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What Your Website's Error Page Reveals About Your Company

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While browsing a website this week, I clicked a link that seemed interesting. However, the site had changed file structure since the link was created, and the page was no longer valid. So, up popped their "Page Not Found (404 Error)" page.

Now, not only was I disappointed that I couldn't see what I clicked on, but now I was also a little insulted and put-off.

Error 404 Page

That's the error page above. The idiot wearing the short-sleeved, orange, Hawaiian shirt at the Black Tie event is supposed to be me. The site visitor.

"Ever feel like you're in the wrong place?" states the caption.

Wow! An interesting way to treat a guest to your site. I wasn't digging around their bathroom's medicine cabinet and got busted for snooping. I clicked on one of the main links on their site! Why are they making me feel like I did something wrong?

I know this sounds like a bit of a rant ... But, the lesson is, the way your company handles your websites error page can say a lot about your company.

Some take time to make the error page fun, trying to make the best of the situation. After all, it's a bummer for the visitor when something goes wrong, and it means something is broken with the site.

When trying to make a site as sticky as possible and something is broken or confusing, anything less than "Oh my gosh, so sorry ... How can we help you find what you were looking for?" is not enough.

How are you supporting your web visitors when they encounter an error?

Call To Action

  • Check out your site's error page. No, you really should. In fact, why not open another browser window right now and check it out?

  • If you aren't sure what your error page looks like, enter the URL for your site and then put some junk characters after it. For example:
    I'll bet you don't have a page with that title, and your error page will be revealed to you.

  • What does your Error Page say? Is if generic? Is it fun?

  • Is is branded? Is it brand appropriate?

  • Did you simply leave it up to the person who designed your site to create the page?

  • Does it have search tools or ways to help your visitor get back on track?

  • Check out what others have done on their error pages. See clever and helpful error page collections here and here, and here.

  • By all means, while you may have fun with visitors to lighten up the fact your site is broken, don't berate them.

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Hi there!

I'm Paul Williams... guest writer on Daily Fix and founder of Idea Sandbox.

I'm a professional problem solver. Through brainstorm facilitation I help people create remarkable ideas to grow their business. As one client put it, “Idea Sandbox turns brains into idea machines.”

Prior to launching Idea Sandbox in 2005, I spent 15 years building marketing, branding, and customer-experience strategy for The Disney Company, the Aramark Corporation, and Starbucks Coffee Company.

I founded Idea Sandbox driven by my passion to help others create remarkable ideas. I blend the skills and lessons I have learned to build a sandbox---an idea sandbox.

You can reach me on Twitter via @IdeaSandbox.

Through Idea Sandbox, I have helped solve challenges, grow brands, think-up remarkable ideas, and create innovation for companies including: Starbucks Coffee Company, Starbucks Coffee International, Panera Bread Company, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Woodhouse Day Spas, The Microsoft Corporation, and Wells Fargo Mortgage.

I am a writer, speaker, columnist, and brainstormer living just outside Washington DC, in Alexandria, Virginia.

If you like what you've read here, you can find more of my thoughts at my Idea Sandbox blog.

I always welcome comments and reactions to what I've written. I'm on Twitter: @IdeaSandbox

Nice to meet you,


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  • by Kim Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    When I worked at our web gals came up with a great 404 screen! It showed a barn full of horses with one empty stall standing open, and said something like "Oops! That one got away from us! While we try to find it, click here to return to our main page." I loved it!

  • by Kay Keenan Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    Thanks for the reminder and when I found what ours said I was pleased. Feel free to add it to your collection.

  • by Lisa Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    I couldn't agree with you more.

    Have to say though, I find that 404 page really funny and not off-putting at all. I guess it all depends on the site. Since you didn't give the site to which this 404 belongs, it's hard for me to judge its appropriateness.

    This issue also goes beyond 404s to other error pages. Digg and Twitter do a very good job with their error pages (broken axle and failwhale respectively). Lately Digg has frustrated me immensely with their fails but every time I see the message that "its 97% so and so's fault" [they give the name of one their engineers I presume], I laugh and it takes the edge off the error.

    Thanks for posting some great resources for 404 ideas.

  • by Molly Sylestine at Volusion Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    Hi Paul...I loved your "rant" and of course the tips on how to have a better error page. In ecommerce this is a must. Many online stores frequently swap out products, change URLs and delete products altogether. If a potential customer gets to a blank 404 error page or even a page that turns them off, the merchant risks losing a sale.

    We offer 404 Error Page design in our largest design package and we also offer it as an a la carte service for our customers' sites. I completely agree with all your Call to Action tips and thank you for giving a few examples!

    Volusion's 404 page is simple and straight to the point. BUT, we encourage the customer to stay on the site by keeping our top and side navigation. Here are a couple of other examples of 404 pages from our ecommerce clients:

    Thanks again for a great post!

  • by Mark Copeman Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    We wanted an error page that highlighted our company character and also one that shows what our app does. Take a look here:

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    Thanks a million, Paul! I've been using the host's generic 404 page and hadn't given it much thought. You've enlightened me! Hopefully, my error page now lives up to the standards you describe.

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    That's awesome...

    For Idea Sandbox, I use a brainmap style site map... which is appropriate to my brand. It features links to all the major portions of my site. Instead of being a dead end, it allows people to find potentially new portions of my site.

