Host Erin Sparks and Studio Creative Director Jacob Mann along with Mordy Oberstein, Wix’s SEO Liaison, host the first-ever EDGE 404 Awards! It will be the last one as well, since there will only be one EDGE episode 404. With a little help from our panel of judges, including Lily Ray, Jason Barnard, and JR Oakes, we’ll find out who the lucky winner of a sweet podcasting setup will be. Read on to find out this and more in this week’s episode 404 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast!
Quick Run-Down of Three News Stories
From Barry Schwartz on Search Engine Land: Google My Business releases tool to manage your reviews; from Roger Montti on Search Engine Journal: Google Clarifies SharedArrayBuffer Email; and from Andrew Hutchinson on Social Media Today: Facebook’s Looking to Launch Audio-Only Rooms to Hook Into the Social Audio Trend.
- Mordy Oberstein: I’m fascinated by big brands trying to destroy Clubhouse, which will self-destruct on its own in my personal opinion because the content doesn’t last and it’s not interactive enough. You might as well just listen to a podcast like EDGE of the Web! I’m on Clubhouse now and I don’t even know what to call the space. Is it a room? A chat? A group?
- Erin Sparks: It’s a room, Mordy.
Episode 404: The EDGE 404 Awards
A 404 page is also called an error page or a page not found message. It’s a dead-end web page. We ran a contest last week to collect links to, especially good takes on the 404 page. We received more than 90 submissions and 45 unique URLs to 404 pages. Our judges included EDGE host Erin Sparks, Mordy Oberstein (SEO Liaison at Wix); JR Oakes (Senior Director, Technical SEO Research at Locomotive Agency); Jason Barnard (Cofounder and CEO of Kalicube) who was just on the show recently, and Lily Ray (Senior Director, SEO and Head of Organic Search at Path Interactive) who couldn’t be with us during this segment but did weigh in on the submissions to the contest. The chosen winner will receive three pieces of essential podcasting equipment, including a Rode NT-USB Versatile Studio-Quality USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone, a set of Vogek Professional DJ Headphones, and a Monoprice Microphone Isolation Shield.
Why Are 404 Pages Important?
We thought it would first be good to get each judge’s take on why a 404 page is important. Here’s what they said:
- Mordy Oberstein: The user has made it into the right domain, but not the right page, so it’s an opportunity to guide the user to where they should go.
- JR Oakes: They serve as a signal to search engines that the page in question doesn’t exist and hopefully the engine stops point people to it and removes it from indexing. And for the website itself it’s an opportunity to hopefully point the user toward what they were trying to find.
- Jason Barnard: Ideally you don’t need a 404 page, but we all have them because it’s going to come up no matter how hard we work to not need them. But it is an opportunity to reassure the user they’re in the right domain and help them get to the right place on your domain. I think sites often overestimate how comfortable users are feeling, and a good 404 page helps them feel comfortable in spite of our mistake.
- Erin Sparks: The 404 page is a replacement for “page cannot be found” types of messages. But you want to understand the intent behind what brought that user to the site and how they ended up with a 404 page. A totally generic 404 page is a missed opportunity to further guide the user to something of value. You could even make a 404 page dynamic to suggest where they should go on the site based on analyzing their intended URL destination. But there’s also an argument to be made that if you’re doing your job right, then the 404 page should never even be seen, right?
- Jason Barnard: Except that you can control inbound links that others have put up that point people to your site. There could be a simple typo that means the URL is wrong, so you have to have a 404 page for those instances, and hopefully to still get the user to where they intended to go. But if you’re going to go the full dynamic 404 page route, that to me indicates you’re expecting your site to completely fall apart on a quite regular basis. I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course.
- Erin Sparks: Yes, because if a 301 redirect isn’t possible or isn’t the right choice, then the 404 could still bring some value.
Lily Ray wasn’t with us during the show recording but did weigh in on what’s important about the 404 page. She noted it’s inevitable users are going to get a 404 page at some point, no matter how well you’re managing your site. Rather than it being an afterthought, it’s worth putting effort into it to reinforce your brand personality. As an SEO, it’s easy to think of the 404 only from the utilitarian perspective. But reflecting on it has made me realize how important it is to have it reflect your brand.
