Mountains, molehills & the Google toolbar

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (427 Words)

A lot of people have been getting their panties in a bunch over the last 24 hours because of the Beta 5 drop of Google Toolbar - which can now present a custom 404 page to its users, which contains a Google search button. My reaction was ‘so what?’, but it appears that the typical Internet misinformation train had already kicked in and people are claiming it’s an evil act that is deliberately set up to harvest people away from websites to ad-driven pages, and that webmasters are powerless to stop it.

What a bunch of old tosh.

Here’s the real story. The Google Toolbar (which requires an explicit choice to install, by the way, but that’s by the by) will only replace your website’s 404 page if:

  1. You allow a 404 HTTP error code to be returned back to the browser, ie you don’t handle it internally and redirect to a page that returns a success code, and
  2. The page that contains the 404 is less than 512 bytes in length

That means that anyone who internally consumes 404 errors and redirects to their own page which doesn’t return an error code (like a search page) is unaffected. Even those who take the simpler route and still expose the 404 but use a custom error page are unlikely to fall foul of this, because it’s actually quite hard to write an error page that does anything useful in less than 512 bytes. Thus, the ‘Google is stealing my visitors’ argument is completely vapourous - if the toolbar’s 404 kicks in, it’s because you let it by not doing anything special with 404s in the first place. To be honest, if you don’t bother to do anything about 404s already, you have no right to complain if someone else does it for you.

I see this as just a usability thing, and it’s actually no different to IE’s ‘Show Friendly Error Pages’ option - I actually hear that the 512 byte threshold is the same as IE’s. It’s easily avoided by any website designer who wants to - in fact, if you run a professional site you’re very unlikely to be affected because you’ll be handling 404s already. I find some threads discussing it to be quite ludicrously misinformed, which is why I chose to write about it today. Unfortunately the Internet is very good at disseminating information regardless of accuracy - Google tried to set the facts straight but who knows whether any of the hyper-sensitives who initially flew off the handle will take any notice.