404 pages can be fun

The value of a good 404 page is often underrated and with so much competition on the web, it’s important to ensure that your 404 page stands out from the rest.

Many users are unsure of the purpose or role of a 404 page and are likely, when coming across one, to leave the site. In order to protect yourself there are some steps you can take against this.

What are 404 pages

A 404 page is what a user sees when a page on a website it not available because the requested page could not be found on the server of the website they are looking at. This could be because the page they are looking at has been removed, or because they typed the URL wrong.

Be helpful

Rather than assuming the your visitor understands the issue and knows how to resolve the problem, give them plenty of options to use to help navigate to the page they need. Ideas include a search bar, home page link and links to other popular articles on the website, they will have plenty of options for continuing across your website.

Be funny

Many websites choose to add a bit of humour to their 404 pages. This can help to manage a situation that could otherwise be annoying for visitors. Jokes in reference to the error will usually be successful as it shows that the website acknowledges the hassle and is attempting to compensate for it.

Stay on-brand

It’s too easy to create a generic 404 page, but they can be used as a fantastic opportunity to re-establish your brand and voice. Using the colours and fonts most closely associated with the company will reassure those customers are confused, while also keeping them on track with the company message.

Here are some examples of interesting 404 pages.

BBC 404 page

The BBC’s 404 page

The BBC offer an iconic image and some useful suggestions.

Virgin's 404 page

Virgin Travel‘s 404 page

Virgin doesn’t let 404’s get in the way of businesses, its 404 pages let customers search for cruise holidays!

Technology Bloggers 404 page shows a HTML hole (it’s just an image!) and gives some helpful suggestions.

Fighting spam and recapturing books with reCAPTCHA

A CAPTCHA is an anti-spam test used to work out whether a request has been made by a human, or a spambot. CAPTCHAs no longer seem to be as popular as they once were, as other spam identification techniques have emerged, however a considerable number of websites still use them.

CAPTCHA pictures

Some common examples of CAPTCHAs.

CAPTCHAs can be really annoying, hence their downfall in recent years. Take a look at the different CAPTCHAs in the image above, if you had spent 30 seconds filling in a feedback form, would you be willing to try and decipher one of the above CAPTCHAs, or would you just abandon the feedback?

The top left image could be ZYPEB, however it could just as easily be 2tPF8. If you get it wrong, usually you will be forced to do another, which could be just as difficult.

The BBC recently reported how The National Federation for the Blind has criticised CAPTCHAs, due to their restrictive nature for the visually impaired. Many CAPTCHAs do offer an auditory version, however if you check out the BBC article (which has an example of an auditory CAPTCHA), you will see that they are near impossible to understand.


Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist who was instrumental in developing the CAPTCHA back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. According to an article the Canadian magazine The Walrus, when CAPTCHAs started to become popular, Luis von Ahn “realized that he had unwittingly created a system that was frittering away, in ten-second increments, millions of hours of a most precious resource: human brain cycles.

Anti-spam reCAPTCHA

An example of a reCAPTCHA CAPTCHA.

In order to try and ensure that this time was not wasted, von Ahn set about developing a way to better utilise this time; it was at this point that reCAPTCHA was born.

reCAPTCHA is different to most CAPTCHAs because it uses two words. One word is generated by a computer, whilst the other is taken from an old book, journal, or newspaper article.

Recapturing Literature

As I mentioned, reCAPTCHA shows you two words. One of the images is to prevent spam, and confirm the accuracy of your reading; you must get this one right, or you will be presented with another. The other image is designed to help piece together text from old literature, so that books, newspapers and journals can be digitised.

reCAPTCHA presents the same word to a variety of users and then uses the average response to work out what the word actually says – this helps to stop abuse. In a 2007 quality test, using a standard computer text reader, (also known as OCR) 83.5% of words were identified correctly – a reasonably high amount – however the accuracy of human interpretation via reCAPTCHA was an astonishing 99.1%!

According to an entry in the journal Science, in 2007 reCAPTCHA was present on over 40,000 websites, and users had interpreted over 440 million words! Google claim that today around 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved each day.

