File Not Found? Google Knows Best

Matthew Magain

A new feature thrown into the beta 5 release of the Google Toolbar for IE — ignoring a site’s 404 page and displaying its own File Not Found page (with links and a Google search bar, of course) — is causing plenty of bloggers to cry foul.

Google’s Matt Cutts has gone into “it’s OK, we’re just helping” mode, clarifying that Google’s version of the File Not Found page only kicks in if the site’s 404 page displayed is smaller than 512 bytes (an assumption that is supposedly intended to target default pages only). Of course, it’s entirely plausible that a custom 404 page just doesn’t use much markup, which in Google’s eyes, means it’s not worthy for display.

Yes
this is a setting that users can turn off, and yes the user can choose just to uninstall the toolbar altogether. But on the other hand, this is a setting that is turned on by default, and is a very popular piece of software with a huge user base — should the fact that I keep my markup lean result in my 404 page being overwritten (for those users) with Google’s opinion of what they should see? It’s one thing to add features to a browser and extend its functionality — it’s another thing entirely to display a completely different page to the one served up.

A poll conducted by TechCrunch revealed that, not surprisingly, 73% of readers disagreed with Google’s stance on this issue.

It might not be evil, but it’s certainly a hugely grey area.

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  • Mikel Ward

    I assume you mean:

    the page only kicks in if the site’s 404 page displayed is largersmaller than 512 bytes

  • Mikel Ward

    The del and ins tags didn’t work, and there was no preview option!

    Take 2:
    the page only kicks in if the site’s 404 page displayed is smaller than 512 bytes

  • Paul Annesley

    It might not be evil, but it’s certainly a hugely grey area.

    Evil, I say.

    And their byte threshold sounds alarmingly inspired by Internet Explorer behavior – not a piece of software to take lessons from.

  • locomotivate

    404 pages are a very valuable piece of a website. It is certainly wrong for Google to do this by default.

  • http://www.deanclatworthy.com Dean C

    God these posts are annoying. IE6+ displays their own 404 not found page if the page is not greater than 512 bytes anyway. I think this is a great idea for web users who aren’t smart enough to fix their own problems when URLs don’t work. If only more websites did this on their 404s.

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    @Mikel Ward: Thanks, typo fixed.

    @Dean C: Thanks, I wasn’t aware of that. Well, not until Paul mentioned two comments before you anyway.

  • ionix5891

    I have confronted Matt Cutts about this

    this is pure evil, even Microsoft would not sink this low

    I asked him what gives google the right to do this?
    and why not show live.com or yahoo.com search lets say 50% of time?

    google are turning into scum, this is what spyware do!

  • http://www.cromecreations.co.uk crome

    The only way I could see Google even trying to squirm out of this one is if they gave out a meta tag or something that we could put on our custom 404 pages to stop Google’s 404 steam rolling in over the top. Even that wouldn’t be a good solution but at least it would suggest they had thought for a few milliseconds about us mere web mortals!

    <meta name=”404″ content=”Get lost Google I’ve made my own Thanks!” />

  • Tim

    Isn’t this similar to the same stunt that Verisign pulled when they started trapping 404, 503 or some other error code and redirecting users to their domain? I don’t see this as being any different.

    One question I have is, can anyone here create a meaningful and helpful 404 replacement page that is under 512 bytes? Lean markup aside, I’d hazard a guess any page under 512 bytes wouldn’t be that useful to the end user.

    Does the 512 bytes also count the HTTP headers or just the page content size?

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Simon Mackie

    At least IE doesn’t try to make money from you by hijacking the 404 page.

  • Paul Annesley

    Does the 512 bytes also count the HTTP headers or just the page content size?

    I’d say it’d definitely be based on the Content-Length, which is the size of the response body, excluding headers.

  • http://www.aarontgrogg.com aarontgrogg

    so, i need to make sure my custom 404 is at least 513k?

    ok.

    too many sites leave the user hanging.

    i dont like companies hijacking the web any more than the next person, but this doesnt sound entirely evil.

    at least they dont place a full-blown ad in there! could you imagine them selling AdWord space on their custom 404??

    now THAT would be evil… :-)

    Atg

  • http://www.aarontgrogg.com aarontgrogg

    sorry…

    so, i need to make sure my custom 404 is at least 513 bytes?