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The Promise of 404s
Jan 05, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

On the web, "user error" is just another opportunity. Mistyped URL's are an obvious one; isn't the struggling search engine, it's a place where Alta Vista Technology, Inc. ("not affiliated with Digital Equipment Corporation") sells banner space to HotBot. If you type into your browser instead of, you end up at a domain owned by, a company that bills itself as "the first World Wide Web URL spell checker." They'll redirect your browser to the appropriate place (so you, too can Yahoo!), but not before hitting you with an ad.

But traditional publishers could really use 404 Page Not Found errors to their advantage -- if only they started thinking of them as an interstitial advertising opportunity. With database-driven back-ends, publishers could redesign their content structure on a monthly or weekly basis, rendering "back-door" URLs (the kind that are passed between friends or HREF'd in other publications or stored in search engines) useless.

When a reader hits that 404, instead of the usual error message and banner ad, the server could return a more immersive, engaging experience in the form of a 15-second streaming Flash animation (complete with sound) before redirecting them on to the page they were looking for in the first place.

This is an opportunity for a new niche advertising network, one that would specialize in error message interstitials. They could host the streaming software, develop the interactive content for advertisers, and provide technical consulting on database-driven site reconstruction to publishers.

And, in a stroke of business development genius, they could partner with major search-engines to make sure that the outdated URLs on their network get top listing in query returns.



Other pieces about personalization: