A Link Apart

by Gabriel

Linking is an important dimension for an online magazine: not only to publish illuminating articles but also for the text to substantiate its claims, pay its dues, provide context and Sherpa-like guidance about what directions to travel in next.

It’s an important dimension for ‘A List Apart’, the esteemed magazine for people who make websites. Jeffrey Zeldman’s 1997 mailing list for the web design community grew into a popular website advocating web standards. Today it is the must-read for web designers, developers and content specialists alike (if you haven't yet, do yourself a favour and grab the magazine feed).

But hyperlinks are a fixed point in a moving sea of content. Websites come and go, people themselves change, content passes out of currency or gets moved around. How can a website that values the added dimension that hyperlinks bring keep those links current over the years?

The answer in their case was to tackle the problem head on. The List Apart team asked us to trawl the website to find and fix the broken links and report on other inconsistencies that are inevitable as a website endures and evolves over more than a decade. This involved 452 articles, 275 issue introductions, 303 author biographies and 40 other web pages from 12 years of publishing. We had to change 70 links on one single article, deciding what to do when link content has expired, and in one case, an author has expired too.

The work gave us insight into what makes a strong hyperlink strategy. It reminded us how quickly things change on the web and how fast a website rots. It also means we have skim read the entire ‘A List Apart’ archive and are mumbling about CSS and responsive design in our sleep.

It was a pleasure to work with Jeffrey Zeldman and editor Krista Stevens on a magazine that sets the industry standards. It left us convinced that you need to have a strategy for your hyperlinks – for a consistent editorial purpose and helpful user experience – but also to do all you can to minimise the link decay over time. Even with a sensible hyperlink strategy, there will be times you have to knuckle down, comb through your content and tidy it up.