If each CAPTCHA took 10 seconds to solve, that would have been around 139 years (or 4.4 billion seconds) of brain time wasted; I am starting to see what Mr von Ahn meant! To put the 440 million words into perspective, the complete works of Shakespeare is around 900,000 words – or 0.9 million.

Whilst the progress of reCAPTCHA seems pretty impressive, it is a tiny step on the path to total digitisation. According to this BBC article, at the time von Ahn is quoted saying:

“There’s still about 100 million books to be digitised, which at the current rate will take us about 400 years to complete”


In 2009 Google acquired reCAPTCHA. The search giant claimed that it wanted to “teach computers to read” hence the acquisition.

Many speculate that Google‘s ultimate aim is to index the world, and reCAPTCHA will help it to accelerate this process. That said, if that is its goal, it is still a very long way off.

We won’t be implementing a CAPTCHA on Technology Bloggers any time soon, however next time you have to fill one in, do spare a thought for the [free] work you might be doing for literature, for history and for Google.

Vintage Computers For Sale

Buoyed by the sale of one of the first and few remaining Apple 1 computers for $650,000 I started thinking about the old machines that were lying in my mum’s garage and wondering if I was sitting on a fortune.

Although I myself was never interested in computers my younger brother was a guru, going on to study computing at University, so we have a real vintage lot just awaiting discovery.

The first Hankins computer was a 1981 Sinclair ZX81. What a machine that was. It was manufactured by the famous watch maker Timex in Scotland, and really represents the movement from mechanical to digital technology. I remember recording programs onto a cassette recorder that were broadcast over the radio as a series of sounds similar to the noise a fax makes. Then you play them into the machine and bang you are off, you could use your 1kB of memory to do almost anything (or nothing).

A Sinclair ZX81

A Sinclair ZX81

The keys were part of the machine, like an old cash register, and it is through these that my brother learned the skills of programming in Basic, although I never got to grips with it. Then he moved on to Extended Basic and machine code (whatever that is).

Anyway it will not make me rich, they go from about $2 to $20 on eBay.

But even 1 kB of memory was not enough for us so a couple of years later we (my parents) invested in what was in its day the height of technology, a TI99. This was altogether greatly improved, it had a cartridge system in the front so you could slide in games and use the cursors to maneuver through the asteroid fields.

The TI99 was manufactured by calculator maker Texas Instruments and was the first computer with a 16 bit processor. Texas Instruments were big on voice synthesis and the big use of it for us was during the game Parsec. With 16kB of memory we had moved on considerably, and my brother made the most of learning Extended Basic using their wonderful program.

A TI99 Home Computer

A TI99 Home Computer

Just look at the lines on this beast, a design classic it sold almost 3 million units and with 68 by 48 pixels in colour the picture was a joy to behold when plugged into our TV.

It was high finance though for our family, it cost more than $500 US when newly released but as with all of these things the price fell over the following years to $150, and so the question arises again, am I rich today?

The answer unfortunately is no, you can buy one on eBay for about $20. Could be a great investment though, they have one in a museum in Paris.

Well a couple of years passed and my brother needed a serious computer to take to University. At great expense my parents went for the BBC Microcomputer built by Acorn. This was much more of an educational tool, and its release was followed by a BBC educational series that taught its user (my brother and unfortunately not me) to program, and it was the machine of choice for UK universities and schools.

Our model B had 128 kB of memory, a giant leap that allowed graphics programing and increased complexity of use. It also had a floppy disc for ease of data transferral. It was a beast of a thing though as it sat in my brother’s bedroom, and it is the most expensive machine in the house to date.

A BBC Acorn Computer

A BBC Acorn Computer

Oh how I could pay my mum back if it were now worth the same as the first Apple I thought, but once more eBay broke the spell. From $10 to $150 with all the extra hard and software, so sorry mum the Austin Martin will have to wait.

After University (and post BBC) my brother went to work and we moved into company machinery, laptops, blueberry, blackberry, apples and other fruits of commerce, and I lost touch a bit, but I alone have owned 3 desktops and 3 laptops to date and it is all awaiting disposal, so there certainly isn’t much room in my mum’s garage today (certainly not enough for an Aston Martin anyway).