Web News Links Need a Longer Lifespan

By: Steve Outing

A while back, a business reporter at my hometown newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, wrote a profile about my work (as an example of a new breed of work-at-home entrepreneurs), which ran in the printed newspaper and on the Camera’s Web site. Since I have my own Web site, I added a link to the Camera online article.

Alas, within a couple weeks, that link no longer worked. The Camera’s Web staff — like so many others — had taken down that old article and moved it to a permanent archive. The original URL, which I had included as a link on my own site, was now dead. Since I wanted to include the article on my site, I contacted the Camera’s Web editor and got permission to republish it directly on my site.

That’s a classic example of a problem numerous news Web sites have with their archiving procedures. Many a news site will publish an original story with a unique URL, then the article will stay on the site for anywhere from a single day to several months — depending on company policy and, sometimes, available server disk space. But eventually, the link will die as the article is moved to the newspaper’s permanent archival system and off of the Web site. Consumers can still access the story, of course, but they’ll have to find it using the archival system search feature — and probably pay a retrieval fee.

Why is this a problem? The short answer is that it’s inconvenient for readers, and it loses traffic for the news site, because inquiries to outdated URLs will continue to come from search engines and a bevy of linking Web sites. That’s lost business for a Web site.

Robert Myers, assistant production director for interactive electronic news at the Detroit News (which makes all of its Web site article links permanent), says, “We get a fair amount of traffic, as well as a lot of mail, on stories a year or more old.” Without permanently linking, those Web page inquiries would result in “Error 404” messages — which just makes your site look bad.

Indeed, an increasing number of Web news sites have recognized this problem and are now making all of their article links permanent. They include the Christian Science Monitor, HotWired and WiredNews, the (Raleigh, North Carolina) News & Observer, American City Business Journals, the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News, CNet’s News.com, Ziff-Davis, and CMP publications. But by far, the majority of sites let their initial URLs expire fairly quickly after publication; the original articles then exist only in a permanent digital archive and not on the news Web site.

The personal touch — broken

With the advent of personal home pages, many individuals create links on their sites to articles that may have run on your news site. The family home page may contain a link to an article about a child’s star performance at a high school football game, or an obituary for a family member. The game story and the obit (ironically) will die after a short period of time.

David Rothman, an Internet author, ran into exactly this problem when he created a link on his personal Web site to a Washington Post obituary of his father. The link died after a few weeks, and Rothman began a campaign to convince the Post that it should adopt a policy of permanent article Web links to account for instances such as his. (Rothman’s dispute with the Post is documented in The Missing Links of the Washington Post, part of the Fallows Central Web site that he maintains.)

The Post currently leaves content originating in the newspaper up on the Web with original URLs for 35 days, after which it is purged from the Web site. Original online content stays on the site “forever, or until we delete it, which is generally never,” according to a Post spokesperson.

(This is a fairly standard policy, from what my research tells me. Most sites automatically purge most of their content after a set time, but consider special reports and selected content to be “evergreen” and keep that permanently — or until it is deemed to have outlived its usefulness to readers. Some sites leave entertainment or sports news on the Web longer than news content.)

Throwing away site traffic

A strong argument for permanent links is the growing number of Web sites that exist to point Web users to filtered content on the Web from other sites — and thus bring Web publishers sizable traffic gains. Excite’s NewsTracker, for example, is a free online clipping service that creates custom links to the best content from hundreds of news sites on the Web. NewsTracker users can select pre-configured news categories (“Jonbenet Murder”) or create their own; users receive a page full of links to stories on various news sites that match their interests. An Excite spokesperson says that the service has trouble with some sites that expire their article URLs after only a day or two.

A site called EntreWorld includes a searchable database of references to URLs of the Web’s best articles of interest to entrepreneurs. That site’s manager says that of the 600 articles referenced currently, about 10 go bad each week. The site’s staffers manually “fix” links that go bad, when possible.

Even New Century Network has trouble with this issue. Evan Davies, who is responsible for NCN’s NewsWorks search engine, which indexes the news content of 130 sites, complains that it’s a struggle to keep dead links at bay because some sites expire links quickly.

Without permanent links, Web sites simply lose these additional sources of traffic.

The case for permanent links

In an ideal world, news sites might have all of their articles attached to permanent links. Rothman and other advocates of permanency would like to see newspapers altruistically leave all of their Web content online forever, with stable links. Rothman suggests that this can be supported by an advertising model, where current advertisements are dynamically inserted into old stories. Add targeting into the mix, and you have a decent advertising model. Some Web sites already are trying this. (For an example, see http://biz.maine.com and http://lcnews.maine.com, Web sites produced by MaineStreet Communications of Gray, Maine.)

At the least, Rothman wants to see public service components of newspaper sites — such as obituaries — kept on the Web permanently with durable URLs. Indeed, for newspapers concerned about the revenue implications of leaving much content on the Web and losing paid archive income, this is a reasonable step that won’t much impact archive revenues.

But there’s another approach to the revenue dilemma. Go ahead and use permanent links for all content published on your Web site, but after a certain date put a “price tag” on the articles. Thus, an article that is more than one month old will still be accessible via its original URL, but the person who calls up that old article will be presented with a request to pay a fee before downloading the story.

This is a nice way to increase archive revenues, in fact, because consumers will be finding an old article through both a traditional archive search and via old URLs found scattered around the Web. What would you rather have, a Web user wanting to see one of your old articles see “Error 404” or “Here’s the article you requested; if you would like to view it in its entirety, it will cost you 50 cents”?

Next column …

I found in researching this column that this is a topic of strong interest for many interactive news professionals. So, in my next column I will touch on the permanent links issue again and report on how several news Web organizations specifically deal with the linking dilemma, and discuss some of the technical issues involved in making permanent links work.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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