Nope. It’s something much more benign and banal.
The author made a mistake when creating that website.
It’s an easy mistake to make, and somewhat common – particularly with less experienced website creators – so I’ll run down what it is and how they (not you) should fix it.
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Creating and editing websites
First, it’s important to understand that websites live on the internet. This might seem obvious, but as we’ll see in a moment, it’s key to understanding how this particular problem happens.
Web authors can work on websites either directly on the web (remotely) or on his or her computer (locally). If you edit your website on your computer, you must then upload those modified files to the website on the internet. It’s often quicker and easier to make modifications “locally” (on your local computer), and then upload the changes when the work is complete.
This is a fairly simple concept, but it’s easy to get confused.
How images on web pages work
I’m going to use images on web pages as my example, though this applies to any file that a website might link to – a music or document download, or even a link to another page or site.
I’ll use this photo of my dog, Dagmar, as an example.
The page you’re viewing now contains a full URL, or link, to that image: https://askleo.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/dagmar-300×374.jpg1. You can actually place that link in your browser’s address bar and it’ll bring up that picture, and only that picture.
HTML, HyperText Markup Language, is how web pages are defined, and when I added that photo, I added HTML instructions that say, in essence, “display the image at this URL, and put it on this page right here”.
If this page contained only this text and that image, there would be two separate files involved in displaying it for you: the HTML file containing this text and display instructions, and the image file (the .jpg) those instructions say to display.
Images while editing locally
If a web page is being edited locally – before anything has been uploaded to the internet – the instruction to display an image doesn’t work, because the image hasn’t yet been uploaded, and is not yet available at that URL.
But it’s often on the author’s local hard disk.
Many webpage authoring tools will automatically do what they consider to be the right thing by displaying the image from the local hard disk while the page is being edited.
What that means is that instead of the “http:” URL to get the file from somewhere on the internet, the editing software uses a “file:” URL to fetch the image from the author’s local hard disk. For example, the “file:” URL for the image above might be “file:\\c:\Users\LeoN\Pictures\dagmar-300×374.jpg”, if that’s where I was keeping the image before uploading it. While I edit the page on my machine, the image loads and displays properly for me, so I can see what my page will look like.
But only on my machine.
What should happen
When I’m done editing the page, three things should happen:
- I upload the photograph to somewhere on the internet.
- I, or my webpage editing software, edits the web page to fetch the photo from the internet instead of my local machine.
- I upload the web page to my website, where it displays properly for anyone who comes along: both the page and the image are fetched from the public internet.
What can happen instead
The problem you’re experiencing is when step #2 doesn’t happen.
The image is uploaded to the internet, and the web page is uploaded as well.
But the web page still has instructions to “display the image that’s at ‘file:\\c:\Users\LeoN\Pictures\dagmar-300×374.jpg’, and put it on this page right here”.
Except that instruction only works on my machine. In fact, even after uploading everything, that instruction continues to work on my machine, so I might not even notice that anything is wrong.
Of course that instruction fails on your machine, because you don’t have a “c:\Users\LeoN” folder, much less a picture of my dog with that exact filename. So the display fails on everyone’s machine except mine.
What the web page author needs to do
Hopefully, it’s clear by now that if you want something to be accessible to anyone on the internet, it needs to be on the internet. That means it needs to be:
- Uploaded somewhere public
- Referenced from that location
As a web page author, I need to make sure not only that step 1 happens – files are uploaded to somewhere publicly accessible on the internet – but that step 2 happens as well. That means that the references I place in my web page are correctly updated to access those files from their public location.
If you find a “file:” reference in a webpage, it’s likely the author has simply forgotten that step.
Other than letting the web page author know, there’s little you can do.
If you’re the author
I’d love to give you specific instructions on how to avoid or correct this error, but unfortunately, it all depends on exactly how you author your web pages and what tools you use.
My experience is that this happens most often and most easily in tools that hide the HTML and other details of what it means to create web pages. Check your tools for options that will:
- Automatically upload images or other files referenced in your web pages when you publish.
- Update the references to those images or files in the pages to the uploaded copies.
And since this is such as easy thing to overlook when you’re viewing your published page on the same computer on which you wrote it, consider using a different computer to view the page before telling the world about it, as a test.
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