Website Updates: How Blogs Avoid Slow Death

(Last Updated On: March 29, 2017)

website updatesWebsite updates are necessary for online articles to remain useful. This post describes how I keep ArtChester.net current and describes several tools that I’ve found helpful.

Why would you care?

This discussion of website updates may be entertaining if you like to peek behind the scenery of a well-oiled machine (no, that is not a reference to my blog on martinis). It may confirm in your mind that you don’t need the aggravation of owning your own website. Or if you have already fallen into that trap, you may see something here that you can use.

How Can We Tell When Website Updates Are Due?

Regular readers will realize that it’s not easy for me to know when website updates are necessary. ArtChester.net has 212 science-related posts thus far, each with an average length of 1,650 words. A typical post has 24 outside links. Therefore, if I were to fact-check myself on a regular basis, a complete survey would require me to read 350,000 words of text and check the content of 5,000 web links.

Of course, I do not go back and re-research every article! Instead, my website updates occur by a more diffuse process:
– 66% of the posts attract comments from you, their readers. You submit an average of 3.4 comments on each commented post. For some posts (such as the popular one on Hawaiian Sea Burial), comments arrive several years after the original post. The comments don’t require changes in the post text but they often enlarge the discussion and provide valuable information.
– Readers suggest changes to improve grammar or clarify meaning, which I gladly incorporate. These usually come via a Contact page message.
– When I write a new blog, I often link to a related earlier essay. That causes me to review the older work and if necessary tune it up.
– Broken web links are another signal that website updates are due. We’ll return to this issue later.

Science Evolves Incrementally

If this website focused on sports or fashion or politics, website updates might be needed very frequently. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), science usually advances at a slow pace.

The public likes the concept of scientific breakthroughs, and marketers are quick to label every product design as a fundamental change in the cosmos. However in truth major technical advances build on many previous steps and do not arrive as a bolt out of the blue. As Isaac Newton said, re-stating a piece of wisdom widely accepted even in his time:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Today we can identify many technical advances that radically changed the world. Here are some of them:
– Surgical antiseptics.
– Electricity.
– The telephone.
– The internal combustion engine.
– Commercial airliners.
– Atomic energy.
– Vaccines.
– Television.
– Semiconductors.
– The laser.
– Digital computers.
– Portable smart electronics (smartphones, tablets, virtual reality eyeglasses).

We also tend to think of a few individuals as heroes who initiated revolutions in business and medicine. Here are just a few:
– Thomas Edison
– Alexander Graham Bell
– Henry Ford
– Albert Einstein
– Jonas Salk
– Bill Gates
– Steve Jobs.

However…

Technical Advance is a Complex Process

When historians of science study significant advances they usually describe a complicated story, involving many small advances with the fingerprints of thousands of people on them. Moreover, some of people whose names you see above are not simply technologists or scientists. The reason we know them is that they are also public figures, promoters, entrepreneurs or team leaders whose influence reaches far beyond their personal scientific contribution.

Because scientific work forms a complex network it’s no surprise that searching “history of science” in the Books department on Amazon.com yields over 800,000 results! The big ideas and the transformational individuals are there, to be sure. However, it’s only years later that we can confidently pinpoint the key decisions and discoveries that steered the course of history.

Some of the blog posts I have written feature people and discoveries that will someday be lauded as fundamental. However, none of us live in “someday” – we live in today. For that reason my blogs concentrate on what’s happening now and how it can affect our lives in the near future. As a result, website updates do not occur often enough to drive me crazy.

Today, when I read a blog that I wrote two or four years previously, the author in me sees plenty of room to improve the narration, the flow, the choice of words. However, the scientist in me rarely sees a reason to modify the scientific content.

I cannot think of an instance where one of my website updates changed the main conclusions of a blog post. However, there are many instances where ongoing discoveries moved me to write a new blog describing the newest work, with references to the earlier blogs on the same subject. Examples of these recurring and continually evolving topics are Alzheimer Disease, prosthetics and cancer prevention.

Proliferation of Dead Links

website updates

Let’s return to the issue of dead links. With 5,000 links sprinkled through my blog posts, we would expect some of them to go dead. However, it surprised me how many times website updates were needed because this had happened.

To search broken links I regularly use the website brokenlinkcheck.com. It’s far from perfect: it is guilty both of false positives and false negatives. That is, it fingers some links as broken that in fact are OK, and fails to find other links that are truly broken. However, it’s a free tool and is probably 80% accurate. I verify and correct all the links it identifies, and when I discover other broken links I fix them too.

During the last 18 months I have found and fixed 146 broken links. Based on this data, about 2% of my links go bad every year.

Two percent sounds like a small number. However, because my blogs each contain about two dozen links, these glitches are numerous enough to affect a majority of my posts.

Dead Links Lead to Website Updates

How bad are dead links as a problem?
Frustration. I would like readers to read an article, get interested in it, and care enough to click a link that may lead to original sources or further information. I don’t want to frustrate them with a dead link that goes to an error page or a nonexistent website.
Searchability. If search engines determine that my articles contain too many broken links, they will degrade ArtChester.net in online searches. As an author, I want to entertain, to inform, and especially to be read. Therefore, I consider website updates essential so that this site doesn’t fall down in searchability.

Broken Links are Warning Signs

There’s another point about broken links that surprised me. When I went back to an old post to fix a link, usually I could find the linked article somewhere else. However, perhaps five percent of the time the article had totally disappeared. Sometimes its parent website had been skinnied down (for example, the recent data removals from epa.gov). In other cases, the website had been abandoned and was totally missing. Either way, I had to re-write the text to fill in information that was no longer available on the web. Sometimes I would post my own copy of a missing article as a service to my readers.

Here’s the point: a broken link sometimes points to larger problems with the post, requiring website updates in the form of re-writing.

Websites Should Practice Transparency

Websites should be transparent and 100% accurate. I have no respect for “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

However as we all know, false information abounds in today’s Wild Woolly Web. Therefore, when I read an article for my own knowledge or as input to a blog that I’m writing, I look for validation and corroboration. The source of the article is one indicator. If I don’t know the site or author I will study whatever relevant information I can find:
– The author’s name, which does not always appear.
– The article’s publication date, which often is absent.
– The author’s biography and previously-written articles.
– The website’s About and Contact pages. These should explain who runs the website, why and how it operates, and where they do business.

The absence of any of these factors is a red flag. It warns me that someone is hiding something, and that any information I find needs verification from unrelated sources.

Transparency: The Missing Element

website updates

I have tried to make ArtChester.net forthcoming in these areas. However, when I thought about writing this blog I realized that there’s a key piece of data concerning website updates that I have not been able to share till now.

The missing element is the most recent change date of each blog post. Until March 14, 2017, each of my blogs displayed its publication date but not the date of later revisions. However, since then I have corrected this shortcoming.

Neither WordPress nor my blog theme gave easy access to that information, not to me and not to my readers. However, I was able to find two WordPress plugins that made the revision date visible to all.

            Post Updated Date Plugin

The Post Updated Date plugin adds a tag at the top of each blog post, just beneath the publication date, telling the most recent change date. This timestamp does not appear on pages that only present a summary of the blog, such as the home page and a search page, although I wish that it did. However, it does appear whenever you click the Read More link to see the full post.

The plugin’s version of the update notice was distractingly large, so I reduced its font size for consistency with other information at the top of the post. This required me to tinker with HTML code in the plugin’s PHP file, which was instructive for me but which you really don’t want to hear about.

Therefore from now on whenever you read a post on ArtChester.net, you will see not only its original publication date but also the date of its most recent revision. Thus you know whether it has been experienced website updates since its initial appearance.

            Last Modified Timestamp Plugin

The Last Modified Timestamp plugin does for me, the site administrator, what the previous plugin does for you, the reader. It adds a column to the administrative dashboard showing the latest revision date of each post. Previously, I could find this information only by studying each post, a time-consuming process.

This plugin allowed me to download a full list of posts and their associated dates to see what I could learn.

            The Skinny on Post Updates

Here’s what I found:

– 55% of all my posts are different from their original publication, due to modifications or website updates. The time delay from publication to revision ranges from one day to three-and-a-half years.

– Only 4.3% of revisions occur within one week of publication. Typical reasons for these early changes:
– I may discover an additional link to reference.
– I may notice an awkward sentence that I want to re-word.
– For two-part posts, after I post the second installment I will revise the first part with links leading to the second part. Due to the way WordPress assigns “slugs” (web addresses) I cannot do this until the later post has been actually published.

– An additional 4.3% of posts change during the second week after publication.

– Following these first two weeks, not much happens for a long time. After six months, links begin to go dead or I find other reasons to update a post. Among all my posts, I corrected 37% of them more than six months after publication, and 32.3% more than one year after publication. Thus if you go back and read my older blogs, many of them of them incorporate changes and corrections, mostly minor, made long after the original publication date.

I was really surprised. I knew that website maintenance was a big chore, but I had no idea that since I wrote them, I had changed or updated more than half of my posts!

Reader Comments as Post Updates

The update timestamp displayed at the top of the post does not reveal one type of post change.

As mentioned earlier in this article, reader comments often add value to the content of a post. However, because they don’t count as an edit within WordPress, they don’t affect the revision date on the blog page.

Usually, comments occur shortly after publication, and for that reason I keep the comment block open for only four weeks. (After a month, spammers load up the comment queue with garbage.) However, when readers send me comments at a later date I post the comment on their behalf, and this sometimes adds useful material long after the post first appears.

In the future, I will try to remember to re-save the post when a new comment appears, so that the revision date calls attention to the presence of potentially useful newer information. (I don’t have a good way to do this retroactively for old posts with new comments. If I were to re-save those posts, the revision date would show as today, not as the date of the most recent comment.)

I hope that this post on website updates has lived up to its “why would you care” billing. If you’ve had occasion to read one of my older blog posts, did you find it still relevant?

Image Credits, all from openclipart.org:
“Clock and calendar” by andinuryadin
“Computer Guy meme” by rones
“Any key” by liftarn

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