Handling Error messages on your website (part 1)

Steve Jackson

Steve Jackson

Handling Error messages on your website (part 1)

If you haven’t heard of 404 error messages it’s what appears when your visitor is looking for something that doesn’t exist on your website. Here are some great examples of how you can customise your 404 pages to help people.

This article is about a couple of simple considerations around your error messages rather than just the creative ways to help people.

Errors in external links

The first thing to consider is what happens before they get to your site if the page doesn’t exist anymore but it’s still in the search engine results pages. If for instance you have renewed your website and your URL’s are now different you’ll want a good 301 strategy to cope with back linking.
If the page receives;

  1. Important links from external sites (a.k.a. referrals in Google Analytics)
  2. Receives a substantial amount of visitor traffic
  3. Or has an obvious URL the visitors were looking for

Then basically you should use a 301 redirect to the specific page.

Otherwise you can allow the pages to fall to a 404 page and ask the user specifically what they were looking for.

Internal Search Errors 

The second consideration is how to handle what happens when internal search fails. Internal search is the search option on your own website. So have you considered what happens when someone doesn’t get the response they were looking for? There are a number of things you can do.

  1.  Placement of the search engine should be easy to find (ie right next to your left placed logo)
  2. Allow people to filter their searches
  3. Offer autocomplete in the search form itself, it makes filling out the search form easier & means you always get a result.  As the search engine is looking at your database of products or pages to autofill the form  it won’t return an error if someone clicks the result.
  4. Allow for autocorrect. Users will make errors, so when they type something which is an error add error handling that says for instance ”did you mean xyz, rather than xyx?”. The most common typos can be found from your analytics.
  5. If your website has multiple languages cater for the searches in all languages.

By handling internal search much more effectively you can improve sales or lead generation considerably.

Action points

  • Check how your 404 error page looks, can it be more useful than a simple ”sorry that doesn’t exist” message?
  • Consider 404 error pages when renewing your website and changing URLs or doing an SEO re-direct strategy
  • Consider how you currently handle internal searches to your website. Can you aid usability with a few simple tactics?

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