Broken Websites - What You as the Website Owner Should Know Print
Saturday, 13 March 2010 11:15

One of the things I happen across frequently is a broken website. There are different degrees of "broken", ranging from a form that doesn't work properly or links that send one to the wrong page, to more technical issues that affect the workings of a website and not only discourage users but cause search engine problems as well. These things do happen, sometimes caused by changes one doesn't always know about at the host server, or perhaps changes in search engines and other things beyond one's control. They've happened to me, but the key is to fix them as soon as you know about them.

How do you find out if your site is broken?

Ideally, you should keep an eye on your website and spend some time looking through it once a week. That's not always possible if your business is busy, but it is important to spend some time on your site once in a while and make sure that things are working whenever you can. This also helps you to see things that your users see, and sometimes shows up problems you didn't know you had.  Send yourself a test email through any forms on your site. Run a link validation utility. Look at your site statistics to see if there are any 404 errors (these are "Page Not Found" errors). These are basics, and the website owner should be looking for problem areas like this that will send users scurrying off to other websites, taking their business with them. No matter how good a web designer might be, problems do occur from time to time and it is up to the website owner to find these, particularly if their business depends on their website, but even if the website is just additional advertising for them. No designer, no matter how good, has the time to keep up with every website they have ever designed or maintained and make sure it's working, nor should they be expected to do so. It's your website, it's up to you to track what's happening with it. Following are some items you should consider.

Link Validation, or Broken Links Testing

We like the basic version of Hi Software's Link Validation Utility for this purpose since it shows any missing links (as 404s, which is server code for a missing page) and if you right-click on the problem URL it will show you what the incoming and outgoing links are as well as other information that can be useful. Most online link validation utilities will only go through one page at a time.. I don't know about you, but I don't have the time to sort through every page like that. The above utility will go through all the pages on your site (depending on how many levels you ask the utility to check) and does so in a relatively short period of time, showing you where broken links are.

Viewable in Multiple Browsers

Another problem I frequently see, particularly if a site has been designed by an amateur and all too often, when it's been created by a company or someone who bills themselves as professional, is a site that does not display well in browsers other than Internet Explorer. You may not want to load a lot of different browsers on your computer in order to check this, but there's a couple of sites that are helpful.

Browsershots.org is a good site for checking how your site looks in other browsers you may not necessarily use yourself. A visit to this site will give you an idea of just how many different browsers are out there, and perhaps give you some appreciation of what a web designer must deal with when working on your site. Thankfully, most browsers adhere pretty closely to design standards, meaning that they render sites pretty much the same. But Internet Explorer has always been a problem, and until it reached version 8, it did not even come close to working with standards like CSS (cascading style sheets, a format in which most sites are being designed these days), and it still has a number of bugs that make it more than aggravating for a designer. Add to this that the site must still render well in Internet Explorer 7, and depending on the site, even Internet Explorer 6, neither of which deal with CSS very well. The simpler the site the easier it is to get it to look similar in most browsers, but that doesn't always happen.

Another site you can potentially use for viewing how your site looks in other browsers is Adobe's Browserlab, particularly when it comes to seeing how a site looks in Safari, the Mac browser, when you're using a PC. Generally Safari keeps to standards as well, but it always helps to check to be sure your site looks okay in that browser since there are many more Mac users online today than there were a few years ago.

Changes in Page Names and .htaccess

Every so often a new page is added, or a page name gets changed because it works better. But what happens when a search engine has the old page name listed and someone uses that link to get to your site? This will often produces a "Page Not Found" (404) error, frustrating the user who was looking for certain information and usually sending them away. There goes a potential customer, most likely never to return, when all that was needed was a redirect in htaccess. There are powerful ways to direct the user to the renamed page using htaccess, especially if your site is hosted on a Linux/Unix server. Don't try messing with the htaccess file if you've never had any experience with one--it can have unexpected results and can quite literally break your site. If you want to try it yourself, you should know how to FTP into your site (and if you don't know what that means, then you shouldn't touch the htaccess file) and also to set that FTP client to view the hidden files on your site. Read up on how to do what you want to do, and test your htaccess file thoroughly.

What is htaccess? It's a file that can control a host of functions on your website and is a very powerful tool to use. It tells the server things like where to find pages with names that have changed, it sends the user to your site with a "www" in front of the domain name, it fixes some problems such as redirecting users to specific folders when they type in a particular domain name, and it maintains a host of other very powerful functions that can help you or hurt you, depending on what's in the htaccess file. I often use it in SEO (search engine optimization) in order to make sure that search engines see a site the way I want it to be seen.

Ask your web designer for help with this if you're not sure about it, they can usually help you to achieve the desired results with your site. If you don't have a web designer because you maintain your own site, then find one who understands htaccess and how it is used. If you want to learn more about htaccess, a search for the term will give you many websites from which you can learn.

Sitemaps

There is no site today, no matter how small, that should not have website sitemaps. This is part of the SEO process, since these sitemaps are often used by search engines to index your site. They are also helpful to the user, who may be looking for particular information. There should be a link on your home page, if no other, to this page.

Additionally, there are sitemaps used specifically by search engines for indexing your site. These include sitemap.xml and ror.xml, the former used by Google and the latter often used by other search engines. Both should be located in the root of a site, i.e., the same folder where the site's home page is typically located. You should be able to type in your domain name, add a slash ( / ) and either sitemap.xml or ror.xml, and something other than a "Page Not Found" or "404, Forbidden" show up. You may not understand the code, but search engines do and these items should be there in order for your site to be indexed properly.

Incomplete Websites and the Web Designers Who Create Them

This comes under the category "check on your web design firm before you hire them."

Far too often I have had a customer come to me with a site that was never finished, a web designer who has disappeared, and the site owner was left with an incomplete site. Sometimes they've even paid for a complete site, but never received all that they paid for, then suddenly they can't reach the designer, who doesn't return phone calls or emails. And sometimes, worst of all, their domain name is not under their own name nor is it in an account to which they have access so they are stuck with whatever hosting the designer put them on. I've even heard stories where the designer was recommended by someone else and actually did reasonable work, but then disappeared or decided that they no longer wished to complete the work they had promised. Digging the site owner out of this mess can be relatively simple, when they have their domains in their own account so we can deal with them, or much more difficult, as when the site owner's domain is not in their own account and there is no way we can even begin to get at it without a great deal of paperwork and aggravation.

If there is nothing else you gain from this article, check your domain using the WHOIS utility at any registrar and make sure that your company is listed as the registrant. There are other contacts as well, but this one is the most crucial, and in particular the one part of the registrant information that most needs to be correct is the company name. If this is in place, you can always get control of your domain name. You may have a lot of paperwork to deal with through the registrar to get it into your own account, but it can be done in a relatively short period of time. If, however, you see your web designer's or hosting company's name as the registrant, you don't own your own domain name, they do. Get them to change this item, and check on it to make sure that they get it done. This way if they ever disappear for whatever reason, you can get control of your domain name and move your site to wherever you want.

If your site is incomplete and your designer shows no intention of completing it, we can certainly help you. We've had to do this many times, and normally we've also found that we've had to correct a lot of code as well.