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What happens when you click on the link? Not a pretty site

3/27/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

On the Mark — By Craig Marks

This is a story about a link that, upon discovery, became a missing link.

Mike, a retired area builder, says he’s tried to quit smoking “100 times.” Hypnosis and the patch didn’t work, and acupuncture, he said, “tapped directly into my wallet.”

So Mike (who has a last name but asked us not to use it) was directed by his tobacco-cessation coach to check out his area’s department of health website. He found on the site a page of antismoking information, which included links to other sites.

Among the links was one that contained the phrase “butt out.” Upon clicking on it, he discovered it was not referring to cigarettes but was a porn site. (The website is not www.buttout.com, which does have something to do with smoking prevention.)

“I thought, why in the world would they have a link like that?” said Mike.

The West Side Leader contacted the health department and spoke to a staff member. She went to the page in question and, before I could recommend otherwise, clicked on the link.

“Hmmm … it’s taking a while to come up … it must be our filter … (pause) oh no.”

Within five minutes, the offensive link was gone. If only all health problems could be eradicated so quickly.

The health department staff member was embarrassed and apologetic, but there was no need to be. This is an occupational hazard of managing a website with links to outside sites. The site can get a new owner and be, um, repurposed, and no one will bother to tell you it’s under new management.

The website archive.org, which displays snapshots of websites as they looked at certain times, provides a clue. On Jan. 2010, the “butt out” site was a professional-looking website that addressed “the alarming rate of tobacco use among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and young adults ages 12-20.” But on May 12, 2013, the page was gone, replaced with a site map of Ohio’s official website, ohio.gov. It’s the kind of page you see when the page you were looking for had been removed.

A website has to be renewed after a certain time, and if its owner forgets or chooses not to renew it, someone else can snatch it. It’s a practice called “domain sniping” or “domain drop catching,” and it’s not uncommon. A quick Google search found a Feb. 28 story in a Canadian paper, “Porn site takes over B.C. fire department’s expired web address.” Anyone going to the fire department’s old site looking for the proper way to “stop, drop and roll” would be in for a shock.

Mike was not as much shocked as amused by what he found on the health department website, and it hasn’t deterred him from his 101st attempt at giving up cigarettes. He called the health department for assistance and was pointed to an anti-smoking group in Northeast Ohio. In his pursuit to kick his smoking habit, he got to the bottom of it.

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