Broken links are a fact of internet life and in recent years the growing number of sites using a CMS such as WordPress and Drupal “have led to the fall of static HTML sites, and with each relaunch, untold thousands of links die,” according to research. The problem of these dead links is known as ‘link rot’ and it has become more problematic as the web has grown.
A 2013 study in BMC Bioinformatics looked into the lifespan of links in scientific publications and found that the median lifespan of web pages was 9.3 years, with just 62% being archived. The research also found that even the biggest business players that “should know better”, such as Adobe, IBM and Intel, had sites that were “littered with broken links”.
Implications of Broken Links in Academia
The implications for any site with broken links are many. In marketing, it’s not good for a site’s SEO or overall reputation if half of the links don’t work. The issue becomes more serious when considered in scientific or law publications as references made in papers to internet sites can become lost. In a 2014 Harvard Law School study, it was found that around half of the URLs in US Supreme Court opinions no longer linked to the relevant information.
“They also found that in a selection of legal journals published between 1999 and 2011, more than 70% of the links no longer functioned as intended.”
This meant that the paper that cited these sites with broken links potentially contained footnotes that didn’t support the claims in the paper which in turn “threaten[ed] the integrity of the resulting scholarship.”
In academia, measures have been put in place to overcome this issue, and many journals are now adopting the use of digital object identifiers (DOIs). Many university libraries are also considering perma.cc as a solution, which takes a snapshot of a URL’s content and returns a permalink.
Broken Links and Content Marketing
Whilst the implications for business websites may not be quite as serious as when considering academic publications, it’s still not desirable to have broken links on a site. Many sites that regularly publish content reference other material to back up claims and appear more authoritative to visitors. This is good practice, as readers tend not to trust information that comes from just one source unless they are familiar with the writer’s work.
In order to overcome broken links, site owners should learn to ‘read’ links, according to The growing problem of Internet “link rot” and best practices for media and online publishers. Many links contain unnecessary characters and these can be stripped back to a functional length.
For example, check out the link below and remove characters, testing the link still works as you go along, to see how far the link can be progressively peeled back and still remain functional.
You’ll end up with a link that looks like this, which can be considered to be a more stable link:
As the link above is from a reputable source, it’s unlikely that the link will disappear. With this in mind, you should look at how a link is constructed before adding it as a reference.
You should also:
- Only put in essential links – all links have the potential to degenerate over time and the more links that you use, the more chance they will become broken.
- Use reputable sources – such as educational institutions, well-known brands and individuals.
- Avoid linking to sources that might disappear – draft versions of documents (such as those found on W3C), personal or short-term project pages, press releases, fast-moving news stories.
- Avoid Wikipedia – as the information can be biased. If you do need to link to a page on the site, then you should choose the “cite this page” option as this gives you a permalink.
- Use primary sources wherever possible – if you’re linking to research, for example, link to it directly, rather than to a blog post that discusses it.
- Avoid Linking to PDFs – instead linking to the landing page containing the download link and an executive summary.
- Consider the URL – choose permalinks wherever you can and ensure that it’s the most “compact and direct URL available.”
- Avoid links containing % – as the percentage symbol is used in place of a space and this can cause the link to become unstable.
- Don’t use URL shorteners – these are designed for use on social media, but shouldn’t be used in embedded links in blogs, articles, etc.
If you have a WordPress site, you can install a plugin that checks for broken links site-wide. Plugins such as this can slow down your site however, as they can be heavy on the database, so use with this in mind and uninstall should you find it affects performance.
Alternatively, you can use a standalone piece of software that you run on your computer, or you can use W3C’s online link checker. The latter should be used after using the HTML and CSS validation checks for best results. Remember to check internal and outbound links, you want to pick up all of them. If you find broken outbound links, then find another source to link to, or remove the link completely.
On your own site, you should create permalinks to ensure that your content is always going to be found and not flag up broken links. Permalink is a portmanteau of permanent link and points to a specific post or page that won’t change. They are created in different ways and if you have a WordPress site, you’re no doubt familiar with them. You can use permalinks on any site however, and most commercial CMSs support them. If you’re not sure, then contact your web developer and ask.
Link rot is a problem for everyone that creates content and you should do what you can to ensure that your site is broken link free at all times, using the resources listed above. You should also pay some attention to the types of links you use in your content and where appropriate, strip them back to get rid of unnecessary characters. Broken links are inevitable – personal sites don’t get updated, businesses fail and sites are taken down, sites are redeveloped and updated – there are all kinds of reasons why a link may become broken.
Help to keep the web more useful and do your bit to avoid linking out to unstable links, and by putting permalinks on your own site.