IT WAS a scene reminiscent of a countrywide blackout. In April 2001, Canada’s electronic disclosure repository, SEDAR, decided to reengineer the backend on the system’s public website and in so doing plunged hundreds of thousands of links and bookmarks into a void of 404 error pages.
The problem for many Canadian issuers was that they provided links from their IR websites to their regulatory filings on the SEDAR site. When the SEDAR site, which receives upwards of 150 million hits per month, changed all its URLs, none of the links worked.
What’s more, most of the links from IR websites remained broken for months — and many are still broken at the time of writing this in July 2001 — because SEDAR failed to properly notify filing issuers and the many other sites that provide links to the database’s search results pages.
Dead links undermine your site’s value
The issuers themselves are not blameless, though. Their sloppy site maintenance procedures bear at least half the responsibility for the dead links. And for this they will suffer a dent in their credibility when anyone tries to use the links.
Broken links on your site irritate users and reflect badly on the overall quality, value and credibility of your site and, of course, the person responsible for making sure the site works as it should — you.
For IR websites, where credibility and trust are paramount, dead links take on a whole other dimension. A poorly maintained site begs the question: “If you’re this sloppy with your site, how sloppy are you with your numbers?”
And in the case of the SEDAR snafu, the potential fallout couldn’t have been worse since the people most likely to follow the links were also the sites’ most influential users: sell-side and buy-side analysts, portfolio managers and brokers.
The problem is widespread and getting worse
A survey in May 1999 by All Things Web found that link rot affected 28.5% of all pages sampled. This is like saying that a third of links on the web don’t work, which is astonishing when you consider that links are what make the web a web.
The survey also showed that the problem of broken links was getting worse. A similar survey in 1998 had found that 23% of sampled pages were affected. A year later, however, the problem had worsened by almost 24%.
I could find no surveys with more recent data, but with the constant multiplication of pages on the Internet, it’s unlikely that the problem has gotten any better.
How to reduce outbound link rot
Managing outbound links is a major headache for me on this site. Since my objective is show rather than tell you about best practices, I link to a lot of external sites.
Often these links go to specific pages deep inside a site’s hierarchy, or even to specific anchor points on a page. The problem for me is that I have no control over the destination sites. Pages get moved, changed and updated, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that my links remain alive and relevant.
To manage outbound links I do four things:
Use a link tester
A link validator is a software program that spiders all the links on your site and alerts you to ones that may be broken. The content management system software IR Web Report uses works with several link validation plug-ins.
While definitely helpful, the software is not foolproof. It cannot tell me, for instance, if a working link is a relevant link. The destination page may indeed exist, but does it still contain the same content as I originally intended to link to? I can’t tell that without regularly checking each link manually.
Review high traffic links regularly
Rather than check every outbound link on the site each month, I check only outbound links on the most heavily trafficked pages. (This should help to keep most of you happy.)
Every three months, I review every page of the site and test all of the outbound links. It’s a tedious process, but a necessary one, especially since my credibility hinges on walking the talk of good website usability.
And, of course, when new content is posted, I test the pages and links before making them public.
For you, high priority links would include those to regulatory filings in databases like Edgar and SEDAR, and to quote pages on stock exchanges. Also included here are links listed in recent news releases, such as to webcasts and to partner company sites.
Watch for bailout pages in web logs
As part of my site maintenance, I review site traffic logs every week. Mostly, I am looking to see which pages are being used most heavily, but I also want to know which pages people are exiting the site from.
I make a special effort to review the top exit pages to see what might be prompting people to quit the site. Generally, the explanation is fairly obvious, but occasionally I find something that needs fixing.
This happened recently when I posted information about the 2001 AIMR study of member technology use in the Trends section of the site. The link to the study was working when I posted it, but AIMR updated its site and moved the study to a different page, leaving me with a broken link.
Reviewing the log file, I noticed a high number of users left the site after visiting the Trends section. After fixing the link, site exits from the Trends section suddenly dissipated.
Avoiding linking to sites that remove content or fail to redirect
I try to avoid linking to websites that change their URLs or only archive content for limited periods. Over time, I’ve learned that news websites, for instance, all have different archiving policies. I’ve also learned that some companies are better than others at redirecting traffic when they upgrade their websites. If I find I have to link to a site that I’m unfamiliar with, I keep a screenshot of the linked page in case the link breaks in future and I need to replace it with something that illustrates my content.
Do your part to fight link rot
The best thing you can do to stop link rot is to never change the URLs of pages on your site. This will prevent other sites, search engines and individuals’ bookmarks from experiencing dead links to your pages.
Site authors are more likely to link to your site if they’ve had a good experience doing so. When it comes to this site, I have a policy to remove links to sites that change a URL more than once. It’s not worth the time and hassle trying to feed traffic to a site that doesn’t value it.
A major cause of link rot for IR websites occurs when they are reengineered. With rapid changes in technology this is happening more frequently, typically every 12 to 18 months according subscribers to this site.
Revamping your site does not always mean the developers have to change all the URLs, but sometimes there’s no alternative. In these cases, the rule must be to redirect traffic to the new locations.
Leave a forwarding address
The HTTP protocol for permanently moved pages is a 301 redirect. Most browsers today will automatically update a bookmark when they hit a 301 redirect. Search engines, too, will automatically replace the old URL with the new one.
Maintain the redirect for two years or more. This is because almost all traffic to sites comes via search engines, links from other sites, bookmarks and email from friends.
Search engines often take several months to update their listings while bookmarks and links from other sites might take much longer to be updated.
Since a large number of sites might link to yours, you need to have a plan in place to notify them when you reengineer your site. Start by reviewing your site’s access logs to find out which sites refer a lot of traffic and then notify them of the new URLs.
This won’t cover all inbound links, but it will take care of the most important ones.