David Madore's WebLog: Multiple redirections and URL stability: a rant

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(Wednesday)

Multiple redirections and URL stability: a rant

I was really impressed by this one: I followed a link on some Web page that was pointing to a page of the domain www.inmet.com (someone's personal Web page below that, actually, but no matter). This is what I read:

Intermetrics, Inc. and Pacer Infotec, Inc. have merged to form AverStar, Inc.

Please visit the new AverStar web site at www.averstar.com. (If supported by your browser, you will be redirected there automatically.)

…and indeed, shortly after that, I was taken to www.averstar.com. But here is what I read there:

Titan Systems Corporation — AverStar Group has changed its name to Titan Systems Corporation — Civil Government Services Group. Please visit our new web site at: www.titansystemscorp.com/groups/cgsg/

(If supported by your browser, you will be redirected there automatically.)

Now what do you think I found after I was redirected to the supposed “new web site” address? That's right: I read

The Titan Corporation has merged its subsidiary,
Titan Systems Corporation,
into The Titan Corporation, effective September 25, 2002.
You will be redirected to www.titan.com momentarily.

At this point I was led to a genuine Web site (Titan) which, of course, had absolutely no relation to that for which I had followed the link. Now this suggests several comments to my mind:

  • First of all, the people of The Titan Corporation have obviously no track of the domain names and redirections (thence and thither) that they own. Obviously I shouldn't have had to read these redirections one after the other: the first domain name should immediately have told me (assuming it were necessary, but that is another point) that Intermetrics is now part of The Titan Corporation and have redirected me to the appopriate place—I really didn't need to know all the intermediate steps of how Intermetrics had merged with Pacer Infotec to form AverStar, which then became a group of The Titan Corporation that changed its name to Civil Government Services Group and was finally completely merged. Zeus do I care! But apparently people were too busy merging companies to bother checking the assets of these companies (including preexisting Web site redirections). And that's very revealing of sloppy management.
  • Second, I ask myself whether it is really necessary, each time there is one of these name changes, to scratch the old Web site and use a redirection. Why not simply change the logos on the old Web site to indicate that it is now part of SomeBiggerGroup, Inc.? Nobody reads URLs anyway, and nobody cares whether the site of the Foobar Department of SomeBiggerGroup is under www.foobar.tld or www.somebiggergroup.tld, do they? Even if the URL is to change, why must it be done with a five-second pause to let everyone know about it? Come to think of it, were all these name changes really necessary in the first place? I do wish companies and whatnots would cease this habit of changing names all the time, it's needlessly confusing for everybody's memory (part of the name change activity is due to trademark infringement: now I wish courts of justice were narrower in their interpretation of trademark infringement because this is getting way out of hand).
  • Thirdly, I note with great annoyance that each of these redirection steps makes no effort to preserve the underlying site hierarchy. Now I wasn't just coming to see www.inmet.com, I was coming to see someone's personal Web page on that site: I neither know nor care what Intermetrics, Inc. was all about. So I should have been taken either to a message telling me that employee Smith, who used to be working for Intermetrics, Inc., was now part of Titan and his new Web page's address is such-or-such, or to a message telling me that that employee had been laid off and had left no forwarding address for his Web page, or that his Web page could now be found at this-or-that address, or some such thing. But no, apparently webmasters concern themselves only with people coming to the top of the site's hierarchy, not to any point below. This is another sign of sloppy management: even the largest (or smallest) company (or school, or whatever) in the world should be able to keep track of all of its past employees and offer them forwarding of their email and Web page addresses (and snail mail, of course) for life, including hierarchical structure and subdivisions, no matter what, no matter how long the employee worked for the company in question, and no matter how the company gets bought by larger companies or sold again or whatever. This is just the very basics of professionalism: keeping a record of who worked for you and offering them minimal forwarding services.
  • Basically, people did not understand one of the basic principles of the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee underlines with great clarity: Cool URIs don't change. I just hate it when, in the course of harvesting interesting information on the Web, I record some URLs, and find that a month later, or a year later, they are broken, often without a word of explanation other than 404 Not Found.
  • And incidentally, the person who linked to www.inmet.com in the first place mustn't check his links too frequently. But that I can sympathize with, because a great number of links is a hard thing to check, and there is no really appropriate tool to do it automatically (especially when the links do not return a 404, or even a 3xx, HTTP code but a protocol-genuine page which says “see elsewhere” in a way that only a human can understand as a redirection).

Enough for now. Some other day I'll write a rant about stupid Web sites that use URLs like http://www.bigcompany.tld/S/products/show_details.php?session=Tg2S8QYeVluYi0dn&exec=1K4epdayGfZDv9aD with no explanation anywhere as to what that all means or what you should use if you want to send a link to a friend—and, of course, particularly nasty Web servers and scripts which send you right back to the starting page if you omit any part of the URL in question, instead of proceeding intelligently.

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