Updated April 13,
[ Go to Canadian Social Research Links Home Page ]
Federal Government websites:
"HTTP Error 404.
Please update ALL your links"
If you do any research on federal government websites using:
your own existing collection of links (Favorites/Bookmarks) to specific reports
or studies, or
(2) a directory-style website such as Canadian Social Research Links,
...you'll no doubt be painfully familiar with the "Error 404" message that you've been seeing more lately.
is because, as of December 31, 2008,
most federal government websites were required to change their URLs
to implement the federal Treasury Board's Common Look and Feel Standards Version 2 [see the link to CLF 2.0 below].
I've systematically checked all of the links on the federal government pages of my site, only to discover that thousands of federal government links in this site are now broken or redirecting to a search engine link --- and it looks like the departments whose links aren't broken on the pages of my site are merely a little further behind the rest in upgrading their site URLs.
Thanks a TON, CLF 2.0.
you or your organization have a collection of links to
products (reports, studies) located on federal government sites,
"Please update your links.
'Cause they're all DEAD --- or they soon will be."
Look and Feel Standards for the Internet (CLF 2.0)
The CLF 2.0 Standards for the Internet were approved by Treasury Board ministers on December 7, 2006 and are mandatory for all institutions ... with a two-year deadline ending December 31, 2008, for the conversion of existing sites.
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
Look and Fail:
Like a dog chasing its own tail in the Tower of Babel...
(Some personal thoughts on CLF, minus all the expletives
that I'll keep to myself.)
- my links!
I'm not sure at this point (early Feb. '09) how to deal with the thousands of broken federal govt. links on my site.
I may just delete all of the broken ones (except for the key links, which I'd update manually).
I have time to think about what to do, though, since many federal departmental websites are still obviously working feverishly to "meet" the December 31, 2008, deadline for upgrading their existing sites.
Global Search-and-Replace? FUGGEDABOUTIT!
I thought I could use my web editing software to fix broken govt. of Canada links using global search-and-replace, but my cursory analysis of the types of changes that are going on would indicate that many of the federal sites are also being "cleaned up" at the same time, e.g., bilingualizing text in URLs (I think this was actually the basis of a court challenge by the Société St. Jean-Baptiste a few years ago), changing the location of the language code in the URL and other tricks. The net result is that I'd have way too many links for one person to update manually, one at a time, before the friggin' things change again (And we ALL know they will)!
* CLF Reality check.
The federal government has been online since the mid-1990s, and I remember (because I worked in the federal government then...) that the federal government sites were supposed to have the same look and feel "within short order" or words to that effect. Well, it didn't work back then, and I don't think it'll work today. Like the dog that chases its tail, federal government Web designers are constantly playing catchup to conform with this or that new directive to apply to all government websites. By the time a govt. website is launched or re-launched, the site's technical presentation is often out-of-date with the latest standards, or the department's portfolio changes, or there's an election and a whole new Cabinet and portfolios and more major website changes are queued up. And so it goes.
Help me out here.
Ironically, there's no common approach to helping website visitors who arrive on a federal government website via an outdated link . Depending on which departmental site you're on, you receive more or less assistance to find what you're looking for. For example, the broken link error message on the website of Status of Women Canada states bluntly : "HTTP Error 404 - Not Found. The Web server cannot find the file or script you asked for. Please check the URL to ensure that the path is correct." The least they could offer would be a link to the Status of Women website's home page. A better approach is the Statistics Canada error message, which offers a link to the StatCan home page AND to the search engine. A full notch above that is the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada error message, where you'll find links to the INAC search engine, the Google.ca search engine, an A-to-Z Index, a Site Map and Subject areas, as well as an email address for direct contact with someone in the Department. Now, THAT's helpful!
* A word
about search engines:
Not all departmental search engines are created equal.
My old Department, Human Resources and Skills Development (HRSDC), has one of the most pitiful search engines I've had the misfortune to use - or should I say *try* to use.
If you're looking for a report on the HRSDC website, my experience-based advice is to use Google.ca - seriously. That advice also applies to other depts...
One way that federal website re-designers could alleviate the pain of this transition for the average visitor is an auto-redirect that automatically takes the person to the new URL.
Here's an example of that from the Finance Canada website:
If you click on that link, the page that opens is the correct page in its new location, but with its new URL:
(I realize that this poses a challenge for the long term, but it would certainly help site visitors during this period of upheaval, and it would help people to update their links collections...)
A large number of universities and other organizations use database engines in their web presentation, and many of those offer stable (permanent) URLS specifically so their visitors can bookmark a particular report or other item. Surely, the federal government could explore the possibility of including stable URLs for researchers who wish to link to a particular file without having to worry that the URL will change by the next time they try to access the item...
I like the idea of a permanent collection, by year, of ALL govt. documents - including news releases, reports, studies, budgets, annual reports and public accounts, etc. This archive *should* have a prominent link on the federal or provincial govt's home page - because the home page of the Government of BC or Canada is much less likely to change than a line dept or an agency. Governments should be required to maintain old content in a user-friendly format. The auto-redirect idea could also work, if govt. webmasters would leave the re-direct scripts online permanently so someone using an "old" collection of site content links would be re-directed to the new file address without having to jump through a bunch of hoops. A friend of mine who is a social advocate and researcher suggested that governments "should be required by law to maintain the old sites in an archive so that the links continue to work regardless of the stupid changes that governments like to make when elected."
UPDATE (April 13/09)
There are two archives that you should try when a federal website's links are changed and you can't find an historical document by using departmental search engines or Google.ca:
Government of Canada Web Archive
The Wayback Machine
You can read about both of these and see how they work in How The Wayback Machine can help you beat 404 Fury
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Open any web page in your browser, then hold down the Control ("Ctrl") key on your keyboard and type the letter F to open a "Find" window. Type or paste in a key word or expression and hit Enter - your browser will go directly to the first occurrence of that word (or those exact words, as the case may be). To continue searching using the same keyword(s) throughout the rest of the page, keep clicking on the FIND NEXT button.
Try it. It's a great time-saver!