What Is Link Rot and How to Prevent It

Alyssa Gregory

Link rot occurs when links on a web site break. It’s simple: the links stop going to where they’re supposed to go, and the user typically gets some kind of 404 Page Not Found error. Pretty common on the web, isn’t it? There are even some beautiful 404 pages out there to make this mistake more palatable for the lost-on-the-web visitor.

But the result is the same: the visitor can’t find the page they are looking for. This can mean a lost sale, an exit from your site, and an unprofessional impression.

Of course, there’s not a lot you can do about external sites that have bad links going to your site due to no fault of your own. In many cases, however, you can control whether links remain active once they are published. And you can certainly prevent instances of link rot with the links you’re putting out there yourself. Here’s how:

Name Pages Wisely

If you have large site, it can be virtually impossible to keep track of what’s what if everything is named randomly and disorganized. Use categories that reflect your site structure, and then use a common naming convention for each file, such as the date, keyword and/or abbreviation.

It may also be a good idea, particularly if you have a large site that is not based on a CMS (yes, they still exist!), to keep a master list of file-naming conventions in use, so you have a shortcut to see where a particular link should lead.

Check Your Site Stats

Your analytics software can tell you a lot about broken links. You should be able to see what URL visitors are using to access your site that is resulting in a 404 error. Use this information to fix pages, create redirects and troubleshoot linking problems.

If you use Google Analytics, for example, you can modify your tracking code to include the missing page name and the referring URL in your reports.

Use Redirects

If you reorganize, move or change page names for some reason, use URL redirects to move site visitors from the defunct links to your new page. Keep in mind that even if you update all of your internal links to go to the new page, the same is probably not the case for external sites linking to you. A permanent redirect will fix these broken links, even if the linking sites do not.

Check Your Links Regularly

While verifying that all links are active doesn’t actually guarantee that the site visitor is getting the page they think they are getting, it’s definitely good practice to check all of the links on your site periodically. There are a number of link validators that will allow you to automate this process. Or you can use a tool like the W3C Link Checker.

Be Picky with URL Shorteners

URL shorteners are especially susceptible to link rot. If you use short URLs to link to your pages (and who doesn’t these days?), pick a service with a good track record and check your own links from time-to-time to verify that they work. Or better yet, create your own URL shortener.

Use Permalinks

If you have a blog or forum, enabling permalinks can significantly reduce the possibility of link rot. Think through the selection process when you choose your permalink format (if your platform provides this functionality), so it works for your existing file structure.

Give Site Visitors a Way to Report It

You may be surprised by how willing site visitors are to report broken links … if you make it easy to do. Add an option to report the error right from your 404 page. You can also create a report form that grabs the URL of the page the visitor was trying to reach, so it’s as easy as one or two clicks to report the problem.

What do you do to prevent link rot on your site?

Image credit: Splenetic