Someone Let The Links Get Stale

If you try to launch the game Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword without the disc in the optical drive, the application pops open the dialog box that says, essentially, “Stop, ye Pirate, and show me your papers that prove this game is yours!” The dialog box has a message (lacking in a serial comma and a period, I add insult to insultery) and a link:

A helpful dialog box that turns out to be not so successful.
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It’s a pretty standard link sort of thing, but since it’s here on, you can guess the result of clicking the link.

That’s right, the site rolls a 1 and suffers a critical fumble:


More information, if by that you mean, no information.
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Okay, it’s not a critical fumble, really, only a high fumble.  Instead of information about the error, the link displays the home page for the game’s company. The URL indicates that the application has passed in some querystring parameters, but the site doesn’t know what to do with them.  Better still, a quick glance through the site indicates that the information I’m expecting based on the promises of the desktop application dialog box doesn’t even exist.

I don’t know whether the site used to handle those parameters or not (probably not) or if the application developers never talk to the site developers, but I give even odds nobody clicked that link when they built the application and nobody has clicked it since. Which can lead to a frustrating experience for users, but developers consider them second class citizens anyway.

So, ungentle reader, what can you do as a QA thug to inconvenience your organization with these sorts of details? Funny you should ask.

Of course, you can use an automated link checker to run through your sites, which is good for Web sites and their internal links; however, this won’t be enough because you also need to account for some incoming links and external links from within your Web site, and automated link checkers based on spidering principles (you point it at one link and it validates all pages that that page links to, and so on and so forth) might not be the best way to accommodate those considerations.

When working for an organization that maintained a fleet of brand sites, many times the brands linked from sites we maintained to other partner or affiliate sites over which we had no control. Because we maintained a very comprehensive set of knowledge about the Web sites we maintained (that is, our team often visited pages within the sites on a frequent basis), we easily identified links to external sites within our pages. We then created a spreadsheet listing those external links and clicked through them every once and again to make sure that a redesign on the target’s part didn’t leave our site linking to a 404 or some out-of-context information.

Even if you’re not doing Web sites, but instead test desktop applications, you should ferret out any Web site links included in your Help system or About dialog boxes (as well as various and sundry dialog boxes like the one noted above) and make sure that, over time, they don’t break.

Now, about the incoming links; it’s hard to keep track of where just anyone will link to on your site, but you should keep a running list of landing pages or directories that your e-mails or applications link to and make sure that they handle incoming traffic gracefully after a site redesign or a program or promotion ends. If you put a contest at /contest/ or /contest.cfm, you better make sure that that directory and that page work even after the contest ends and your organization has upgraded to .NET, because that link is out there on one or more contest sites and is sitting in consumer e-mail boxes somewhere, and you don’t want users to visit your site through one of your e-mails and get a stack trace or 404.

I mean, it’s not rocket science, but it is scut work for a developer or designer or organization to implement this as a best practice and to adhere to it.

And it’s your job to make sure they do.

So open up your favorite spreadsheet and start tracking those links. Or I might happen upon your product or project and you might see it right here, mocked before the masses.

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