WebWednesday: 404

WebWednesday: 404 – Page not found!

From Information Resources and Technologies

Those dreaded 404 errors! The 404 or Page Not Found error message is a standard response code indicating that the Web browser was not able to locate the Web page that was requested. We have all encountered them at one point or another while browsing the Internet. You may have spent 15 minutes tracking down a page only to be greeted by a mean-looking error page after following the link.

Although we try very hard to minimize the number of these errors that individuals encounter while browsing the Web at St. Thomas, it is inevitable that a few bad links will slip through the cracks.

So what is a Webmaster to do?

The great thing about a 404 error page is that with a little bit of work and imagination it can be customized to do more than just display an error. A great 404 error page will not only announce an error but also provide steps to help users find what they were looking for.

Recently we enhanced our 404 error page to do just that. Our new error page has four components to help users quickly get to the content that they are trying to find.

  1. Suggestion – We use algorithms* to try to anticipate what users are looking for: try typing www.stthomas.edu/admisions into the Web address bar to see what we mean.
  2. Search – Many people are frustrated after receiving a 404 error and would rather take their chances with our UST search engine. We have included a quick search box on our 404 page to accommodate those users.
  3. A-Z Index – Just as many people choose to search after receiving an error, others are more apt to sort through an alphabetical index of choices. We have included a full A-Z index to accommodate those users.
  4. Base-level Navigation – Finally, we offer our basic navigation system that is available from our home page. This is included primarily for anyone who may have encountered an error link from off-site and may just want to know how to choose a category and quickly get his or her bearings.

All of these features come together to create what we feel is a more user-friendly 404 error page and is another step closer to making our Web environment more enjoyable. Feedback so far has been very positive. One individual said, “I was guessing at a URL, which 404’d, but then it gave me a list of 'can theses links help you' (they did!), the search and the A-Z. You guys have nailed the user experience.”

As you continue to browse the UST Web environment, we certainly hope you don’t encounter many 404 errors, but if you do, we hope our friendlier and more helpful page eases some of your frustrations.

If you have questions or comments contact the IRT Tech Desk, (651) 962-6230.

*Caution, geek speak:

What’s an algorithm? An algorithm is a set list of well-defined instructions for completing a task. We used two different algorithms within our 404 page. The first, called a Soundex, is a phonetic algorithm that indexes a word by sound. The goal is for words with the same pronunciation to be encoded in a way that they can be matched despite minor differences in spelling.

The second is a Metaphone algorithm. It is similar to the Soundex, but it tends to be more accurate, as it uses more variables to encode consonants and vowels.

Once we have the “phonetic scores” for what the user typed in, we can compare it to the possible options and develop a list of best matches. The better the score, the greater the chance the user meant to type it, and the higher the rank it receives.