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Broken Links on Your Website Send the Wrong Message

August 12th, 2014 by mdmcginnis

Broken links are a nuisance for everybody involved. They make your website appear ill-kempt. Google notices that, and lowers your search engine rankings. Part of my job is fixing broken links on our websites. I always try to find replacements, but if I fail, what can I do but remove the link completely? If your visitors can’t find what they’re looking for, they may stop looking for you. Or they may email you or call you instead, defeating the purpose of having a website.

When someone visits a web page that’s no longer there, your server sends a 404 message (not found). But what message are you sending to your visitors?

“We decided to move all our pages, and we want you to figure out where they moved to.”

“This website wasn’t important enough for us to update, so why should it be important to you?”

We don’t know what you’re asking about, and we don’t care.”

“We used to know a lot about this subject, but we’re clueless now.”

That’s not the message you mean to send, of course, since you’re not clueless. You’re still the authority in your field. (EDIT: Or else you could send a 410 message.) Maybe when you redesigned your website, you resigned yourself to some broken links. Maybe some of your pages are outdated, and you don’t want anyone to see them again. But you don’t mean to send the message that your website no longer has answers, let alone that nobody has answers, to their questions anymore. The problem is that other websites may have linked to your old pages, or your visitors have bookmarked them. Don’t believe me? According to Google Webmaster Tools, people were still looking for news stories from a ten-year-old version of the main Texas A&M University website. As of last week.

By the way, that Google Webmasters Tools link (above) is where you should start attacking the problem. Log into your Google Webmasters account (you do have an account, don’t you?) and click on the Not Found tab. Google has kindly listed all your broken links in order of priority – the ones that your poor visitors are still trying to find. Click on any URL, then on the Linked From tab in the popup box, and you will see the other web pages that are linking to your missing page. To automatically check for broken links each week, we use SiteImprove.

Some other solutions – your mileage may vary :

  • Preserve your pages – Sir Tim Berners-Lee said it and I still believe it: cool URLs don’t change. So when you set up your website, to avoid having to change news.html to news.cfm to news.php whenever you change your backend technology, make it the index page in a /news/ directory. If every page is an index page, you don’t need specify the file name or extension. So inside http://www.tamu.edu/admissions/, it doesn’t matter if the page is named index.html, index.asp, index.php, or index.jsp. It will be treated all the same by your browser. By using this technique (and an .htaccess file), we were able to move the President’s website from WordPress to Cascade Server without breaking any links.
  • Alias your pages – But what if your backend technology has changed and you didn’t set up your directory structure this way? With Apache configurations and .htaccess files, you can rename your .php files as .asp files. A useful tool against industrial espionage.
  • Stub your pages – Even if you changed your directory structure, maybe you can keep abbreviated versions of the old pages alive, at the old location, if they are still being visited often. Stub pages should quickly answer the most common reason for visiting the page, and conclude with, “For the latest details, visit our new page.”
  • Redirect your pages – You can do amazing things with server settings such as the Apache redirect directive or the mod_rewrite module. That’s what the WordPress .htaccess file uses. Your server can send the new page when visitors ask for the old page. You can do that with entire subdirectories.
  • Admit your lack – If you can’t fix the link, make sure your visitors see a helpful 404 page, not the default server error message. In a previous version of our website, when we created a customized 404 page that detected when visitors were looking for one of our most popular misplaced links, such as the Online Picasso Project, and directed them to the new location of that page.
  • Timestamp your pages – Especially on a blog or a news site, you can do this by literally adding the publication date near the top. You may not need to throw away a page, such as a bio, that is slightly outdated but has good information. When they see the date, visitors (and Google) will be able to judge how current the information is. If you’re not going to move the good information to a new page, don’t throw away the old one.
  • Update your pages – If your visitors have been going to the same page on your site for 15 years, do you really need to trash that URL and insult your visitors? Instead, keep the page alive and correct the misinformation. If you expect your visitors to get used to a new URL, it might take another 15 years.
  • Inform your referrers – Email the webmasters of the sites responsible for your highest priority crawl errors, giving the broken link, the page where you found it, and the updated link. I did this for a couple of dozen of our most common referrers. Google Translate helped, in some cases, to communicate with non-English-speaking webmasters.
  • Refer to your informersHospitality and customer service means that you don’t stop with, “It’s not my department.” The more often you’re asked about something that isn’t your job, the more diligently you should shout from the housetops, “I would be delighted to tell you whose job it is!” (Saves wear and tear on you. too). So if you no longer handle the topic that your outdated web page discusses, point your visitors to the best replacement page, where your visitors can find the quickest solution. Yes, it may be important to you that the Associate Provost for Agency Accommodation and Achievement only deals with researchers who were funded before 2010 by private foundations that are located in what was the Laurasia supercontinent during the Mesozoic period. But your visitors don’t care. You can link them to the right department, even if it isn’t yours, faster than they can Google for it. After all, you’re the authority in your field.

How do you deal with broken links on your website? Do you have any better suggestions?
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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 Web Content
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