Google is pretty good about giving information to webmasters about how to design good pages that get listed in Google. They tell us to use descriptive title tags, how to prevent duplicate content problems and how to check if your site has been hacked.
They also provide information on how to produce good 404 error pages. At the bottom of that article they provide a list of items to include in your 404 error page (read more about HTTP status codes). These are supposed to help the user find what they are looking for and to ensure they stay on your website.
In this article we are going to look at the 404 error pages on Google, Yahoo and Bing to see how many of these guidelines they follow themselves. The sites are given a mark out of 10 for how well they meet each guideline.
We are going to access the following URLs:
The page – www.google.com/fake-page – does not exist.
The message that the page cannot be found is pretty clear although the error text is the same size as the rest of the page.
Sorry, the page you requested was not found.
This text is larger than the rest of the page, is in bold and is centered. It is very clear that the page cannot be found.
Let’s try that again
Although there is some explanatory text below, this is a terrible header to use for an error page. It is very vague and really doesn’t help the user.
The text “That web page doesn’t exist. Let’s see if we can help you find what you are looking for” is much more useful. If they used this as the header they would definitely improve the page.
However, it is the only error page that actually used a <h1> tag for the page header.
The page features the standard Google search box and logo at the top and the familiar links to popular Google sites such as Videos, Maps and News.
Features the Yahoo logo and the links back to the homepage and help sections. Doesn’t feature the standard links to Yahoo Mail that seem to feature on a lot of Yahoo pages. However, each section of Yahoo seems to have its own style and design so this would be a difficult rule for Yahoo to follow.
Has the standard site header, log and search box at the top of the page. It is even customised for your location and whether you are signed in or not.
The way I read this is that Google is recommending that as well as linking to your homepage, you should direct users to some popular sections of your site that they might be looking for.
The only link to the homepage is via the Google logo at the top. Aside from that, the only even remotely useful link is to the help center. And the help topics it links to are not even specific for the error we have encountered. Not very helpful at all.
Yahoo features a link to the homepage via the logo at the top and a text link in the main body. There is also a link to a list of Yahoo’s services and Yahoo Help Central. Like Google, this help center doesn’t link to a specific page that is relevant to our current problem.
Bing features their logo at the top which links to the homepage and a text link to the help pages. As with the other two, not a link to help us with our current problem.
All the pages returned proper 404 headers. It would have been terribble news if they hadn’t.
Mark: All sites 10/10
None of the search engines actually uses this widget, but what it is trying to achieve is very useful.
It provides a search box and tries to extract query data from the URL to put in this box. This then allows you to search the current site for what you are looking for.
It also tries to list some close match URLs (see an example).
Let’s see if the search engines have any of these features in their sites.
Google has a search box, but it doesn’t just search Google, it is just Google’s standard web search.
There is no list of closest match URLs either. So say if I accidentally typed in this URL:
Google should be clever enough to know that I am really looking for Google analytics. But it doesn’t, and that’s very disappointing.
Yahoo sufferes from the same problem as Google, no list of closest match pages and the search box doesn’t just search Yahoo.
It seems this is standard practice on the big three search engines. No list of closest matches and no search box for just bing.com.
24/40 = 60%
26/40 = 65%
27/40 = 67.5%
You can see that each search engine has similar marks, and that they are fair, but could definitely be improved.
It seems that search engines could do with a dose of their own medicine before telling us how to design our own 404 pages.