Can space aliens zap web pages? Does Mr T have a grudge against web surfers? And has the internet's missing link finally been found? Welcome to the far-out and far-flung world of 404 Error File Not Found messages.
Defunct web pages and mistyped URLs generally deliver error messages that are as dull as dirt. But a growing cadre of witty webmasters opt to make light of AWOL web pages. Instead of displaying the standard "404 Error File Not Found," they dole out a dose of humour instead.
Space aliens are blamed for making off with missing web pages at Roswell Online, noting: "Your Roswell Online Page Has Been Abducted!" At a site called More Freaky, '80s era TV icon Mr T scolds you for your typo: "Wrong page, Sucka! Quit clicking on all that jibba-jabba." A misstep at Marshall Bowling's website could lead to the internet's so-called missing link, producing an image of a bemused homo erectus.
Part computer science and part geek chic for hip webmasters, 404 pages are becoming the internet equivalent of TV bloopers. For spectators, the hunt for 404 error messages is a pastime. Some sites, like 404 Research Lab tag and bag dead pages that are amusing, odd, and sometimes disturbing. Site owner Jenni Ripley says she gets referrals of about 50 links to noteworthy 404 messages each week.
Given that the web is teeming with millions of dead web pages, finding bad ones is easy. Hunting funny ones is harder, Ripley says. As the web expands, more of us will be stumbling on links to forgotten web pages that simply don't exist anymore, she says. Ripley considers herself the web's only 404 aficionado. "Webmasters should take 404 error messages more seriously," she says. "If a dead web page isn't useful, at least it could be funny." Her favourites include a 404 that lets you play Yahtzee online and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 404 haiku error message inspired by a William Carlos Williams ode to unguarded plums:
"I ate your web page. Forgive me, It was juicy and tart on my tongue."
"A good 404 error helps people find what they are looking even though you may have been taken down a blind alley," Ripley says. Proud webmasters often assume no one will click on a broken link or stumble on a dead page on their sites, so they do not follow 404 etiquette.
Ultimately, a 404 message is merely standard code that a server spits out when web pages are removed or do not exist. Return codes in the 400-499 ranges are referred to as "client errors," in effect faulting us for a missing web page or mistyped URL.
Return codes in the 500-599 ranges are referred to as "server errors." These errors indicate an internal server error or a configuration problem that prevents a server from properly answering a request. The most common code, which most surfers never see, is 200. It indicates that a page was successfully retrieved.
GETTING IT WRONG AND RIGHT
Most websites are not 404-friendly, anyone who's used a search engine that doesn't weed out dead links from results already knows. But helpful 404 messages are evolving. Humour aside, any site worth its salt redirects flummoxed surfers to a navigation page to help get them back on track, Ripley says. For example if you get lost on the Lycos Network, all dead links serve up the Lycos navigational topics tree.
In contrast, dead links at EBay.com, Barnes and Noble, or even tech-savvy IBM deliver the equivalent of a blank stare. They neither offer advice to help you find what you seek nor try to point the way. Shame on them, Ripley says. Such practices prove that the web is still deficient when it comes to usability.
Interestingly, Microsoft Internet Explorer users sometimes don't even get the chance to see a site's 404 error message. That's because Microsoft serves up its own rather dry and useless "page cannot be found" error message instead. In IE versions 5 and above, Microsoft identifies a web page 404 error message before displaying it. If the byte size value of the 404 page is small (around 512 bytes) Microsoft displays its own message instead.
You can do little to avoid 404 messages. But if your page was abducted by a space alien, here's how to find out what you're missing. Copy the web address and paste it into Google's search engine query field. If you're lucky, Google will find a cached version of the page in its index.
Remember, to err is human, and sometimes 404 messages can be divine. Don't let a 404 upset you too much. Apparently even some websites get pretty depressed about not being able to help you find what you're looking for.