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Web Development Articles
(May 2001)



Custom Error Pages Can Turn Problems Into Profits


You work hard to make sure your site functions as intended in all the major browsers. Your pages are elegant, content's intelligent, and load times are fast. You have reason to be proud of what you've created.

But wait ... have you thought about a custom page for error messages? For redirecting standard errors?

Errors messages, you say? I sweated blood to make sure my site has no errors!! Well, other webmasters can goof when they create links to you, search engines can list out-of-date pages, and surfers don't always type URLs accurately. No website is immune to errors if it has much traffic.

What will your visitors see when glitches happen? Boring, uninformative '404 File Not Found' or similar messages? I hope not. Create a special page to display instead. Redirecting standard errors to a custom page can be a gracious way to hang on to visitors who might otherwise move on.

Add Polish, Add Profits

A well-designed custom error page encourages surfers to remain in your site. Although it's possible to redirect error codes straight to your home page or site map, that doesn't tell visitors what's going on. It's more user-friendly to explain that there was a problem, then provide some alternatives. Supply a link to your home page or site map, or offer your site's search function if you have one. For visitors who prefer to move on, provide an internet search box (one that pays you!) or feature a few ads from sponsors.

It is also possible to send 404 error traffic directly to an advertiser, via your unique linking code. However, redirecting standard errors this way is not as user-friendly as what I just described. As well, such traffic will be poorly targeted, so the conversion rate (percentage who buy something) will be low. If your site is well designed you will find it more profitable to encourage visitors to remain in your site. Then, if they follow a banner or text link by choice, the conversion rate at that merchant will be much higher than for random 404 traffic. If you want to try sending 404 traffic to a sponsor, it is wise to check first. Few per-click advertisers will allow this, although merchants who pay commissions for sales or leads might not mind. But remember, targeting is the key to profits. I recommend using your own custom page.

Here's how ...

Here's how to redirect error messages to a page of your choice. You do it by adding instructions in your site's "dot htaccess" file (written as .htaccess - note the period at the front). This is an invisible text file in your root directory (the directory which contains your site's index.html file). A working knowledge of .htaccess is helpful, although not entirely necessary. First, you must find out if your site already has a file named .htaccess (remember the dot at the beginning). If it does, that's the file you'll add a few lines to. If it doesn't, create a plain ASCII text file, name it .htaccess and place it in your root directory.

Note: if a file by this name already exists in that location, but you don't know it's there, you will overwrite it when you install the new file. If this happens, you may lose some useful functions for your site. If you are not sure whether your site already has an .htaccess file, check with your service provider.

Your .htaccess file should contain the following, and it MUST be all in one line:

ErrorDocument 404 http://www.yoursite.com/whatever.html

This tells your server to display http://www.yoursite.com/whatever.html when a 404 File Not Found error occurs within your site. You can redirect other errors as well, by adding more lines with the same syntax. Here are some common server error codes.

400 - Bad Request
401 - Unauthorized
403 - Forbidden
404 - File Not Found
408 - Server Timeout
500 - Internal Server Error

Different error codes can redirect to different pages if you wish, but one well-written page for redirecting standard errors in general will likely do just fine.

Error messages serve a purpose, and sometimes when you work on your site you'll need to turn off redirection so you can see the real error messages. This is easy: just rename the .htaccess file to something else and rename it back to .htaccess when you're finished.

WARNING: Be fanatical about proofreading your code before you install or modify an .htaccess file. These are critical files and errors can hang your whole site. I learned this the hard way. I once pasted an URL into an .htaccess file, and didn't notice I'd copied part of an anchor tag along with it. Those stray characters paralyzed my whole site; absolutely nothing worked. My web host rescued me by renaming the file from his end to take it out of action. I was then able to find and fix the problem.

Suggestion: do this work during your host's business hours. It will be easier to get help if you need it!

While you're fixing things that can cost traffic ...

Here's one more thing to check. Make sure your site shows up properly whether or not a surfer types in the www. part of your URL. Example: my home page shows up for both http://www.buckworks.com or http://buckworks.com. Some web addresses do not resolve correctly if the www. part is omitted, and would-be visitors get error messages. Result? Lost visitors, lost opportunities. Don't let this happen to you: it's easy for your web host to fix. Insist on it.

I recently heard someone use "404" as a verb when they couldn't remember something - "I'm 404ing here!" I wish it were as easy to profit from our mind's error messages as our site's error messages! With a well-designed custom error page, redirecting standard errors can re-engage visitors who would otherwise be lost, and even those who move on can be worth something.

© 2001 Elisabeth Archambault

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Elisabeth Archambault of BuckWorks Online Shopping Directory writes about internet marketing issues when the mood strikes. Technical advice for this article was provided by Jim Pryke of NetInstitute.com and Philip Paradis of DreamSynthesis.net. | Swap hits with AdExit
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