We made an error! You idiot!

…that’s more or less what most websites tell you whenever something goes wrong. Don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try for yourself.

Try to get a page that doesn’t exist on Europa (www.eu.int) and you get this error message:

Not Found
The requested object does not exist on this server. The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it.

Do the same at the United Nations (www.un.org):

Not Found
The requested URL /english/qsdfqsdfqsfd was not found on this server.

Still, these are relatively benign. If we take a look at institutions a little closer to the College we’re made to feel downright stupid. Try the European Institute of Public Administration (www.eipa.nl) in Maastricht:

Error 404
Not Found

Terse. To say the least. And scarcely helpful.

Enter an incorrect address at the EUI in Florence (www.iue.it) and you’re hit with

File Not Found
The requested URL /unknown was not found on this server.
There was also some additional information available about the error: [Fri Oct 7 19:51:44 2005] access to /home/stronghold/htdocs/unknown failed for dd5763d8b.access.telenet.be, reason: File does not exist

Quite. Give them credit: they try to be helpful, even if the help isn’t really, erm, actually helpful.

I’ve been around the internet for quite a while and I’ve seen my share of error messages, so I’m pretty much inured to them. But they’re neither friendly nor helpful. And what they’re really saying (or at least implying) is that you, the user, did something wrong. That you are to blame.

Which of course may be the case—I monitor the errors that occur on the website very closely, and you do see people just try anything and everything in quick succession, blindly hoping that if they enter enough strange URLs they’ll hit on that one address they almost-but-not-quite remember.

However more often than not the error lies either with us (for removing something that used to exist or for adding a wrong link to a page) or with other people (for adding out of date or plain wrong links to their pages). And in those cases it’s even more counterproductive to saddle the unsuspecting visitor with a blunt error message.

So, what are we doing about this on the College site? Well, for starters, no technical mumbo-jumbo. No mention of Error 404s or server this and file that. And we try to offer help:

Page not found

You entered or followed a link to the following address:


We’re sorry, but we couldn’t find the page you were looking for.

Click the back button to return where you came from, or alternatively you may find what you were looking for on the College of Europe home page or the College A-Z.

If you are receiving this message and you suspect you shouldn’t have, something else may have gone wrong. Please get in touch with the webmaster—he may be able to help you out.

The wording needs some work, I know, but hey, at least we’re being really apologetic. We’re practically groveling we are.

Ah, I kid, I kid. 🙂

Sill, where the error page really comes into its own is when I know about the address that throws the error—be it a web page, or an image, a PDF file, a Word file, Powerpoint file, etc. Two cases there: either the non-existing address has a one on one replacement, or it hasn’t.

In the first case we never even stop for an error message and shunt the user onwards. So when for some reason the Development Office “home page? has been moved from /dev.htm to /template.asp?pagename=devointro and then to /development, either one of those addresses will forward the user to the correct page, no questions asked.

In the second case we do stop and inform the user of what is going on, as with everything to do with our HR Studies department:

Page not found

You entered or followed a link to the following address:


We’re sorry, but there hasn’t been a Human Resources Studies department at the College of Europe for a quite a few years now. Please see our Study Programmes page for more information on our current academic programmes.

At the moment there are close to four hundred “special treatment? URLs in the database.

I think I’ll only need to stay on top of the errors that are generated every day for a few weeks more, adding them to the database as they occur, to get our errors down from literally hundreds per day to practically nil.

Nifty, no?


2 responses to “We made an error! You idiot!

  1. But you are say, that this idead is bad?,

  2. Was ist das?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s