One of the smallest things that can go wrong with your website can damage it the most. Link rot – dead hyperlinks – are just as nasty as the name suggests. When you leave your website unattended, the inevitable happens. References to other websites become invalid. You move or delete pages. Someone changes the name of a file, and any links there break.
It’s easy to see how link rot happens, but you might be surprised to learn how adversely it can affect your site. When website visitors encounter a dead link, the overwhelming tendency is to leave the site altogether. Granted, a dead link on a deep internal page is less detrimental than one on your homepage, but still. One false click, and you’ve lost a potential doner, volunteer, customer or fan.
Luckily, there are some common-sense precautions you can take to minimize this risk.
Run link reports.
If you have an analytics program (which you should – read what we’ve written about analytics) that you’re consulting regularly, you’ll see a report of dead links visitors are encountering. If you don’t have an analytics program, you can at least run your website through a link checker. How? Type “link checker” into Google, and you’ll be spoiled with free choices.
Enable automatic aliases.
Those who use our Drupal websites hardly notice when they’ve changed a link. We enable automatic aliases so that whenever a page name changes, any old links that lead there change too. Look for this feature in your own content management system. You can also create redirects that reroute old links to new pages.
Provide informative 404 pages.
You’ve seen pages with the 404 File Not Found page. If you can’t catch every dead link on your site, at least create a custom 404 page. List potential reasons the link may be dead, and help direct the user to find the page they’re seeking, such as by using a search box.
Avoid URL shorteners.
These services that take your lengthy URL and transfer it into something shorter that looks like http://bit.ly or http://ow.ly are killer for links. They change over time and get reassigned to other users. Only think of them as a short-term fix, not a long-term solution for your website.