Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Morrison’s, Somerfield and Co-Operative
January 23, 2010
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February 28, 2010
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Supermarket Study Into 404 Page Use Summary

Example of www.asda.co.uk's 404 page

Example of www.asda.co.uk\’s 404 page

I have come to the end of my blog series on how the major UK supermarkets use custom 404 pages to improve the user experience.

The supermarket that started this off was Asda, when I stumbled across the fact that the main Asda web site did not have a custom 404 page and took me to the horrible server default 404 page. At the time I couldn’t believe it, I thought all major retailers would have had this basic principle of web development covered and be doing a good job of 404 pages.

Then I realised that Asda had quite a few other web sites so I started investigating those, found more web sites with no custom 404 pages and the list grew and grew until I had 25 Asda web sites in total, 9 of which do not have a custom 404 page at all.

If Asda are that bad, how do the other supermarkets compare?

The obvious next choice was Tesco. I started investigating their web sites with some trepidation – if Asda have 25 web sites then how many are Tesco going to have? Thankfully, the total is ‘only’ 14, 3 of which have no custom 404 page, including Tesco Direct, which is a huge online catalogue web site that would really benefit from a decent 404 page, and 6 have poor 404 pages, including Tesco Insulation, Tesco Diets, Tesco Energy and Tesco Travel Store, which were all terrible.

To wrap up the series I travelled around the web sites for Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Morrison’s, Somerfield and Co-Operative and so covered all the major UK supermarkets.

The table below shows each supermarket, how many web sites they have in total and then the state of their 404 pages. I have included a percentage figure at the foot of the table, showing how many web sites of that supermarket’s total have good 404 pages, as a percentage.

[TABLE=2]

You will see that Asda and Tesco are pretty close, with about a fifth of their web sites having what I would term as good 404 pages. Sainsbury’s are worse with only 11% (1 out of 9) whilst Waitrose has a quarter of its sites in the ‘Good’ category (1 out of 4).

There is also a figure for the percentage of web sites from that supermarket’s total without custom 404 pages altogether. Asda is pretty poor with 36%, which is 9 of its 25 web sites and Sainsbury’s is also lacking in this area with 44% of its sites without a custom 404 page, or 4 out of 9. Tesco comes next with 3 of its 14 sites without a custom 404 page, or 21%. Finally, Morrison’s single web site does not have a custom 404 page so they score 100% in this aspect.

Conclusion

The main thing to draw from all this is that the overall quality when it comes to the use of 404 pages in UK supermarkets is very poor. I had expected a great deal more from these major companies that obviously spend a huge amount of time, effort and expense on their multitude of web sites.

Whilst some of the supermarket sites do genuinely have good 404 pages, a lot are terrible or simply non-existent. The subject of 404 pages is possibly on the dull side for many (the novelty is wearing thin for me too after this study) but my belief is that they really do add to the user experience and a bad or non-existent 404 page really can have a negative effect on this experience.

Users can hit a 404 error for many reasons and I have discussed previously why a custom 404 page is a good idea. When a user does come across a 404, the important bit is what that user does next. What the owner of the web site should want them to do is to stay on their site, continue browsing until they reach the final goal for that web site – usually ordering something or making an enquiry. How does the user do that if all the 404 page shows is the server default version or does not help them in any way?

It is like reaching a crossroads with no signpost or map or hitting a dead end and having to go back the way you came, neither of which are good experiences for the user.

Supermarkets, and their in-house teams or external digital agencies, really need to look at the quality of the 404 pages that they are producing, often as part of a large scale redesign, and determine whether the result is good for the user or not. In the majority of cases at present, it is not.

Tom Batey
Tom Batey, founder of Testing Web Sites & WebDepend, is a hands on website tester focusing on quality across web, mobile and email.