I turned on the broken link checker plugin at lunchtime, and let it run through the site over the next few hours* before checking back this evening.

Holy crap, there’s a lot of outdated links on this site! Over 300, in fact, linking to things like…

  • News organizations that discard their archives, or hide them behind paywalls.
  • Businesses that have, well, gone out of business.
  • Blogs that have shut down or moved.
  • Personal sites that have been abandoned.
  • Sites that have reorganized without setting up redirect rules for their old link structure. (Even the Star Wars official site did this with the movie pages!)

One of the dead links is, appropriately enough, to an article on top 10 web design mistakes. (I guess they missed one!) Another is actually on one of my articles on link rot from way back when.

And then there are the 700+ links that are being redirected, some of which should probably be updated, but some of which are certainly gateway pages — and some of which are probably pointing to a new site that took over the name, but not the content.

It’s often stated that once something goes up on the Internet, it’s there forever. But that’s not entirely true. What it is, is beyond your control. If someone else makes a copy, you can’t take it down (like the fable about releasing a bag of feathers from a mountain top, and then trying to collect all the feathers). But any individual copy — even the original — exists at the whim of whoever owns or maintains that site.

One question remains: Do these dead links matter?

I think they do, for three reasons:

  1. Links are source trails. A valid link may support what you’re saying, indicating that you know what you’re talking about. (Think of all those [citation needed] notes on Wikipedia.)
  2. Related to that, links provide context. Even today, with the masses chattering in short form on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll find people writing articles and responding to them with other articles. As long as the links remain intact, these aren’t monologues — they’re a conversation.
  3. When a whole site goes offline, you never know who’s going to pick it up. It could be someone with an opposite political agenda. It could be a spammer or malware peddler. A commenter from 5 years ago might lose their site and have it taken over by someone selling knockoffs of little blue pills — and now guess what you’re linking to?

*Something about the plugin really taxes the VPS that DreamHost offers, which is why I don’t have it running all the time anymore, but it only seems to affect the blog it’s running in, and of course it doesn’t impact static pages.

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