While looking for more ideas related to my earlier post on fighting link rot, I came across some interesting articles:
Web Sites that Heal [archive.org] considers some of the causes of linkrot, including: changing CMS systems (which I’ve dealt with here twice), poor structure (starting small and simple, but finding that as the site grows, the old design doesn’t work anymore), lack of testing, and plain apathy. More interesting are some of the reasons it becomes a problem, in particular the difficulty in setting up redirections and informing other sites that you’ve moved. That’s something else I can relate to: My site hasn’t been on the UCI Arts server in four years, yet despite a massive attempt to get people to update their links, Altavista still shows 82 pages linking to my site’s old location. Something I think the article leaves out is the number of sites – particularly people who set up a free Geocities account back in the dot-com era – that just aren’t maintained anymore. The pages are there, but they’re six years out of date – and so are the links.
The article then proceeds to suggest an automated server-to-server system that will detect incoming links to a moved page, then contact the referring site, report the new location, and instruct it to update the link with no human intervention whatsoever. A great idea, though it will require people like me to drop the edit-locally-and-upload model of development.
“Web Sites That Heal” referred to a Jakob Nielsen column on Linkrot. Nielsen’s advice is frequently useful, though not always applicable [archive.org]. Sadly, his recent columns have tended toward rehashing old ones or applying to ever more specialized niches, but sometimes his advice is spot-on. In this case, the article from six years ago still applies to today’s web: run a link validator on your site from time to time, and keep old URLs on your own site active (whether with actual content or with a redirect). The comments on this article are worth reading as well.
Lastly, I found a remark on Consequences of Linkrot [archive.org] as applied to weblogs. Most of the post is actually an excerpt from Idle Words, where the original author notes that the classic blog post – a single line linking to something of interest, or a series of the same – is particularly susceptible to linkrot. Without the original material, there’s nothing (or next to nothing) left. And it happens fast: The Web isn’t that old, and blogging is even younger, yet information is disappearing rapidly enough that you really have to wonder how much of what exists today will still be around – in any form – ten years from now. One of the key lessons DeLong takes from this article: it’s “critically important not just to link but to quote–and to quote extensively.”
The lesson is clear: The site you link to today may not be there tomorrow, and you may not have the time (or inclination) to go chasing it down. Quote it, summarize it, add context, write lots of commentary, whatever. Make sure what you post can stand on its own… just in case it has to.
Interesting irony: The link to “Web Sites That Heal” was broken for a few weeks while WebWord switched to a new CMS (one of the causes mentioned in the article). I held off altering the link or commenting until I found out whether the webmaster was planning to bring back the old content or not. He reposted the columns over the weekend, remarking:
“Tons of this stuff is out of date, and several links are broken… However, at least now I have something to work with and people won’t hit broken links from outside WebWord as often.”
Heh. Ten years on, four out of seven external links in this post are now gone. Good thing I found most of them on archive.org.
I followed a link to a recent post on Idle Words about the future of technology, competing visions for the world, and the virtue of “good enough,” and the name of the site jogged my memory. It turns out the old posts go back to 2002, and I was able to find the article I’d originally linked to from this post, “Permalinks Aren’t,” in the site’s new URL structure.
One link revived from the dead!