The first beta of WordPress 3.5 is out, and along with new and improved functionality, one feature is being removed: the blogroll. Well, technically it’s only being removed on new installations. If you have an existing WordPress site with links in the Link Manager, it’s not going away until a future release, and even then it’ll be moved into a plugin. (Lorelle writes about the history of blogrolls in WordPress and what to do if you want to keep yours.)

The move reflects changes in blogging trends, as well as the ongoing struggle between search engines and the SEO industry. In the old days, it was trendy to list sites you liked in a sidebar. Search engines took note, and then SEO practitioners started taking advantage, and so blogrolls lost their value.

One of the sessions I attended at WordCamp LA was a talk on optimizing WordPress. One of the measures I’ve been looking into is reexamining the plugins I use. (Sure, there’s no such thing as too many if you’re actually making use of them, but more code needs more resources.) I’m actually using two plugins to increase the value of my blogrolls here and at Speed Force:

  • Better Blogroll to show a small, randomized subset on the sidebar instead of the full list of links. (This keeps it from being clutter, and prevents the links from fading into the background by being the same on every page.)
  • WP Render Blogroll Links to list them all on a page.

I keep thinking, do I really need these? Well, I definitely don’t want a long blogroll in the sidebar. If all I want is a links page, I can just write one, and if I really want static short list in the sidebar, I can add them manually. It only really matters if I want to keep that random subset. Otherwise, I can pull two more plugins out of my installation.

But then, do I even need the links page at this point? My current links here mostly fall into one of three categories:

  • Well-enough known to not need the promotion.
  • No longer relevant to this site.
  • Other sites I maintain.

I might want to just drop the list entirely.

Speed Force’s links are both more extensive and more targeted to the site. It’s probably worth keeping that list around, but maybe just as a links page.

Does anyone actually look at those sidebar links anymore?

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Holy crap, there’s a lot of outdated links on this site!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.

Lately I’ve been linkblogging via Twitter, and using Alex King’s Twitter Tools to build a weekly digest in WordPress. The problem is that since I’m pulling the posts from Twitter, I’m stuck with Twitter’s limitations: Short descriptions, cryptic URLs, and unreadable links.

So I wrote a plugin to process the links. When Twitter Tools builds a digest, the plugin calls out to the remote site, follows redirects, retrieves the final URL and (if possible) extracts the page title. Then it replaces the cryptic-looking link with a human-readable link, transforming this:

Check out this site:

into this:

Check out this site: Flash: Those Who Ride the Lightning

If it can’t retrieve a title, it uses the final hostname. If it can’t connect at all, it leaves the link unchanged.

The download is here, and that’s where I’ll put future versions:
» Plugin: Twitter Tools – Nice Links.


One thing I’d like to add at some point is cleaning up the title a bit. They can get really long, even without people trying to stuff keywords and descriptions in for SEO purposes. All it takes is a page title plus a site title, like this one. That’s a much more complicated problem, though, since there isn’t any sort of standard for which part of a title is the most important. I suppose I could just clip it to the first few words.

I’d also like to clean up duplicate text. Often the link title and tweet content are going to be the same, or at least overlap, especially if it’s generated by a sharing button or extension. That should be easier to check.

Twitter writes that link length shouldn’t matter, but the zillions of URL shortening services out there show that, for now, it does.

But why?

There are two main reasons to shorten* a link:

  • There’s a technical limit, such as SMS message length or email line width.
  • You expect people to manually enter the URL.

Right now, with Twitter messages limited to 140 characters and links forced to share that space with the rest of the post, URL shorteners are critical. But they’re working on a plan to accept longer URLs, and specifically shorten them for SMS messages. The full link will be available on the Twitter website, desktop clients, and other platforms that don’t have that hard and fast limit.

That will cut down on the demand for shorteners, but they’ll still be useful.

For one thing, there are other microblogging platforms out there like StatusNet.

For another, there’s email.

IIRC, the first URL shorteners launched because email programs often break up really long lines, including really long URLs. In plain-text messages, that leaves links not just unclickable, but inconvenient even to copy and paste, because you have to copy each line separately and paste them together. This will continue to be an issue as long as people continue to put visible URLs in email.

And then there’s the human factor. It might not be easy to remember, but it certainly takes a lot less time to write it on a scrap of paper than

Which of those URLs would you rather type on your keyboard? Or worse, on your mobile phone?

*In this case, I mean making it really short and cryptic. There are plenty of reasons to keep links readable and sort of short.

Forget Ashton Kutcher and Oprah, forget #unfollowfriday, forget 25 Random Evil Things about Twitter — the key problems with the social media / microblogging / broadcast IM / whatever you want to call it service boil down to two problems:

  1. It asks the wrong question
  2. It was designed around limitations of cell phone text messaging

The Wrong Question

Twitter’s prompt is not something general like “What’s on your mind?” It’s “What are you doing?” That encourages people to post things like “I’m eating lunch” or “Just got into work,” or “Posting on Twitter.” Presumably what they mean is “What are you doing that you think people would find interesting?” but of course that’s too long a prompt from a usability standpoint.

The thing is, there’s no reason to broadcast the mundane to the world. Don’t tell me “I’m eating soup.” Tell me, “Just learned that gazpacho soup is best served cold. I wonder if they eat it in space?”

Unfortunately, that means the signal-to-noise ratio can get pretty bad at times.

Outgrowing its Limitations

Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters of plain text so that the your name and comments can fit in a standard SMS message. Now, this is great if you use Twitter via text messages on your mobile phone. It’s not so great if you use Twitter on the web, or through a smartphone app like Twitterific on iPhone or Twidroid on Android, or through any of the zillions of desktop apps.

I don’t have a problem with the 140-character limit itself (it can actually be liberating in a way), though it would be nice to have some formatting options beyond all-caps and *asterisk bolding*.

The real problem is that links have to share that limit. URL-shortening services have exploded lately as people try to squeeze links into the tiniest space possible to save room for their precious text. Even if you use something as short as, just including one link means you’re down to 122 characters.

Plus URL shorteners come with a host of problems, in particular the fact that they hide the destination. That’s no big deal if the target matches the description, or if it’s a harmless prank like a Rick Roll, but it’s all too easy to disguise something malicious.

Seriously, if you got an email that said something like this:

Look at this!

Would you click on that link? Even if it appeared to be from someone you know? That’s just asking to get your computer infected by a virus, trojan horse or other piece of malware. Or to see something you wish you could unsee.

Better Link Sharing: Facebook

I hesitate to bring up Facebook as a good example of anything, and I know the current layout is largely reviled by its users, but they really got posting links right.

When you want to post a link to your Facebook profile, you paste in the full URL. Facebook reads the page and extracts the title, a short summary, and possible thumbnail images. Then you have the normal amount of space to write your comment. Continue reading