Different Approaches to the 404 Page
As we went through all the submissions to different 404 pages, we definitely saw some groupings in the approach taken to those pages into two main categories. There’s the utilitarian approach of okay, you’re here and what you want isn’t here so let’s move you over to someplace else we think will have value for you. Then there are those that go for the entertainment factor and being a little self-deprecating maybe about having made a mistake so let’s have some fun with it.
- JR Oakes: I don’t like the entertainment approach. I think of people who are trying to find something for some reason or doing research and I don’t think a cutesy 404 page is what they’re looking for. Sure, there can be some PR or link building standpoint, but the point should be to get users to the place they wanted to go to get the information they wanted to find. I’m a utilitarian.
- Jason Barnard: The whole “Oops, we goofed” approach doesn’t really inspire the kind of confidence you want users to have in your site and brand. That said, there is room for an entertainment factor on a 404 page if it doesn’t completely take over or take away from the utilitarian aspect of being helpful—help the user get to where they need to go.
- Mordy Oberstein: I agree with both JR and Jason on this. For sites like Pixar or Wendy’s or Marvel, you expect there to be something on-brand for a 404, and it would be weird if there weren’t, so those elements might be considered entertaining.
- Erin Sparks: Yes, Disney does this perfectly with the Ralph character who “broke the internet” bursting through the “0” of the 404 on the page.
- Jason Barnard: Except that kids aren’t even going to understand the 404 concept, which it makes it look like they really don’t know their audience if it’s kids.
- JR Oakes: Dynamic redirects can be a good option. There are WordPress plugins that will match the requested URL to all the page slugs in the database and if it comes up with something that’s at least a 90% match then it’ll just automatically redirect to that. Being one letter off in a URL shouldn’t give you a 404 page. Your site should have some capability to get the user to where they clearly intended to go. Highly focused, well-done redirection is good. Random, unhelpful redirecting is not good.
Countdown to the Winner: The Top Ten 404 Pages Ranked by Our Judges
Below are the Top 10 Finalists in the EDGE 404 contest along with comments from our judges about why they’re good and also how some of them could be even better:
10. 37signals: https://37signals.com/errorpage
This one certainly has the links to all kinds of alternative content. JR like it for this reason as it’s almost like a very condensed site map. Unlike many sites that apologize for making a mistake, this one clearly describes why you probably ended up here and gives you pathways for going to other more useful places. It was a very helpful page. Jason liked the utilitarian approach, but was overwhelmed by so many different links, but it might be perfect their target audience. Mordy thought it was good, but it didn’t immediately strike him as an actual 404 page. It should probably be labeled in some way with the number 404. Lily found the page very robust in terms of what’s offered, though she’s not sure how much of that a user on a 404 page really wants to read through.
9. Bass Pro Shops: https://www.basspro.com/shop/en/404
Erin found the camouflage joke very on-target, but it lacked the utilitarian aspect of sending people someplace else as a solution, and this is an ecommerce retail site, so they’re leaving dollars on the table. Mordy didn’t understand it all because he’s not in that target audience, so it just didn’t make sense to him. Jason isn’t in the demographic either, but he thought the company dialed it in for their target audience. JR noticed some users will get a 200 status error, which is and even more epic fail in his opinion.
8. Media Proper: https://mediaproper.com/404.html
This one tries to go for the entertainment factor, but it’s questionable in terms of what the dog is actually thinking. JR thought it looked more like a camera left on by mistake that happened to catch what was happening. It seems like a poor choice for a user trying to find something about this company and this is what they get instead. Mordy found it somewhat hilarious, but what makes them think it would work for their target audience?
The Entire #EDGE404 Submission List
7. Sculpt: https://wearesculpt.com/404
This one is a little strange with its video of Shia LaBeouf and his intensely sarcastic clapping. The “you’ve reached the end of the internet” was interesting. But you have no sense of what Sculpt is about in terms of brand. Jason found the video very sardonic—is the clapping for the user or the company? Either way it doesn’t seem like good optics. At first JR thought the little chat bot in the lower right corner was a brilliant move to help users find what they were looking for, but it’s just a coincidence because it’s on every page of the site. Mordy hated everything about this page, including the video and the guy it features. Why not someone nicer, like Tom Hanks?
