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Web Master

© October 1999 Tony Lawrence

This is what you'd call a rant. It started with a relatively small post on comp.unix.sco.misc on the same subject, and it turned into this. It started because SCO changed some links. That is, they removed some pages that used to be there, and made some new pages instead. I had links on my pages pointing at the pages that they removed, so naturally my links stopped working.

Before I go any farther, I want to stop and thank the people who take the time and trouble to report dead links to me. I simply cannot say how much I appreciate that. Of course, it doesn't just help me; it helps everyone else who might want the information that link pointed at. I can't possibly keep up with every dead link every single day, so the help of those people is just incredibly appreciated. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

These particular links happened to be the ones pointing to ACE certification info and sample tests, and of course I and anyone else who had pointers to them had to update our pages. It's a minor annoyance; I have to find where the hell they put it and fix my pages. No biggy, but checking and fixing this stuff does consume significant time in total.

Of course, companies do change links all the time, and sometimes with good reason. The information might be hopelessly outdated, for example. Or it might have value and the company is trying to foil the sort of "deep-linking" (where another website tries to make it look as though someone else's content is local to them). In this case, the information content had changed significantly, so there is no doubt that the page had to be changed. But renamed? Why rename it?

Well, sometimes sites need to reorganize things- a directory is getting confusingly cluttered and it needs new sub-directories to help make better structural sense. That wasn't the case here, but even if it had been, there's seldom an excuse for not linking the old page to the new- if you have a Unix web server that's extremely simple to do, and if you don't, you can at least do a redirect.

The important point to understand here is that the people following the link to the "old" pages were not, of course, looking for those old pages- they were looking for information about the ACE program! Therefore, sending them to the new pages, or just plain replacing the old pages with the new content makes perfect sense. Even if somebody was looking for the "old" info (let's pretend they are researching a history of certification programs) it STILL would be better to give them the new content rather than a "Page Not Found" message.

Now certainly SCO is not the only company that just removes pages and replaces them willy-nilly, so nobody should take this as an attack specifically at them, but more of a general gripe:

Don't you WANT people to find your pages? Don't you understand that links from OTHER PEOPLE's pages are a tool that people use to get to you?

Yes, we sometimes have to reorganize things. I have to do it myself now and then. But when I do, I think long and hard before I remove the old page. If it makes any kind of sense to do so, I make a link ( a "301" redirect, not a Unix link) from the new page to the old, because I WANT PEOPLE TO BE ABLE TO FIND MY STUFF! If I notice in my error logs that several people have mis-spelled a page of mine in a rational way, I make a new link to that mis-spelling. If I screw up in a newsgroup posting and mis-type a url of mine, I even make a link from the proper page to the mis-type; again, because I want people to find what they are looking for. I even have both upper and lower case versions of my sub-directories- I want people to find what they are looking for!

Don't you? Do you understand that the organization of your web page should not be a matter of YOUR convenience, that the needs and desires of your CUSTOMERS are what is important? No, I don't mean me, but I mean the customers who are trying to get to your pages through something they found on my pages. They want something from you, and you just take it away because apparently you don't care whether they find it or not. Let them eat cake, right?

OH, I know- somebody's going to tell me that it gets hard to maintain organization and structure when you have multiple names for the same page. Yeah, right. Tell me- is the web page there for the benefit of the web masters or the benefit of the customers? What's more important- making YOUR job easy or having the customers find what they are looking for? Dammit, why is that seemingly so hard to get through people's heads?

Well, it isn't hard to get through everyone's head. Here's what my son-in-law (who happens to be a professional web master) had to say:

You may not like it! (though I do agree with you)

It depends. In [Sco's] case I would say it's criminal. They've
had a well established web presence for some time now that is
used by many people. Like a software package, they owe it to
their users to have "backwards compatibility" and provide some
sort of means to redirect or keep these old links. They
obviously have considerable resources and personnel devoted
to their website and since keeping your visitors happy means
no 404 pages they're not doing their job.

Unfortunately, I've had to do this myself. The  website that
lived here before me was maintained by "whoever" and "whenever"
they got a chance.  Consequently there were well over 100
documents in the root directory, and the content in the
subdirectories had long since strayed from the topics you
would expect from the pathname. There were no methods in place
for the naming of files, so I could script something to do
the redirects. So I scrapped them all.

Going forward, when I move or delete something I *always* put
a redirect to the new page. When someone comes into your site
and the first page they see is a 404 page (even the nice
customized one I have here, with a search box right on it to
find what you were looking for!) 95% of them will leave and
not give your site another glance. Session cookies and logfiles
don't lie!

Another person on the newgroup responded with this:

Control is an important issue to a lot of people. Some of
them, unfortunately, end up in high places in business
organizations. "You will read my page in MY WAY or not at all,
and you WILL look at MY banner ads, or else I shall have your

I'm sure that's exaggerated a bit, but I agree that there is often an element of perhaps unconscious "ownership" here. I think it's mostly that they just don't THINK about the effects of reorganizing as opposed to deliberately not caring, but I'm sure that some of it is just "this is mine- I'll do what I want". And that's fine- it is yours. But is your intent really to have customers not find what they want? Do you expect them to have to go searching when they have followed a formerly valid link? Do you think that makes them more or less enamored of your corporate image?

Another comment:

I agree.  All I can add is that from what I've seen, many of
the folks doing these pages have no concept of "standards".
They're either PC "wanta-bees" or "artistic" folks.  Both of
which have a hard time following any rules.

It really boils down to knowing that what you do does effect
others.  Even though this is your WEB site, others depend on
it, link to it and bookmark it.  So the more often you change
names of pages, "just because", the more often you cause undue
hardships to others.

There's a telling point. Too often the responsibility for the web page has slipped away from technical folk to marketing types. Not that marketing shouldn't have a strong influence on content; they should. But let's be honest here: most marketing types are tech dweebs who can barely get their Windows notebooks hooked up to the network. Most of them still think the web is just another form of print advertising, like something you can mail out every month, or a billboard you can redo as often as you want. Because they don't really grok the Web, they do dumb things. This will change, of course: these people aren't stupid, they are just ignorant. They will learn, they will understand. Someday.

A final comment:

Maybe webmasters should be forced to spend a Christmas season
working in a major department store.  They just might learn
something about customer service while there.

And no, that was not a rant.  Its why you, I and many others
have a roof over our heads, food in the frig, cars to drive
and are keeping up with paying the bills.  We provide much
needed services to "our" customers at their convenience, not

Amen to that. And I also think that everyone of them should read Poor Richard's Internet Marketing and Promotion which is not a technical book, but talks at length about HOW to use the web in a marketing sense.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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