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Link Rot

Something which constantly amazes me is how quickly the links on a web site go out of date. This is especially true of external links, but can also occur with internal links and graphics.

External Links

It’s easy enough to understand why external links can be difficult to maintain. It’s very simple – they are not under your control. Web sites come and go quickly on the internet. Sometimes sites disappear because the webmaster moved, lost interest or died. Occasionally they are removed by their ISP for legal or ethical reasons. Once in a while a web site is simply moved to a different host.

In addition, webmasters (at least the good ones) are always working on their sites, creating new pages, modifying old ones and moving things around. The best web sites on the internet are constantly changing – almost fluid in their design.

So what happens is you link to a large number of pages all over the web and a few of those each month are deleted, moved or unavailable for whatever reason. The result is your visitors click on links and get the dreaded 404 error. What this does is lowers your visitors confidence in you and your products – after all, if you cannot even keep your links you to date …

Internal Links

More insidious than broken external links are links within your own website which do not work. These can be graphics, videos, sound, web pages or just about anything else.

Several years ago when I was just starting out my opinion was that all web sites must keep their internal links up-to-date. Any webmaster who had broken internal links didn’t know his stuff and was an amateur.

Now that I’ve been webmaster for a large website (Internet Tips And Secrets has over 1,400 pages and thousands of images and other files) I’ve softened my viewpoint. It’s difficult to create a quality web site, much less maintain it and keep it up-to-date all of the time.

I guess my point is the ideal is to have no broken links at all, but reality indicates that occasionally you will find one or two.

What to do

Internal links are the easiest to handle. I’ve found that my links typically get broken not when I initially upload the pages – it’s when I make changes. The following recommendations will handle just about everything.

  1. Check your links carefully before you upload your files.
  2. Check each page again after you upload it to your site.
  3. Sign up for a service such as Atomz, which by it’s very nature must spider your whole site on a regular basis. This will ensure that any broken page references are found, although it does not help with other types of broke links.
  4. If you can run CGI routines and modify your .htaccess file, go to cgi-resources (or a similar site) and install a 404 error routine which sends an email to you on each error. This way you will get immediate notification of any broken links encountered by your visitors.

External links are a bit more difficult.

  1. Once you upload your pages, be sure and check every link on the page – both internal and external.
  2. Use one or all of the services listed below to check your links. These services all offer free demos for one page at a time or you can buy the ability to check your whole site.
    Web Site Garage
    Net Mechanic
    Dr. Watson
  3. Another excellent resource is LinkGuard. Use this to check out all of your links in one fell swoop.
  4. There are several software products available which will check links from your own computer. These include the following:
    Infolink Link Checker
    Link Scan
    WebAnalyzer from InContext

Making a Custom 404 Page

This is by far one of the best things that you can do to help with link rot. Create a custom 404 error page. This will also catch the problem of people mis-typing your URLs, as well as a problem with some search engine spiders that I’ve encountered lately. It seems that many spiders have bugs and create invalid URLs. A custom 404 error page will handily catch these errors.

What happens with a custom 404 error page is simple. An incorrect URL is typed. Instead of sending the 404 error back to the browser or to your host’s default 404 error page, your own page can be displayed. On this page you can apologize for the error and get your visitor back to where he belongs by offering him search capability or a menu or whatever.

Here is an example of a 404 error page.

Another example is at Cool404. Reload a few times to get the idea.

What I like to do in addition is to send an email back to myself with a CGI routine. This way I can fix those nasty errors quickly without waiting to check out my server logs.
In Summary

Broken links are an issue on all web sites. In fact, a large number of dead links is a sign that a site is not being maintained or is abandoned. In fact, many search engines will penalize a site in their rankings if they find too many broken links. If you want to look professional, then check your links regularly.