Keeping Links Alive

One of the surest ways to tell that your site has provided value to visitors is when they bookmark pages so they can return in the future. Even better is when another site links to pages within your site, because people clicking on those links are a highly targeted audience. So it’s surprising how many sites make changes that break incoming links from high-quality sources of traffic.

There are many reasons why incoming links to a site suddenly become broken. I recently discussed the challenges of maintaining incoming links when two sites merge. However, there are several other reasons that links break.

Many sites are redesigning their look and feel, which leads designers to change the organization of Web pages. Other sites are reorganizing their content, moving pages into other sections and moving sections up or down to form subsections of content.

In many cases these changes don’t take into consideration the effect on incoming links and bookmarks.

Performing Triage

But how do you know if you have a sufficient number of incoming links from other sites to even worry about the problem? First, use a search engine that shows links to your site from others. For example, AltaVista currently shows there are about 16,000 links to ClickZ from other sites.

Next, review your server log to see how times the file favicon.ico has been accessed. This will give you an idea of how many times users of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer have bookmarked your site.

Once you determine that it’s worth keeping those links and bookmarks active following the redesign or reorganization, there are several ways to keep those links alive:

  • Redirect static pages to the new pages. The simplest technique is to add a meta redirect tag that will send visitors to the new page. If the number of pages affected is relatively small, this may be the most efficient way to keep users from seeing an error page.
  • Include a search engine form on the error page. If there are too many pages to manually edit, it may be worthwhile to create an attractive error page and include the site’s search form.
  • Use metadata to populate a search engine form. One way to automatically help readers find the pages they are looking for is to use the meta keywords from the old pages in the site’s search engine form. Even if the exact location of the new page can’t be provided, giving users a search box that contains appropriate keywords can be a big help. This requires writing a special script, but doing so takes less time than other approaches.

Checking for Broken Links

Large companies can have multiple Web development teams responsible for their own sets of pages. Each team can coordinate its own content, but when linking to pages maintained by other teams within the company, links can easily be broken.

Large sites traditionally store files in a variety of locations on the server to make it easy for groups of developers to manage the development process. However, this makes for long and unwieldy URLs that are susceptible to breaking when groups of files are moved to different locations on the server.

After reorganizing content on a site and using techniques to keep links alive, it’s important to check for broken links within the site. A number of Web sites and software tools, such as NetMechanic, test links to other pages and report the broken links they find.

Designing for the Future

One solution to maintaining a site with a large number of pages is to use URLs that indicate which content to display rather than using URLs that point to files — thus letting the server determine which files or database records to serve to the user.

Many content management systems use the content identifier to select the correct template, navigation links, and other elements that surround content. This makes it easy to redesign or reorganize a site in the future without breaking incoming links to specific pages within a site.

The marketing resources required today to build a loyal and targeted audience have increased dramatically. It just makes sense to use the right tools and techniques to keep from breaking the links to that audience.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.