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Google's 404 Error Page: Not Good, Not Effective, and Not Google Friendly (According to Google's Guidelines)

Posted on June 3, 2008 by Tim

Sometimes Google creates guidelines for webmasters that Google doesn't follow itself.  Let me elaborate.  Last night, I went to Google Docs and was pleasantly surprised with a 404 error.  It was only pleasant because it's nice to know that even Google can't always satisfy Google standards, so I'm in good company.

For our non-nerds, in general, a 404 error is what users receive when they attempt to access a non existent page on a website.  This can happen for several reasons: the user may have incorrectly typed a URL, the page may no longer exist because it has been deleted, the page may have been moved to another location, the page may have been renamed, the link they followed may be broken or outdated, or a URL redirect, such as a 301 or 302, may have problems.

Google's 404 Error Page

I triggered the error by typing in the URL www.google.com/docs which redirected to http://docs.google.com/.  By the way, don't worry mankind, one browser refresh lead me to a working Google Docs home page.  Earth's productivity as we know it will have to halt another day.

Here is a screen shot of Google's 404 error, as presented to me:


Now, although I was surprised to have seen a 404 error from Google at all, this isn't what really surprised me.  Even Google's army of data centers can't get it right all of the time.  Also, I don't know of any uptime guarantees that come with Google Docs or any of Google's free services for that matter.  Some of Google's paid products or services do offer uptime guarantees, such as Google Apps Premier Edition, which includes a 99.9% uptime guarantee for Gmail.

What really surprised me, what really "pleasantly" surprised me, was the 404 error's presentation.

The text on the error page was extraordinarily simple, stating "Not Found Error 404".  The text was black on a white background.  Similarly, the title tag read "Not Found".  Also, the Google Docs favicon appeared in the FireFox browser tab.

However, Google's 404 page was not customized to provide help to Google's users.  Now, a non helpful 404 page is no epiphany.  Plenty of sites have 404 error pages as unwelcoming and unhelpful as Google's and plenty of great, free custom 404 error page recommendations are out there just waiting to be implemented.

Based on Google's definition of a "good custom 404 page", Google does not have a good custom 404 page

The irony in this example is that Google Webmaster Help Center provides Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 pages which recommends that webmasters create a custom 404 page.  The guidelines state "If you have access to your server, we recommend that you create a custom 404 page. A good custom 404 page will help people find the information they're looking for, as well as providing other helpful content and encouraging them to explore your site further."
Google's 404 page didn't do any of these things.  It didn't help people find the information they were looking for (Google Docs), was not customized to provide other helpful content (no other content was provided) and did not encourage them to explore their site further (no exploration opportunities existed).

So, based on Google's definition of a "good custom 404 page", Google does not have a good custom 404 page.

Based on Google's definition of an "effective 404 page", Google does not have an effective 404 page

Google's guidelines go on to describe how to create an "effective 404 page".  The guidelines state:

"Because a 404 page can also be a standard HTML page, you can customize it any way you want. Here are some suggestions for creating an effective 404 page that can help keep visitors on your site and help them find the information they're looking for:"

Then, the guidelines provide a bulleted list of suggestions.  Let's see how well Google does, in implementing their suggestions:

  • Tell visitors clearly that the page they're looking for can't be found. Use language that is friendly and inviting.

Well, although the text doesn't say "what" isn't found, the page certainly presents the text "Not Found" loud and clear.  Obviously, the text "Not Found Error 404" is neither friendly nor inviting.

  • Make sure your 404 page uses the same look and feel (including navigation) as the rest of your site.

Google's 404 page doesn't use any look and feel, or navigation, let alone a look and feel that is the same as the rest of Google.

  • Consider adding links to your most popular articles or posts, as well as a link to your site's home page.

Google's 404 page doesn't contain any links to anywhere.

  • Think about providing a way for users to report a broken link.

Google's 404 page doesn't provide a way for users to report anything.

  • No matter how beautiful and useful your custom 404 page, you probably don't want it to appear in Google search results. In order to prevent 404 pages from being indexed by Google and other search engines, make sure that your webserver returns an actual 404 HTTP status code when a missing page is requested."

I didn't check the HTTP status code on Google's 404 page to see if Google's webserver returned an actual 404 or not.  Currently, it doesn't look like the 404 page appears in Google search results.

So, based on Google's definition of an "effective 404 page", Google does not have an effective 404 page.

Is Google a Google-friendly site?

What's really funny, is that Google's "Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 pages" are found under Googles' "Creating a Google-friendly site", which naturally begs the (very long) question:

If Google does not have a "good custom 404" page based on Google's definition of a good custom 404 page, and if Google does not have an "effective 404 page" based on Google's definition of an effective 404 page, which means that Google does not have a "useful custom 404 page" based on Google's "Guidelines for creating useful custom 404 page", and these guidelines are an element of "Creating a Google-friendly site" then...

Is Google a Google-friendly site?

 

 


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