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404 page not found - a marketing secret

Here's a cheap magic trick for you - I bet you I can guess the answer you will give to the following question:

What do you usually do when you click on a link or button and get the classic "404 File Not Found" page?

1. You click on the "Back" button of your browser (with disgust) and go somewhere else?

2. You look at the address field and erase the text right until the next "slash" and try again?

3. You look at the address field and try the domain name, hoping to get to a home page and navigate your way to the right place?

4. You try to figure out if something is misspelled or if the link is just broken and try to type what you think to be the correct address?

5. You call Mel, your tech support guy and yell "my internet is not working again"?

6. You immediately find the contact information for the webmaster of the site and inform them of the situation?

7. You hack into the server hosting the site and fix the broken link yourself, leaving a "Ralph was here" message?

Let me guess, if you are like most "normal" citizens, always rushing somewhere, with a cup of bad tasting and very hot coffee in one hand and nervously moving the mouse with the other hand, annoyed that you threw away that mouse pad and now your "optical" mouse is all jittery - then.... the answer is no. 1.

You will simply click back and try another place. In fact, the vast majority of people will not even think about the fact that there just might be other alternatives.

Bottom line is - if you have a website and you care about attracting visitors, you must do something so that you do not lose that group of people who come to your site by following an old link or by typing your URL incorrectly.

For some strange reason, it became embedded into our minds that the "404 File Not Found" page is the equivalent of rejection, dispair, negative energy, in other words, it's just bad karma. If you get a "404 File Not Found" you just have to turn around, run as fast as you can and never look back.

This is one of those ubiquitous anomalies that people stop questioning - but of course, that's how it is. I don't believe that. I thing everything can be changed, habits can be altered, ultimately it's all about perception, it's about that image that we create in our mind and store somewhere into a memory cell.

So what can be done to a "404 File Not Found"? Is this article actually going to talk about anything useful?

Well, since the perception we all have about the "404 File Not Found" is that all things are broken, and since we can't change the actual fact that browsers display that page when things are bad, then why not change the image of that page? Why not put a more humane face there?

Those error messages were designed many years ago to be simple, cryptic and easily interpreted by machines. Everything else evolved, except that.

Did you know that it is possible to add HTML to a 404 page? How about a nice message saying "sorry buddy, our link is probably bad but we're still here, the rest of our site is up, we want you, we'll help you get through this!!"

The subliminal message I'm trying to pass to you here is that there are so many simple yet not tapped into methods to run a successful online business, by simply making sure you are not losing your potential visitors.

So go ahead and change your error pages.

It is not possible to customize your 404 error page if your web host has not enabled this facility for your website. For example, at the time of this writing, if you host at Geocities or Tripod, you would not be able to customize your 404 Error Page.

Most reputable web hosts, however, will allow you to do so.

If your web host has this facility, you will usually find mention of this somewhere in their documentation. In fact, if they mention somewhere that you can customize a file named ".htaccess", it probably means that you can also customize your 404 File Not Found error page. Some hosts will offer the feature through their "Control Panel", some will let you paste HTML code, etc.

Bottom line, just remember this very simple, common sense technique:

A custom 404 error page is really important to the success of your web site. Customize your site's error messages and you will keep your visitors.

For your reference, here are the most used error codes and their meaning:

400 - This will be reached when the user enters a url that refers to a page that does not exist on your site.

401 - This will be reached when the user has failed to authenticate their self properly when trying to access a restricted page.

403 - This will be reached when access is forbidden to the page the user to trying to access.

404 - This will be reached when a user misspells a url to a page they are trying to access. It is important to be helpful with your 404 error page or the user may decide to leave your site.

500 - This will be reached when the page cannot be displayed. This can occur when a script fails to run, or under other circumstances. You should have the user contact the site administrator when this page is shown.

About the author:

Andrei co-owns bsleek ( ) - a site that specializes in web hosting, design, promotional items, printing, CD Presentations and more. Andrei is on the Board of Consultants for and has amassed an extensive technical knowledge and experience through his career as the CIO for a major travel management company and through his past careers in military research, data acquisition and aerospace engineering.