Here's why fixing broken links in your website is important, and what happened when we didn't follow our own advice. (You know the old Cobbler's children story...)
A story about the importance of fixing old, or broken, links.
We built a website for the National Wendy's Franchise Association a few years ago. The domain name was www.OFFAVoice.com (OFFA stood for the "Old-Fashioned Franchise Association"). At the time, we added a page to our site for the association's website, with a link to the live site at www.OFFAVoice.com.
Two years later, the association asked us to take their website down while they restructured their organization to rebrand it under a new name.
Even though their website was down, we wanted to continue to show it as an example of our work. So we cloned the site and put it on our server, under the URL http://www.offa.sevell.com. (The "sevell" in the URL means their website was "living" on our server). So while the live site wasn't accessible to the world at www.OFFAVoice.com, it was accessible to someone who wanted to see it through our site at http://www.offa.sevell.com.
However, two things happened:
- We changed one link from www.OFFAVoice.com to the cloned version of the site: http://www.offa.sevell.com, but not the other two links on that page, and
- What we didn't know was, in the time the association took their site down, the registration for their domain name had expired. And when it expired, a clothing company out of Sweden bought the www.OFFAVoice.com domain name. Since we only updated one link on our website from www.OFFAVoice.com, to the cloned version of the site, http://www.offa.sevell.com, the other two links on the National Wendy's Franchise Association page, were now pointing to the website of a clothing company in Sweden.
You can see how someone would be confused reading about the Wendy's Franchise Association website, then clicking on the live link we forgot to change, and went to the online Swedish clothing store.
We only found out about it when someone pointed it out to us.
How broken links happen.
Like a home, when a website has been around of a while, it can develop structural issues if security updates and modules (or "plugins" in the case of a WordPress site) used to build it haven't been updated regularly.
A website could also develop other issues like broken links that happen naturally over time. While broken links might seem minor, they can affect your website in two ways:
- Your search engine ranking.
Because broken links could stop search engine spiders in their tracks when they're crawling your site, and therefore, prevent search engines from indexing certain pages of your website, and
- Giving your visitors a bad experience.
When someone clicks on one of your links in hopes of finding more information and it goes to what's called a "404 error page" which is a page that doesn't exist or was deleted, it's frustrating. See our a 404 error page here. And if it happens enough within a website, a prospect might stop taking your website seriously. Having enough 404 error pages could result in a user going to another website, instead of sticking around yours.
A broken link on a client's website.
A client of ours had a link on their website to a government webpage. When that government department took down that page, there was no way we, nor our client, would have known. How often does a government website come down? Well, probably way more often then we think.
So the link on their website pointed to a page on a government site that no longer existed. How did they find out? The same way most folks find out they have a broken link on their website: someone reading it tells them. If you're lucky. Most of the time, the person finding a broken link wouldn't bother to mention it. So we really appreciate when they do.
What about internal broken links?
A well-done website has lots of internal links, meaning links that go from one page of the site to another. Example of this are:
- When you cross-reference a topic on one page, and have more information about that topic on another page, you would have an internal link going from one page of your site to another, or
- When you write a blog, and want it to have a longer life, you'd make a link on one of the more prominent, permanent pages on your site, that points to the blog. That way, when you mention something in passing on a permanent page, and want the visitor to learn more about it, you direct them to the blog which expand on that topic.
- You post page A on your site, and create a link to page B, which has more information about that topic
- Later, you decide to change the headline on page B, which also changes the URL on page B,
- So that live link pointing to page B (and the original URL), now is a broken link because the URL changed when the headline changed.
There are other reasons internal links become broken links, but those are just examples.
How do you check for broken links?
There are online tools you can use that search your site's links and lets you know which ones are broken. Just Google "broken links search" and see what your options are.
This is a slightly time-consuming project, but one that you should do yearly, like Spring cleaning. Like house-cleaning, when you do it more often, it's always less painful than doing it every 5 years.