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Broken Links and Poor Information Architecture Design

  |  August 30, 2001   |  Comments

Links are an essential infrastructure allowing Web content to be navigable. Without links, you might as well pile all the billions of documents on the Web into one huge container. Link management is therefore an important part of running a Web site.

Broken hyperlinks (links) are a serious problem on the Web. There are a number of reasons for their proliferation:

  • A large number of Web sites are being closed down.

  • Web sites are not being properly maintained.

  • Web site information architecture is constantly being changed.
Links are an essential infrastructure allowing Web content to be navigable. Without links, you might as well pile all the billions of documents on the Web into one huge container. Link management is therefore an important part of running a Web site. A broken link is a sign of an unprofessional site.

Study after study shows that people are becoming more conservative in their use of the Web. On a daily or weekly basis, they go to fewer and fewer sites. One probable reason is that many people see much of the Web as a mismanaged hit-and-miss affair. People have become very skeptical. A broken link is guaranteed to feed that skepticism.

In the process of putting the archives for my newsletter on my Web site, I had to check external reference links. Roughly 70 percent of those links were broken when I tested them. In 2000, Andrei Broder, vice president of research at search engine AltaVista, estimated that as many as 20 percent of Web links that are more than a year old may be out of date.

As part of the maintenance of your Web site, use software that will check the integrity of your links. However, links can break or misdirect for a variety of reasons, so schedule a comprehensive check of all links at least once a year.

Some months ago, I had reason to bookmark specific pages on a number of Web sites. When I re-used these links recently, I was amazed at how many of them didn't work because the information architecture of the Web sites had changed.

Evolutionary design has for years been the hallmark of Web-site design. You got the Web site up, saw how it worked, changed it, saw how that worked, changed it, and so on. The problem is that Web sites that are constantly evolving are confusing to people trying to find their way around them. "I knew where this page was last week, but now they've moved it" is not a happy refrain.

Constantly changing a Web site often means trashing the old version and building a new one from scratch. This approach was all well and good in the early days, when everyone was learning the ropes. However, it is very expensive and time consuming for an organization -- and genuinely frustrating for the person who visits the Web site. It is doubly frustrating for the regular visitor, who in all likelihood is a customer -- the last person you want to frustrate.

The Web is eight years old. The basic rules of Web site design are now in place (or should be). It is time that information architecture be treated as if it were "written in stone," not designed on the back of a beer mat.

The Web sites that need to constantly change their information architecture have in all likelihood not spent the time to plan how they want their content organized. Time spent up front designing a robust and scalable classification and navigation saves money, time, and effort in the long term. And it will result in a better experience for the person who uses the Web site.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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