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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

Error Reporting Made Easy

January 25th, 2011 by Erick Beck

Read any web design book, blog, or article, and they’ll tell you that a good, user-friendly, custom 404 page is one of the most important elements that you can add to any site. And they’re right. But we as web administrators know that “good” and “user-friendly” are wide open for interpretation. Most of the time users hit the page, ignore it, and go about their business. Users seldom bother to report the broken link, and when they do they very often don’t include all (or sometimes even any!) of the information we need to track down and fix the link.

With our new website we’ve tried something different, making it as easy as possible for users to report bad links. We did this on purpose – we knew that with the new design there would be plenty of them. The university site had been poorly limping along on a very bad information architecture for years. Directory structures were illogical and poorly named, and the access file contained almost two hundred redirects for sites that had been on the server but moved years ago. We decided to clean house with this new version of the site, knowing there would be some (a lot) of short term pain, but that in the end it would be a better environment.

We have left or recreated many of the most-used redirects and old directories through a combination of symlinks and rewrite rules, but with the amount we started with there are still many that are now causing 404 errors. Enter the new custom error page…

Screen capture of 404 Error page

The most important thing we did on the page was to add a “Report this broken link” feature and make sure it was prominently highlighted. Through a few server side include tricks the mailto link will open the user’s mail client and populate the first line of the message with the requested page and the referring page, if applicable. This insures that we have all of the information we need to find and fix the broken link.

With this feature prominent on the page, we have increased the number of reports from several per week to several per hour…and not all to the newly non-redirected site. Several have been to files that have not been on the server for years, but are still linked from somewhere on the Internet. Bad links that have existed for years but have never been reported. The difference, it seems, is in making it easy for the user to do so.

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Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 Web Content,
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