    Here's the link:

  • by Kirsten Wright Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    Thanks so much for this one! I think we all sometimes forget that at some point, someone will find something incorrect or type in a url wrong. It is a great reminder that we meed to make sure our page is helpful. I know that with mine - I have it suggest some of the most popular blog posts plus, it has a little humor. Would love to know what you think of mine?

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    You've got a fun looking site anyhow... I'd expect something fun from you. Very helpful page. I too like that you show your recent posts on your error page... So even your error page is fresh.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    That's the idea... if your users are going to have to bump into an error page... make it fun / helpful / relevant - and/or all three!

    Thanks for your reaction to this post!

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog

    Kay, I like the "Lost In Space" reference on your error page. Nice!

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    Thanks for commenting. Maybe I was in a delicate mood when that 404 error appeared. I agree it is clever, but I think it bothered me because I was truly interested in the link.

    Your site, is a beautiful site!

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    Thanks for commenting... It is smart that Volusion pays attention to 404 pages... It is probably something most clients don't think about.

    As an expert in web design, thank you for validating this post!

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Mon Jan 17, 2011 via blog


    Your error page does what your product does... you "point out issues straight away, and follow them up rapidly." Quite brand appropriate!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • by JavaGenious Tue Jan 18, 2011 via blog

    Can you tell me , how can i avoid having such issues. I want a custom error page for my website.

  • by Andrea J. Phillips Tue Jan 18, 2011 via blog

    I'm with Lisa. I'd opened your article along with a few others I'd found on Twitter this morning. I knew right away I'd like your article--whenever I see a creative 404 error page, I want to congratulate the company for being smart, and conversely, when I'm on a funny, creative, smart website and get a stock 404 page (or sign-up form, etc.), I'm disappointed in them.

    But I also thought, "What a great example he included! Exactly what I'm talking about!"

    I can see, though, how it does unfairly put the blame on the user--after all, you DID try to go to the right place! Maybe, "Oops...did we send you to the wrong place?"

    Good reminder of the importance of user testing!


    P.S. You might want to have a little talk with MarketingProfs...the first time I tried to submit this comment I was sent to an error page. A plain one.

  • by Andrea J. Phillips Tue Jan 18, 2011 via blog

    Ooh, that's brilliant!

  • by OverTheMike Thu Jan 20, 2011 via blog

    Not to get too off topic here (great points btw), but I like your example link:

    "I C U R A QT IN VU" - it's like you're talking in code to a Virginia University cheerleader....

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Fri Jan 21, 2011 via blog

    Nice pick-up on that Mike, thanks!

    I think I learned that in grade school.

    For those of you who maybe don't see it yet... I hid a secret message in the sample URL.

    You gotta read it like you would a license plate...

    ICURAQTINVU = I see you are a cutie. I envy you.

  • by OverTheMike Fri Jan 21, 2011 via blog

    I NV U - of course...*facepalm

  • by PDQ Fri Jan 21, 2011 via blog

    You make some great points. We used to have a partially-customized 404 page that felt cold and could have been interpreted as putting off the user. We recently redesigned it to have a little humor and be dynamic - if you type in a URL, then we start pointing fingers. If you follow a link from another site or within our site, we "gracefully" tell you that something must be broken and we'll fix it.
    Here's the link:

  • by zahnarzt Tue Jan 25, 2011 via blog

    i think you shouldn't bother too much with the 404 pages.. just display a message or redirect the user to the homepage and you're done... big deal.. a lot of guys spend a hue amount of time creating nice graphics... for what? i don't think it's worth the time

  • by Beth Terry Wed Feb 2, 2011 via blog

    This is a great article. I've had a lot of fun with my error page, changing it from time to time. My brand is Cactus Wrangler, so I show a wrangled cactus on the error page and tell them about the photo (which I took), while giving them a link back to the home page. The worst are those white pages with a generic giant 404 Not Found! screens. Those make me crazy - there's nothing to do but go up to the URL bar and delete back to the original home page. Often I just go somewhere else.

    I have to respectfully disagree with zahnarzt - i get wonderful comments and have had people sign up for my newsletter after they hit the error page. Isn't the name of the game "engagement?" I think we should engage in any way we can. Otherwise the net is just information.

  • by attorney Kamal Sat Feb 5, 2011 via blog

    Beautiful site AND warm 404 page!

  • by attorney Kamal Sat Feb 5, 2011 via blog

    Guests who posted on this page operate creative, sharp sites. This read has been quite inspiring.

  • by Lisa Mon Feb 14, 2011 via blog

    @Paul & @attorney Kamal - thanks for complimenting our site. Sorry I'm just thanking you a MONTH later!

  • by Elizabeth Ball Thu Mar 3, 2011 via blog

    I'm just about to relaunch my website and plan to create a suitable error message page.
    One of the best collections of websites' 404 pages I have ever seen that help your branding and are even fun to "receive" is at
    Quite inspiring!!!

  • by CEP Wed Oct 12, 2011 via blog

    I had never given our 404 page a second thought till I came across this article. I realized my site had the apache cannot be found with no links anywhere (ugh!) so now we have a 404 page that works for our site. Thanks for shining the light on something I know is very often overlooked. Keep up the good work!

  • by ExtendidU Wed Jan 4, 2012 via blog

    Lack of sense of humour... And trying to build up a (kind of weak) theory behind something that someone creatively altered from a bunch of lines in the traditional "404" error pages to something understandable by almost everyone.

    I just wanted to share my point of view, and you shouldn't have such a "grey" vision about this topic. Just the opinion of someone who wants to help you see the www in a more colorful way.



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