Rumor: Google Likes Your 404 – Reality: Not Really
According to a number of reports today, Google’s latest beta of the Google Toolbar hijacks 404 pages and reroutes them to a Google 404 page with ‘Suggestions,’ including some hints for what to do next and, of course, an option to search on Google.
The reality though is different: Google isn’t taking customized 404 pages and then inserts itself. It only inserts its own page when there is no customized 404 page available.
Mostly, the story here is about shoddy reporting of a rumor…
Duncan Riley points out on TechCrunch that there is still some doubt as to when this Google 404 page actually shows (but then he does little to clear this up):
It’s not clear from the reports as to whether this occurs only when no customized 404 page is available on a specific site, or with every 404 page. I also can’t test the theory, least the only beta version of Google Toolbar I could find was for Internet Explorer.
Now, you would think that an editor on TechCrunch would actually check this out before posting about it – but apparently that’s now how TechCrunch rolls.
So I went ahead and installed the Google Toolbar under Internet Explorer on Vista to see what really happens:
Here is a screenshot of a 404 page on LastPodcast.net – courtesy of WordPress. As you can see – nothing happens. Neither did it on TechCrunch, Yahoo, HP, Google’s own pages,
But here is a 404 page on Techmeme, which doesn’t have a mechanism to handle them:
Clearly, Google has inserted itself here.
So the answer is simple: Google doesn’t hijack your 404 pages, but it does hijack the standard html server pages.
Now the question is, whether this is a bad thing or not. I guess one could argue that Google provides the better user experience here, as it at least gives the user some option.
On the other hand, webmasters like to be in total control and the fact that the search bar is pretty prominent on the hijacked page might lead a lot of users to search for something and never come back to your site again. But then, isn’t that the webmaster’s fault for not having a better 404 page available?
My take: Google is doing a good thing for consumers and webmasters who complain about this need to implement better ways of handling their 404 pages (and somebody give Duncan Riley a Windows machine so he doesn’t have to report rumors and can actually do some fact checking, please!)
(Oh, and by the way, Google itself explained this last December…)