Please Don’t Change That URL!

From BBC – Radio Labs – How we make websites comes this quote:

It’s nice if URIs are human readable. It’s also nice if they’re hackable. It’s an absolute prerequisite that they’re persistent.

Don’t sacrifice persistence for the sake of prettiness or misguided SEO. URIs are your promise to the web and your users – if you change them or change their meaning you break that promise – links break, bookmarks break, citations break and your search engine juice is lost.

As long ago as 1998 and 1999 the W3C and Jakob Nielsen were giving the same advice, so this isn’t exactly breaking news. But the BBC story shows that the command is taken seriously by the creators of one of the best reputed dynamic web sites on the internet. So why do lesser entities feel the need to intermittently destroy all the value created by their employees in the form of established web presence?

If you sense a certain frustration behind the above comments you are right.

To a large extent that frustration arises from having bookmarked or linked to useful resources only to discover when I went to retrieve them that the links had been broken by yet another ridiculous renaming scheme. But it also arises from experience on the other end – as a service provider.

For the past decade or so I have been maintaining a small part of my employer’s website through which various services are shared with my professional peers around the world and our students. But despite having been poorly maintained for the past five years it remains within the top ten Google ranked sites among millions on the topics it deals with. Why has it been poorly maintained? Because my enthusiasm and commitment to the work has been sapped by repeated threats from our Communications and Marketing department that the pages will eventually have to be moved to a different server and therefore served with a different family of URLs. The change of server would of course be irrelevant if those in charge of the website had been prepared to guarantee that access to the pages using their old URLs would continue to work transparently (which could be done quite easily with technology that has been available since before 1998). But to change the URLs will break all of those links on which the Google ranking is based – not to mention just annoying and frustrating the many people around the world who have actually found those pages useful. So I live under constant threat of having my work bring upon me the curses I so often have to heap on others.

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