Feb 14, 2008 116 reads by Navneet Kaushal

The latest version of the Google Toolbar (Version 5) seems to have sparked off a controversy about its functionality to handle 404 “Page Not Found” error. Many webmasters have expressed their concerns on various forums.

Google Toolbars 404 Page, A Boon Or A Bane?

First, they are concerned that when the Google toolbar replaces their custom custom 404 “Page Not Found” with the Toolbar's version of the page, it leaves the users vulnerable to be taken away from the site he's trying to visit. Since, Google's toolbar features a Google search box and if the user makes use of it he could very well be away from the site owners website resulting in a loss of business opportunity and so on. The anguish has been expressed by terming this phenomenon as “hijacking” a browser, “evil”, “criminal,” against the policy of “Do No Evil,” and infringing on the rights of the webmasters to decide what a user sees when they visit a site.

A second concern being raised is about a website or a business's privacy. It is a concern because the toolbar apparently extracts information from the URL and then pre-populates the search field with that information, observes SEOker. Furthermore, it can get serious if a particular URL contains sensitive data and internal information.

Google has been quick to respond to the issues raised against the modus operandi of the latest Google Toolber, with Matt Cutts explaining the concern.

As far as 404 errors with default error pages or the “hijaking” part is concerned, Google's toolbar gets in action when a visitor tries to reach your content with an invalid URL. In case your server returns a short, default error message which is less than 512 bytes, the Toolbar will suggest an alternate URL to the visitor. Furthermore, if this is a general problem in your website, you will see these URLs also listed in the crawl errors section of your Webmaster Tools account.

But if you want the visitor to see a custom error page, then you need to make sure it returns result code 404 as the content of the 404 page can help the visitors to understand that they tried to reach a missing page and provides suggestions regarding how to find the content they were looking for. So when a site displays a custom error page the Toolbar will no longer provide suggestions for that site (only if the custom 404 page is more than 512 bytes). In case your custom page falls short of the specified size of 512 bytes the Google toolbar might “hijack” it. Now whether there should exist such a limit on a custom 404 page or not is still a quiz?

Moreover, the toolbar was released powered by this feature to enhance user experience and to help visitors, “to…arrive at your website, or at least see your content, even when things go awry. It's frustrating for your users to mistype your URL and receive a generic '404 – Not Found' or try to access a part of your site that might be down…Toolbar…helps users by detecting site issues and providing alternatives.”

What the users normally get when they either mistype your URL or try to access a part of a site that might be down is this:

Google Toolbars 404 Page, A Boon Or A Bane?

Apparently, the page provides hardly any information to the user about either the site he wants to visit or any other suggestions. On the other hand a Google Toolbar feature turns up with a page such as this.

Google Toolbars 404 Page, A Boon Or A Bane?

Seems to be more helpful to the user, as under the heading suggestions, the links provide ways to navigate or search unc.edu. An option to go to www.unc.edu (the hompage), or www.cs.unc.edu. A facility to search on www.cs.unc.edu for some words, in addition to making the nonsense phrase “sadasdf” into a more useful phrase “sad asdf” to search for, etc. Moreover, there is a link below titled, “Why am I seeing this page?” which can inform the user by answering the “whys” including a “how” to disable the feature.

So if a user wants to turn off the feature he can do so with ease, and if a webmaster wants to show a customized 404 page then they need to make it 512 bytes or longer.

If you happen to be a user, the feature seems to be quite a boon as it's quite helpful and it's not forced as it comes appended to the the new Google Toolbar, moreover you can switch it off whenever you feel like.

However, if you are a webmaster things, have changed a bit with the new Google toolbar, because if earlier you had a custom 404 page of less than 512 bytes it would have worked well in most cases. But now it can be a bane, and very well “hijack” your custom 404, if it's not “512 bytes or longer. Since this hijacking is preventable, with a tweak here and there the webmasters can continue to sail smoothly. Although, the question whether this limit should be there or not is still quite there. Additionally, some people have expressed that they “missed” the information provided by Google about how the toolbar handles 404. Perhaps Google may want to be as vocal as it can about such announcements, so as to forestall such a controversy from recurring.

As far as Google pre-populating the search field with potentially “sensitive” information is concerned, it needs to be addressed as well.

Navneet Kaushal

Navneet Kaushal

Navneet Kaushal is the founder and CEO of PageTraffic, an SEO Agency in India with offices in Chicago, Mumbai and London. A leading search strategist, Navneet helps clients maintain an edge in search engines and the online media. Navneet's expertise has established PageTraffic as one of the most awarded and successful search marketing agencies.
Navneet Kaushal
Navneet Kaushal
Most popular Posts
Upcoming Events
Events are coming soon, stay tuned!More