Let Your Hyperlinks Live Forever!

It is the the duty of a Webmaster to allocate URIs which you will be able to stand by in 2 years, in 20 years, in 200 years. This needs thought, and organization, and commitment. (https://www.w3.org/Provider/Style/URI)

Joel Spolsky did it:

 I’m bending over backwards not to create “linkrot” — all old links to Joel on Software stories have been replaced with redirects, so they should still work. (November 2001)

More than once:

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to [several people] for weeks of hard work on creating this almost perfect port of 16 years of cruft, preserving over 1000 links with redirects… (December 2016).

Most of the outgoing URLs linked set on Joel of Software have rotted, with some notable exceptions: Jakob Nielsen’s URLs do still work, so they live what he preached – in 1998:

… linkrot contributes to dissolving the very fabric of the Web: there is a looming danger that the Web will stop being an interconnected universal hypertext and turn into a set of isolated info-islands. Anything that reduces the prevalence and usefulness of cross-site linking is a direct attack on the founding principle of the Web.

No excuses if you are not Spolsky- or Nielsen-famous – I did it too, several times. In 2015 I rewrote the application for my websites from scratch and redirected every single .asp URL to a new friendly URL at a new subdomain.

I am obsessed with keeping old URLs working. I don’t like it if websites are migrated to a new content management system, changing all the URLs.

I checked all that again when migrating to HTTPS last year.

So I am a typical nitpicking dinosaur, waxing nostalgic about the time when web pages were still pages, and when Hyperlinks Subverted Hierarchy. When browsers were not yet running an OS written in Javascript and hogging 70% of your CPU for ad-tracking or crypto-mining.

The dinosaur is grumpy when it has to fix outgoing URLs on this blog. So. Many. Times. Like every second time I test a URL that shows up in my WordPress statistics as clicked, it 404s. Then I try to find equivalent content on the same site if the domain does still exist – and had not been orphaned and hijacked by malvertizers. If I am not successful I link to a version of this content on web.archive.org, track down the content owner’s new site, or find similar content elsewhere.

My heart breaks when I see that it’s specifically the interesting, unusual content that users want to follow from here – like hard-to-find historical information on how to build a heat pump from clay tablets and straw.

My heart breaks even more when the technical content on the target site gets dumbed down more and more with every URL breaking website overhaul. But OK – you now have this terrific header image with a happy-people-at-work stock photo that covers all my desktop so that I have to scroll for anything, and the dumbed down content is shown in boxes that pop up and whirl – totally responsive, though clunky on a desktop computer.

And, yes: I totally know that site owners don’t owe me anything. Just because you hosted that rare and interesting content for the last 10 years does not mean you have to do that forever.

But you marketing ninjas and website wranglers neglected an important point: We live in the age of silly gamification that makes 1990s link building pale: I like yours and you like mine. Buy Followers. Every time I read a puffed up Case Study for a project I was familiar with as an insider, I was laughing for minutes and then checked if it was not satire.

In this era of fake word-of-mouth marketing you get incoming links. People say something thoughtful, maybe even nice about you just because they found your content interesting and worth linking not because you play silly games of reciprocating. The most valuable links are set by people you don’t know and who did not anticipate you will ever notice their link. As Nassim Taleb says: Virtue is what you do when nobody is looking.

I would go to great lengths not to break links to my sites in those obscure DIY forums whose posts are hardly indexed by search engines. At least I would make a half-hearted attempt at redirecting to a custom 404 page that explains where you might the moved content. Or just keep the domain name intact. Which of course means not to register a catchy domain name for every product in the first place. Which I consider bad practice anyway – training users to fall for phishing, by getting them used to jumping from one weird but legit domain to another.

And, no, I don’t blame you personally, poor stressed out web admin who had to get the new site up and running before April 1st, because suits in your company said the world would come to an end otherwise. I just think that our internet culture that embraces natural linkrot so easily is as broken as the links.

I tag this as Rant, but it is a Plea: I beg you, I implore you to invest just a tiny part of the time, budget and efforts you allocated to Making the Experience of Your Website Better to making some attempt at keeping your URLs intact. They are actually valuable for others – something you should be proud of.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    Right from the beginning, I felt that nudge of my own guilt/sadness at not keeping up my content on my own blog. You were right in that it was the weird, quirky, unique posts on things like sod houses or energy conservation pioneers in Saskatchewan that brought the most interest to my site. Probably because there was a lack of information elsewhere. But there is another thing about keeping old sites up: the people we connect with. I took down an old blog and lost most of the contacts I had, people sharing good stories and helpful information in a community that was genuinely interested in each other. I do miss that, especially given the fact that so much of that on-line conversation materialized into real-world activity for me, like pursuing a second career in science. :-)

    1. elkement says:

