What is the difference between a broken link and a 404 error? Or, a 404 error page and a not found error page? What about the term broken page? What term is the right term to describe a page that cannot be found?
All of these terms describe essentially the same experience: your website is unable to deliver a piece of content your visitor wanted. But, where did these terms come from? Which term is the right term to use?
Let's start with the most popular term to describe this experience: broken link.
The web is built on a structure of links. From the earliest days, one page of a website connects to another page of a website. We depend on those links to take us to a working, found page. A broken link, then, is simply a link that leads you to a page that cannot be found. The page that contains the broken link is the source of the 404 error.
The term broken link refers to the link itself, but not to the page you arrive at after clicking on that link. Essentially, a broken link leads to a 404 page. As a result, a broken link is the first step of users not finding what they wanted to find.
When you browse the web, each page returns a number indicating that page's status. A normal, working page returns a status 200. A page that can't be found usually returns the number "404". Referring to a page that cannot be found as a "404 error" is technically correct.
There are however when a page that cannot be found returns a number other than "404" (we'll save so-called soft 404s for another post). So, this term is technically correct for a large majority of not found pages, but is technically incorrect for some not found pages.
The description associated with the "404" number sent back on a page that cannot be found is "Not Found." The technical definition is that this not found state could be temporary. There are other signals and phrases that indicate if something is removed for good.
At SpringTrax, we prefer the phrase "Not Found" to "404". Referring to this experience as a "404" is too technical and doesn't describe the situation with in the same way "Not Found" describes the situation. However, "not found" does miss out on a key aspect of this page: that the user's experience with a website was broken.
The term broken page indicates a page that hasn't done what the person looking at that page intended; something broke. Unlike "404" or "Not Found", the term "Broken Page" gets to the user aspect of this problem and, really, a page that cannot be found is a user problem.
Because this term captures the user aspect of this problem, we prefer this term over "404" or "Not Found". However, the term "broken page" refers to the second step of users not finding what they wanted to find, not the entire experience.
There are two steps in the process of a page not being found. A user first clicks on a broken link and then arrives at a broken page. That broken page returns a "404 Not Found" response. That entire process is a broken experience; the experience failed the person clicking the link and looking for a page.
The term "broken experience" is the best to describe what happens when a user arrives at a page that cannot be found and is the preferred term at SpringTrax to describe the entire process.