I’m pretty sure that everybody in the mainstream media now appreciates that the web is a pretty big deal. Newspapers and TV stations have finally accepted that future corporate health and wealth depends significantly on their web strategy.
Why, then, do I constantly find broken links and unhelpful 404 error pages on mainstream media sites? Here are two recent examples that I know about because I had blog posts linking to them.
- The Kansas City Star is a biggish paper, with a quarter of a million readers. You’d think they could maintain links to articles (broken link, just redirects to their home page) that are less than two years old. In SEO terms, their article on horse soccer would have easily beaten out my blog post about their article. They could have had the 2000-odd visitors who have hit my site searching for that term in the last 20 months. Given that one example, how many thousands of visitors are they leaving on the table because of broken links?
- Here’s a more heinous example. TSN used to have a whole section of their website at http://magazine.tsn.ca. My post linking to their article about CFL salaries has gotten about 25,000 visitors in the past two years or so. Those visitors should have belonged to TSN. As far as I can tell, that whole TSN Magazine section is gone, and there’s no redirects or 404-handling in place. 25,000 doesn’t sound so bad, but that’s just one article. Imagine that there are 100 articles missing, each which could have drawn roughly that many visitors. Two more zeros gets you 2.5 million visitors–a non-trivial number.
It’s possible that there are some wacky IntarWeb things going on between Morocco and these sites (Islamists don’t want me to read about horse soccer and CFL salaries!), but I don’t think so.
Broken Links Like It’s 1998
Given how desperate mainstream media companies are for web revenues, it’s shocking how often I spot broken links on their sites. I have no idea how widespread the issue is. It’s easy to imagine that TSN or the Star is missing at least 2% of potential visitors (and thus advertising revenue). If I’m running their website, that 2% matters. A lot.
Everybody has broken links. It’s a boring problem, and hardly rocket science, but corporations should know better. Their websites need to handle the error gracefully. Why, in 2008, is that still thwarting media companies?
There’s also a kind of social responsibility angle here. Every time somebody breaks a link, it has implications beyond their own site. Now I have to go chase down new articles on horse soccer and CFL salaries. In the meantime, searchers are being disappointed. That reflects poorly on me and the destination site.
It is kind of sad to still see this kind of thing going on, especially since it’s fairly trivial to put in a quick fix. User requested a page that doesn’t exist? Redirect them to a search page that can help them find what they were looking for. Or better yet, if the name of the article is part of the URL, do the search for them.
The problem that I’ve found with that solution, is that a lot of mainstream websites still think that URLs that are five lines long and are just strings of random numbers and characters are a good idea. Doesn’t help guys. Use URL rewriting. If I can figure it out, it isn’t that hard.
I think one of the factors is that even if they understand the web is a big deal, they don’t necessarily understand what it takes to do it right and that they have to put (enough of) the right resources into a team that can do it well for them.
A visit to a web site is a customer interaction / experience, not unlike a a visit to a store or watching a program on TV. Would a store leave a sign up directing customers to a display that was taken down a month ago? Great article.
There’s a disconnect between the annoyance people feel at finding dead links and their feeling of responsibility about killing them on their own sites.
Mainstream sites get redesigned in big ways all the time, even though slow evolution is probably a more reasonable way to go. In planning a big site relaunch, it seems there is routinely no thought or budget put to preserving old URLs from the previous site, even at the most basic level.
It may be a carryover from people who think in terms of redesigning a magazine, newspaper, or TV station, where the past is routinely forgotten. It certainly seems to be so for those organizations’ websites: some years ago, BCTV (then a CTV affiliate, now part of Global) spent huge amounts of time promoting their site at TVforBC.com. What’s there now? A generic placeholder — the station didn’t even bother to maintain the registration for an ENTIRE DOMAIN that used to be its primary online address. Maybe that was Global’s decision, or maybe no one cared enough to do anything, or maybe the email address that received renewal reminders died too. Who knows?
Even if the website developers and designers (internal or hired) bring up this issue, I’m sure it’s one of the first things that gets cut from any plan, because traffic from old links doesn’t seem to enter any kind of RoI calculus that’s based on what a site is going to do, not what it’s done already.
Plus smaller organizations and people often don’t care about the issue either. I’ve made some effort to keep as many of my old URLs around as possible, but I know plenty of people who create and delete blogs on a whim. And I’ve done web work for non-profits and other groups who, when I’ve asked insistently what their plans are for old URLs, just don’t think it’s worth the effort to do anything about: they’d rather I highlight the new new things. I’ve usually snuck in some basic redirection and URL preservation anyway if I have time, but that’s time I’m often not paid for.
You make a good point, though: few people realize what great value their is in old content on their sites, so they don’t know what they’re missing.
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