      Hi Michelle! First, a disclaimer: I have had a zillion examples of rotting links in my mind when I was writing this, but your blog posts were not among them :-) Maybe that was because I followed your blog so closely and could relate to the gradual and incremental steps in your journey, including the silent ‘going private’ of your blog.
      As for the connection to people: I feel, sadly, that the strong ties between websites as entities and human beings was a cultural anomaly anyway – especially that 1:1 mapping betweeing ‘a site’ and ‘an owner’. Nowadays you have an online persona that is reflected in so many different online profiles, or primarily in profiles on social media, and which platforms to use changes over time. Also the conversations about ‘your content’ have been moved to platforms, and trying to move them ‘back’ to your blog feels like ‘promoting your blog’. He said it best – blogging pioneer Hossein Derakhshan who returned to the web after a forced hiatus of years: The Web We Have to Save https://medium.com/matter/the-web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426

      1. Michelle says:

        I encountered Derakshan’s writing probably about the time that I was migrating out of social media, and thus did not keep up with his posting since then. (It was good to read this, and be reminded about important things we lose because we neglect or disregard them, taking such for granted.) This statement from the post you shared really represents much of why I stopped participating on-line, in general: “And not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked.” It was frustratingly impossible to find difference, and I think it has become worse.

        I started in Applied Maths in my program, but at the school where I was studying the only applied stream was through statistics, which of course is a huge trend in math right now because of the sudden demand for Big Data analysts. But I was so disgusted by Big Data from the last year or two of blog writing and social media experiences, that I felt I could not make a career out of data mining. It’s a strange coincidence to be back here, reflecting on this right at this moment in my life, when I feel an overwhelming urge to reconnect with a touchable reality that has come out of very similar reflections that Derakshan shares. “I miss when people took time to be exposed to different opinions,” he writes. And I nod, feeling the current presence of the monoculture of academia asserting itself in grades, grants, citations…. (do we substitute likes, hearts, follows?)

        1. elkement says:

          I do understand this so much! The next Big Data misuse scandal is just unfolding right we speak … Some commentators also tried to put this into larger context (and not only focus on that single data mining company), and they pointed out that careless use of users’ data has always been common … especially in academia. Every second scientific study in psychology or social sciences seems to be based on a big chunk of social media data. I have also often wondered 1) why it is so easy to get that data 2) if data are really pseudonymized, and generally 3) I find this a bit ‘lazy’ and unoriginal … like the glorious version of these e-mails “I write a master thesis about ___ Would you be so kind to respond to my survey?” Or “I am doing research in [energy something] … Could you maybe give me your raw data?” In grumpy dinosaur mode I think: Since when did scraping and processing somebody else’s data become ‘science’? Get your hands dirty, people and set up experiments yourself, get into a real lab, deal with faulty sensors, earn your data….

          But it’s perhaps a good way to create lots of different scientific papers – about endless variations of those social media datasets – and thus to boost those academic performance indicators you mention! In my less dinosaur-y moments I try not to hold these impudent requests for my raw data against students – perhaps if you study data science (or any other STEM field that effectively turns into data science) you just learn that this is the way it should be be?
          I am thinking about this a lot – I am spending most of my time on developing software for our internal data analysis and simulations. I know that not every ‘data scientist’ can generate ‘their own data’, but I think many of the ethical and legal issues related to using Big Data could be mitigated if there would be more accountability, more in-house data processing and less outsourcing to other entities with totally different agendas. But I think this also means there should be much need and many job opportunities for thoughtful and ‘holistically minded’ people who know both their data science, and, say, for example, liberal arts and humanities ;-)

          1. Michelle says:

            Oh, I agree with what you’re saying. I hate that when I switched to an iPhone (not because I wanted the product, but it was easier to be using the same as the rest of my family), that my contacts list was suddenly taken hostage by “Siri found in your email…” or that my routines were monitored by google maps. Or even today, a professor made the comment that if we try to search on line for information about Heisenberg, the physicist, we will need to go to page one thousand before we get past the search returns that connect to a famous actor. I didn’t know what he meant at first, so, I tried to search but it took me several pages to get past all the physicists and mathematicians that google has been tracking in my searches to find the connection to the American TV show he was referencing.

            Also, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how universities are ranked, in both local, i.e. national rankings, and by bigger ones such as the QS world university ranking. I notice that in many of these ranking systems the citation indices of research generated at these schools plays a significant role in how a university rates. It’s an easy thing to measure, really, but does it matter all that much? I think such things does add pressure to churn out the quick and cheap publications that you mention, but does not necessarily speak to what kind of learning experience is offered in these environments. I applied to three schools to transfer my undergrad studies, and the one I am favouring has the lowest rank of the three, but I think it offers the best learning opportunities for a student at my level. And yet, I have a nervous feeling every few moments that declining the offer from the so-called ‘best maths program in Canada’ might be a stupid thing to do and I should force myself to go there and suffer through everything they ask me to do. It’s crazy to let some publication list influence such an important, and personal, decision–and even more so by the fact that the rankings are based on so few, but easily measured, factors. In the end, it is exactly this wish to ‘get my hands dirty’ and gain some lab experience (to go with the math skills I’m cultivating) that has been keeping me grounded, and focused on the program that gives such experience. And then I think… how will we ever live untangled from Big Data and the internet again? Will humans ever return to the real world?

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