It’s not even Christmas yet and I find myself with a checklist, this one for Federal web site requirements. If you run a government web site, be it at the Federal, State or local level, or even outside the US, it’s hard to go wrong when you adhere to guidelines and practices developed by the Federal Government. Although, in many ways, it’s also hard to do it right.
One checklist item mentioned is an external links review, something sorely lacking in many government web sites. Most webmasters are capable of doing a decent job of ensuring the major links within their site are working, but do you have an easy-to-follow policy for reviewing external link? Sure, you can run a link-checker to see if the link is broken (Xenu happens to be a current favorite around here…) but what if the link is still valid, only now it doesn’t point to where you intended? This could be anywhere from annoying to disastrous.
For example, your link to www.sample.com/Default.aspx?Document=1234 is great, until the nice folks at Sample.com renumber their documents and instead of bringing up the schedule for the Bluegrass Festival it now brings up the requirements for applying for a permit to transport live frogs via personal watercraft. No link checker will tell you that, you have to actually click on the link and make sure it goes where you think it should. But hey, at least your Bluegrass fans are only a bit disapointed. It’s not like you linked to a list of the local houses of worship and now that link points to Kandi’s Kastle of Kink.
It’s amazing how many sites have menu items that pass to dead links but even more amazing is how many of those same sites have no method of reporting broken links. Yes, running link checkers can help, analyzing the site’s log files for 404 responses may be even better, but what’s wrong with letting the viewers help? Are you afraid they just might do so?
The best thing a webmaster can hope for is a dedicated viewer willing to report a broken link. After all, it means they want to use your site and, even better, they probably have found the place the link should point to. They have done 90% of your job, you just need to make a quick edit to fix a problem. A simple “Report a Problem” link on your site that is either a mailto: link or backed by a response form goes a long way toward appeasing a viewer already frustrated by an incorrect or broken link. A custom 404 message can make this even easier.
No link checking program, service or analyzer can ensure you don’t have problem links. It is up to the webmaster, or to designated parties in your organization, to stay on top of these seemingly trivial things. To a viewer, a site with broken or erroneous links appears less maintained, less important and less trustworthy. And being less trustworthy is not something any government site needs to aspire to.
The drivel posted here may or may not make a difference in your environment, so please feel free to pass it by at any time. On the other hand, you know we’re right, so just listen up and follow the advice.