Since you’re lost, lemme tell you about this shiny new…

404 error pages seem to be getting more and more confusing these days. It used to be you knew you were in the wrong place because there’d be that text (“404 error the page you requested…”) in that font and immediately your eyes glazed over and your finger clicked back. Nowadays error pages are getting harder and harder to identify as error pages as webmasters try to give a helpful suggestion and a little graphic to tell you they don’t have what you were looking for.

For whatever reason I always see that helpful little graphic as the equivalent of this portly little English bureaucrat-type you would bump into at a mid-sized company/government headquarters in the hallway.

“Oh I’m dreadfully sorry! Well that’s quite alright… hm? Sorry I’m afraid I can’t tell you where office room #432b is, I’m rather in a hurry…. Unfortunately I haven’t the faintest who might know or where you could go to for help, have you tried the front desk? It’s right back where you came from. Yes… Oh I’m sure it must be in this building–well I really must be going, so long!”

And despite all the neat 404 error pages that have popped up, nobody seems to see it my way either…

Sometimes you can’t argue with simplicity. When just about everybody had the same 404 page users automatically knew they were at a dead end. Anything you put up to try to differentiate yourself or entertain the lost user is like sticking an additional ice machine by the side of the road near that dead end, compelling visitors to stop and investigate what’s going on before realizing there’s a giant brick wall behind your cool animated gif and pretty words and turning back. At the very least you are painting on that red brick wall (maybe one of those Wile E Coyote-style roads going off into the distance designed to pancake anybody who’s surfing too fast). Bottom line is you are actually wasting visitor time. I understand the need to be entertained during loading pages, but when I’ve made a mistake the first thing I want is answers, barring that at least tell me immediately to just turn back.

That being said, and because in advertising everybody talks about making negatives into positives, the 404 space, even moreso than the loading space, makes for great advertising opportunity. I think I’ve already seen it done under the auspices of being ‘helpful’. You’ve probably seen them, getting taken to a bogus url with a bunch of banners that ‘suggest’ where you intended to go (looking for Kierkegaard? sorry perhaps you mean ‘PENIS ENLARGEMENT?’ I use this example because, other than your search subject maybe needing what the shill was offering, there is no connection). I would say that’s about as pleasant as asking for directions and getting knocked unconscious, then waking up in that store from Pulp Fiction, possibly with a sore butt.

No, I’m saying that the 404 page is a great place to apply the Big Idea because people’s guards are down just long enough for you to gauge and keep their interest, maybe you can even offer a button to get them back. Just make sure it isn’t a ‘skip this ad’ link or too easy to find heh heh…

This South Park ad would be a great place to start in my opinion, and could be put in just about any website its demographic visits with some frequency.


I think for the consumer it’ll be a bit like dropping by after dinner to browse the shop whose nice keeper told you where the restaurant was. It exhibits a little more thoughtfulness from a company you know.

Of course, there’s the issue that some customers might never see a 404 ad, because they aren’t supposed to happen. To which I say, that should justify making ad space on 404 pages cheaper, but there should be no competition as to the kind of response you’ll get when someone does get lost. In time this area may be just as polluted as those commercials that come on before movies and banners that pop up after you’ve clicked something, but the target will never be trained to draw his mouse and click-close anything with ‘skip this ad‘ on it.


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