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The HTTP Error 404 Antidote

Page 2 — Preventive Measures

Ideally, we want to set things up so Sue User never hits a 404 error at all. It is a good policy to go through your server logs on a regular basis and grep for lines indicating that a user has encountered a 404. If you notice a disturbing trend (say, a lot of failed hits to "contnets.html"), it's quite likely that users are following an incorrect link that points to that nonexistent page. If the bad link is on your site, no problem: fix it. If the users are all being misdirected by some other site, email that site's webmaster ASAP, using the referrer info from your server log. If you have no referrer info in your server log, you can search on Google for the source of a broken link, by typing the following into their search box:

This will show every page indexed by Google that contains a link to that nonexistent page. Other search engines offer a similar feature. Also, there are a number of third-party link auditing tools that you may find useful.

You may also want to create an interim "contnets.html" page that redirects users to the correct location.

If you shift things around on your site and break links on a regular basis: then stop doing that immediately. Even if you update all your internal links correctly, users may have bookmarked pages and will get very confused and depressed when their bookmarks cease to work as expected. If you just can't help it, at least leave a marker page at the old location of a moved file, explaining what's happened and why, and redirecting users to the new file location, like a friendly Detour sign.

Note that dynamically generated links can be a subtle but pernicious source of errors. Good site planning can avert most such difficulties. Finally, use common sense. If you have short, simple URLs, users are more likely to type them in correctly the first time. Remember that URLs are case-sensitive!

Try as we may to steer users exactly where we want them, it's inevitable that they will hit the occasional 404 page. When that happens, the ball is once again in our court. So let's take a swing at the problem.

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