make the visitor want
to stay for awhile. Give the visitor options to keep them on your site.
REPLACING THE STANDARD ERROR PAGE
You will need to locate or create a file named ".htaccess" on your web
server. If it exists, you are going to open it in a text editor and edit the
contents. If it does not exist, you are going to create it and upload it to
your web server.
Let's say you named your new custom error page as follows:
Find the .htaccess file, open it and type the following in the first line of
ErrorDocument 404 http://www.yourdomain.com/oops.htm
If you do not find the .htaccess file, simply type the above into a blank
text file, save it as .htaccess and upload it to your server. Make sure the
file name is .htaccess, not .htaccess.txt or something similar. Some text
editors place the .txt at the end of the name automatically. If yours does,
simply rename the file after you've saved it.
Once you upload the .htaccess file and your new custom error page to your
website, your new page will display anytime someone clicks on a link to a
page on your site that no longer exists.
If you do not maintain your own site, explain to your web designer what you
want to do and they will be able to do it for you easily.
If you are on a Windows hosting plan using Internet Information Server (IIS)
on the Web server, you'll have to email the URL for your custom 404 page to
your hosting company and ask them to edit the properties of your site to use
that page as your 404 error message. This is because you generally will not
have access to IIS where these changes are made using a GUI interface rather
than in the .htaccess file.
In fact, if you are uncomfortable editing the .htaccess file for any reason,
just create your custom error page and contact your hosting company to let
them make the .htaccess changes for you. They should be happy to do so.
You can also create custom error pages for other errors like error 401 -
Unauthorized and 403 - Forbidden if you need to. You add them to the .htaccess
file in the same manner.
AVOIDING 404 ERRORS
It is preferable that your visitors never reach a 404 error page. If you
remove a page from your site or rename a page, it is a good idea to keep the
old page in existence and simply cause it to redirect to a page that offers
the same or similar information that was offered on the old page.
Almost any type of log analysis software you might use to analyze the
traffic you get to your site will also provide you with information on 404
errors. It will tell you what page people were searching for when they
received the error. Use this information to create a blank replacement page
with the same name and redirect the page to your new page.
Let's assume you used to have a page on your site for a book you used to
sell that was named "book1.htm." You found or wrote another book to replace
the old one and created a sales page for it named "book2.htm." Create a
blank web page named "book1.htm" and use the following HTML code to redirect
the visitor to your new "book2.htm" page:
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0;
When people click a link they find for your old book1 sales page they will
automatically be redirected to your new book2 sales page without receiving
an error message. You can simply copy and paste the above code into any
blank page and change the URL to the page you want to redirect to.
Custom error pages and redirects are very easy precautions to take. Traffic
is difficult to come by. It costs you time, money or both to get people to
visit your site. So when they do visit, you don't want to give them any
reason to go away before they see what you have to offer.
Copyright (c) 2002