'Sorry - this page cannot be found': How newspapers handle 404 errors - Part 1
A comment when I started my recent 'Newspaper Site Search Smackdown' series of posts prompted me to go and have a look at which British newspapers use sitemap.xml files. As it turned out, it was only the Daily Mail and The Scotsman which did (well, and The Telegraph and The Mirror and Metro), which meant that I got to have a close look at the 404 error pages generated by the others. I thought it might be worth running through them to see the strengths and weaknesses of each.
A 404 error page is named after the server response code that is generated when a user requests an address that does not exist on a website. This can happen because of out of date search engine results pointing to a page that has been deleted, because of errors in the way a link is formatted on another page, or because the user has typed in a web address incorrectly. It is helpful to provide a user with some useful search and navigation options on the page that they get shown, so that their web journey doesn't come to an abrupt halt.
The Daily Express 404 page consists of a map of links to the main sections of the site, alongside the regular search and navigation features. This is very good practice, as it provides plenty of avenues of exploration for the user. However, the text of the page possibly over-sells the virtues of the site, given that the user has only reached this page due to an error of some sort.
"The Daily Express website prides itself on the wealth of great stories available to our users. Below is a useful index of all the main sections of the website, which you can navigate to."
One criticism I have of the page is that the user is redirected to a canonical 404 address - http://www.dailyexpress.co.uk/show/sitemap/404 - regardless of the page they were trying to view. This means that they cannot check what they typed into the browser address bar.
The Daily Mail takes a similar approach to the Daily Express, by framing their 404 page message within a standard page template. Again, this has the benefit of allowing the user to either search or navigate their way to somewhere else on the site. However, the text is not particularly explanatory to the user, and again, regardless of what has been entered into the address bar, the Daily Mail redirects the user to a specific 404 address - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/notfound.html
The page you have requested does not exist or is no longer available.
- Click here to go back to our home page "
When a user encounters a 404 error on The Mirror's site, the newspaper serves up a page laid out in a custom template. This features an error message and a site directory.
" Sorry! Page could not be found
The requested document was not found on this site. This could be for a variety of reasons, including:
* You followed a broken or out-of-date link.
* You entered the URL incorrectly.
* The file no longer exists.
If you have any queries about this error, please e-mail the website administrator firstname.lastname@example.org. "
The page display's The Mirror's primary tabbed navigation mechanism, but it is notable that there is no search box on their 404 error page.
In keeping with their unique style of promoting RSS feeds, the Daily Star's 404 page is the only one I looked at which featured a topless model - her modesty protected by a banner urging users to abandon whatever page they were originally looking for, and to instead 'check out the Babes section'
When I'd finished checking that out, I went back to the 404 page, and noted that, actually, undressed woman aside, it was more comprehensive than most others. The page retains the full masthead including global navigation and search, and a very thorough site map. The text was also really user friendly, and didn't make it seem like either the user had a made a mistake or resort to techno jargon.
" SORRY, THAT PAGE WAS NOT FOUND!
Unfortunately we couldn't find the page you were looking for.
Maybe the sitemap links below will help? We hope so! "
The Financial Times site offers users two navigation options from the text of their 404 page, to either go to the homepage or to a map of the site
" PAGE UNAVAILABLE
The page you have requested is unfortunately not available.
* Visit our site map for more information on FT.com
* Go to homepage "
The standard left-hand navigation of the site does not appear, so the only other option for users is to either search for content or for a stock quote from the input boxes in the masthead area.
The Guardian generates a 404 page that is very light on content. Aside from a small text message for the user, there is a mini-directory of 19 areas across The Guardian and Observer sites.
" Sorry. We haven't been able to serve the page you asked for.
If you typed in a URL, please make sure you have typed it correctly. In particular, make sure that the URL you typed is all in lower case.
If you require further assistance, please contact our user help staff at the following address email@example.com "
Again, like The Mirror, it seems a missed opportunity not to have a site search box to give users who have followed a broken link a chance to directly search for the content they wished to access from the 404 page itself.
Tomorrow I'll be continuing this round-up of newspaper 404 pages with a look at what happens on the sites from The Independent, The Scotsman, Sun, Telegraph and Times.
Can you check whether they return the proper HTTP response code (404 Not Found), which is good, or whether they just redirect using a '501 Temporary Redirect' to an error page which is '200 OK', which is bad.
This might sound like a trivial, but is important for search engines and browser history, and all sorts of other automated tools to be able to work out whether a page still exists or not.
Modesty? Topless models? Same sentence? Surely, you jest!
In the newest Mirror.co.uk incarnation there is a small search box on their 404 page - maybe your criticism was heard?!
It certainly interesting to see the newspaper's, and other print media's, transition to online. These are really the growing pains of that change over I'm sure.
Nice post. So many times we, as developers, forget about the little things. Making the site easy for the USER is the goal.