Broken links, broken trust

In October 2016 in Parramatta, the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) held its annual conference. This year the theme was: Forging Links – People, Systems, Archives. My conference presentation on 20 October used the Find & Connect web resource as a case study, and explored an issue that is close to my heart and critical to Find & Connect: broken links.

Everyone who uses the web has come across a 404 error when a website has a link to a page that no longer works, and most people would agree that these broken links are annoying, frustrating and inconvenient. But my paper (Broken links, broken trust: why 404 errors have the power to traumatise) urged the audience of archivists and information professionals to think about the broader impact of broken links, and how broken links diminish access to and openness of information, and how they can erode trust. Everyone – but particularly information professionals – should care about broken links.

When the Find & Connect web resource conducted usability testing about the website with Care Leavers, there was an unforeseen finding – broken links, specifically the psychological impact of broken links on Care Leavers, emerged as a key issue. Several participants in our usability testing spoke of the emotions triggered by encountering broken links:

“That’s what we have been coming up with all our lives (no information)”
“Can’t do this!”
“Links have got to go where they say they are going. (Not to other pages or are broken)”

Find & Connect’s validity, trustworthiness, and usefulness to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants depends upon its links to other web pages working.

As archivists, as information professionals, providing access to vital information, we can and need to do better. Solutions to broken links are readily available – permanent links, robust links, redirects and clean URLs – but are not often utilised or advertised. Communication is vital:

  • if permalinks exist but the system doesn’t output them, share that information with your users
  • if you know in advance that links on your website are going to change, let other websites that link to yours, know – then we can update the site before the links are broken.
  • think about communicating differently on your website’s 404 error pages – rather than putting the blame on the user, the organisation could say sorry.
  • consider the trust implications of a broken link to a web page about government’s apology to state wards, or information on how Care Leavers can access their records – no wonder Care Leavers question the importance the organisation places on this content when they encounter a 404

Finding and fixing broken links takes up a considerable amount of my time working on Find & Connect. Fixing broken links is resource intensive and time-wasting, and no matter how many links that are fixed, more are always broken. So while I won’t stop fixing them, I’m also advocating for a change of thinking around broken links, because they can have a huge impact on vulnerable people, they are important and we should care enough to think about them when updating or changing our systems.

To listen to my full talk (19mins) please follow the link below.