While some web technologies and techniques come and go with the frequency of a “Persian rug, everything must go going out of business sale,” there are some general housekeeping rules for your church web site that are ageless. One of them can be found in the 1998 Jakob Nielsen AlertBox “Fighting Linkrot.” Basically, Dr. Nielsen identifies broken hyperlinks as one of the scourges of the Internet. While you may not see the problem as dramatically as he paints it in the article, it’s still very important to avoid broken links on your web site.
That said, it is equal, and possibly greater importance that you not break your links on search engines. More accurately, if you have a page that is well indexed on a popular search engine, then make sure that page is there for the user that clicks on the link. Since you have no direct control over what gets listed, you may be asking yourself “how do I break a link on a search engine?” Glad you asked.
Site upgrades, web server moves, changes in server-side programming languages and/or changing to a different web editor or content manglement system can all contribute to search engine induced linkrot. The recently upgraded Redland Baptist website is an excellent example.
Before I switched to using MovableType as a church content management system, I had generated pages using DreamWeaver 3.0 (don’t worry guys, I now own MX). The pages employed Server Side Includes, so the page extensions were .SHTML. The sub pages resided in a subdirectory named “pages.” So, if you found our website by entering “baptist church gaithersburg maryland” into Google, you would (and still do) get a link to the (deprecated) url: http://www.redlandbaptist.org/pages/gaithersburg.shtml.
This is all fine and well, but I now that I’ve gone to the trouble of updating the RBC site using MovableType as an editor and PHP as my server-side solution, I want people to go to the new page at: “…/directions/gaithersburg.php.” The same holds true for the well indexed directions pages for Bethesda, Derwood, Germantown, Olney, Rockville, Potomac, Silver Spring and Wheaton. The problem is, I don’t want to lose my good Google ranking with my old pages. So how do I get the best of both worlds? Glad you asked.
Within the aforementioned Alertbox article, there is a link to another equally timeless tombe at the W3C entitled “Cool URIs don’t change.” The article is presented in the familiar FAQ format posing excuses for changing URLs, and then shooting them down. Basically the article asserts that as long as you control your domain, then you should be able to control your URLs.
Some of you by now are asking yourself “yeah, okay Dean, I’m sold, but how?” Glad you asked.
There are several methods of offering redirection. I can be done through <meta> within an HTML document, as exampled in an University of South Wales article entitled “Think twice before moving that page – Avoid Linkrot.” But sometimes this brings with it a penalty from the search engine. You do what I see on some church sites, and just put a hyperlink on a blank page saying “we’ve moved, so should you.” Unfortunately, most if not all search engines will push a once populated page to the bottom of the heap now that the compelling content is gone.
For me, the preferred route is to take advantage of the Apache Server’s mod_alias modify the .htaccess file. Which is why for those of you clicking on the above link to the old page … got the new page, simply by entering the following directive:
(Note that the above command should actually be all one line, it only word-wraps because … well because my blog needs some healing.)
Now your mileage may vary slightly. I had to use “RedirectPermanent” , whereas some of you might have success with “Redirect permanent.” Check with your hosting provider to find out which one works best for your configuration. And if you’re still stuck, here are three more how-to articles on the subject you might find useful:
- Apache – URL Rewriting Guide
- OpenSourcePan – Simple mod_alias Techniques
- Dive into Mark – HTTP Error 410: Gone
I know this is a bit technically involved for some of you, but this is vitally important to the long term success of your church web site. As Dr. Nielsen aptly put it “Any URL that has ever been exposed to the Internet should live forever: never let any URL die since doing so means that other sites that link to you will experience linkrot.” Amen. About the only thing I’d add to that would be “especially high-ranking links from popular search engines.”