Why Does Every Link Go to a Dead Page?

You know the struggle. You’re trying to do research for some project and tracking down your sources. You’ve procrastinated way too much so you’re getting desperate, which means the universe has now decided to conspire against you. Just like how your printer decides sometimes that it doesn’t want to print your black and white document because it’s out of cyan, every blue link you click starts routing you to error 404 pages. Hopefully you’re not in the throes of desperate googling right now, but why does every link go to a dead page? No this doesn’t happen when we try to cite sources in posts, why are you asking, stop asking.

Further Reading: Why Is it Called a 404 Error?

Link Rot

If you were still unsure as to whether or not all these dead links were just the internet conspiring against you in a time of need, it is a real phenomenon known as “link rot.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: it’s the increasing likelihood for hyperlinks to direct to bad content over time. 

Within two years of being posted on social media, about 27% of links are lost on average. It’s not just the articles you see floating on social media though, link rot has a very profound effect on academia—a field you probably associate with information preservation and bookkeeping. 

Let’s take lawyers, the people most likely to ask for a source better than “I saw it somewhere.” We’ll also look at the Supreme Court, but nowadays they’re kind of known for being deliberately misleading under oath or functionally accepting bribes. Oops. 

But first legal journals. The Harvard Law Review did a study of other law journals published between 1999 and 2011. They found that 70% of presented hyperlinks no longer led to their original citations. Supreme Court decisions? Over 50% of the links in their decisions led to dead pages. This study was published in 2015. A more recent 2021 study from the Harvard Library examined about 550 thousand articles in The New York Times published between 1996 and 2019. About a quarter of those links were inaccessible. This comes despite The New York Times generally being pretty good at archiving stuff. 

Why Does the Internet Decay?

Link rot is a pretty expected phenomenon when you think about it. Hosting a website costs resources, and sometimes you just can’t host a website anymore. You’ve probably experienced this going to an older website and encountering a page telling you that domain was up for sale. Pages on websites go nowhere because a website might remodel itself. You can think about it like a hotel or apartment. A URL doesn’t necessarily “say go to Room 001.” It instead tells us “take 30 steps forward, then at the drinking fountain turn left and take another 40 steps.” If the hotel remodels itself, “Room 001” might still exist, but following the exact same instructions on how to get there from before the remodeling might take you somewhere else. 

This kind of restructuring happens often, and it has led to the birth of a new domain economy. Dead links on credible sites are sold to host… anything else. Sometimes it’s just for laughs, but you don’t need half a brain to see how this can be used to maliciously push disinformation or sponsorships. 

Depending on where you live, censorship and firewalls contribute to link rot. The increasing prevalence of paywalls also redirects a lot of our links to dead pages as more and more free content is pushed behind paywalls or subscriptions. 

Speaking of errors and your link going to a dead page, see if you know your movie errors here.