6. Seer Interactive: https://www.seerinteractive.com/404
Erin liked the fact that their 404 page charity donations ($1 for every time a user gets the 404 page) have reached nearly $8,500 since 2015. But if they were to really fix everything so the 404 page doesn’t get invoked, would they stop donating to charity? Jason thought bringing in the “swear jar” concept in this way was an interesting concept and that supporting charity is good in and of itself, the page could have had more of the utility aspect in helping get users where they want to go instead beyond just having a search bar. JR noted that if they’ve been tracking 404 pages since 2015, there should be some curation there about what they’ve learned from that, which was a miss. Also, not linking to the charities they support was a definite miss. Lily Ray likes the charity tie-in as a way to show their values throughout their work.
5. Ready to Go Survival: https://readytogosurvival.com/sd
This page riffs off The Matrix move franchise and Morpheus offering the red pill or the blue pill. It’s about survivalist gear prepping. Erin found it irresistible in terms of wanting to click on one of those pills. Mordy felt it was a bit cliché and a little confusing as to why you would click on one and not the other. And what if you haven’t seen the movie? Jason fell into this category having never seen the movie, so it made zero sense to him, but he’s also not in the target audience for that type of site, so it doesn’t matter. Putting all your eggs in one basket of one movie is a dicey proposition. JR says the page has a very limited audience and doesn’t really solve the user’s issue. Jason also wonders about the copyright issue of using an image from the film. Lily loved it because if you’ve seen the move, you have to click on it, and any 404 page that gets the user to take an action is a success.
4. National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/404
NPR takes a more utilitarian view but also has some entertainment, playing off the idea that what the user thought they would find must be lost and then provides a bunch of links to other NPR pages with stories about various lost items. JR liked this one a lot because it was on-brand for NPR, offered links to alternative content, and apologized for the error. Mordy thought it was brilliant. Jason especially like how it offered alternatives within a joke that their target audience would definitely understand.
3. Whitespark: https://whitespark.ca/poor-brent-and-the-404
The frazzled guy being held responsible for not finding what the user wanted is Brent, and users landing on this 404 page can either fire or not fire Brent. Erin noted it lacked the utilitarian function of providing a solution, but you do get to take an immediate action to fire or not fire poor Brent depending on how you’re feeling in that moment. Mordy finds it on-brand for the target audience (folks who know something about SEO) but didn’t press either button to see what would happen. JR first fired Brent, then rehired him to click on both buttons. He found it enjoyable because they don’t need all the functionality for an SEO audience, so they might as well have fun with it. And it’s very memorable. Jason hired him first, then fired him, but agrees with JR that this is a case where the utilitarian approach can totally be tossed out the window based on the target audience.
2. Dribble: http://dribbble.com/404
This page features a huge 404 number made up of small images that can be changed by the user in terms of the color palette with a slider at the bottom of the screen. Every change in color palette changes all the images, and each image is a link to a particular piece of a designer’s content, so it becomes a way to browse designer content. Erin found it very entertaining, but also very time-consuming where you can get lost and waste time. JR found it delightful in terms of the target audience and being very on-point for its brand. People go there to look at design work and the 404 page helps them do it. Jason loved it because it’s a colorful, fun, game-like in terms of its functionality. You click on one image and you get to see that designer’s image that fit in the color palette you chose on the 404 page, but it also links you out to all that other designer’s work if you want to see more. Mordy agrees it’s highly engaging and automatically gets you exploring their site content through this page. Lily Ray had to agree that this is totally on-point in terms of brand, target audience, and functionality dialed in to both.
1. Wendy’s: https://www.wendys.com/404
The Wendy’s 404 page is great because it’s a video game hearkening back to the days of Donkey Kong and the early days of video games. You can make a burger, get chased (and killed) by strange, pink-colored creatures. Jason played the game and lost. He thought it was fun and friendly for the Wendy’s demographic, but didn’t understand what the 444 was about, and although the game becomes its own functionality, it’s not really helping users find anything. JR loved everything about the page, including the game. Then there are three action items you can take, each of which is the most likely actions users would want to take. And the company turned it into a link building page but without inflating analytics with a 404 page. Mordy liked the page as well because of its functionality and the fun factor. Lily Ray says this page is just smart in so many ways. It might not score high on the functionality, but it’s on-point in terms of a fun, quirky brand with the video game, and doing it on a 404 page is great.
And the winner is…WENDY’S! Their 404 page was submitted by several people, but the first person to submit it was Eric Thomas, which means he’ll receive the podcast setup prize!