I’m going to put this very simply: broken links are links through to websites that do not work. Why don’t they work, you ask? They may have once connected to a site which no longer exists. Or they may be linking to the old address of a site which has been moved to a new address. Maybe the URL of a certain page was changed, perhaps the code of the linked site was flawed, or it could be that the link never had the right URL in the first place as it was typed incorrectly. No matter how the link ended up breaking, the point is that it’s broken. Expired. Bust. Kaput. And if you’re a dedicated SEO, it’s your job to bring them back to life and give them a home…

The natural life cycle of a link

Links have a natural tendency to break. Even if a link is active and healthy right now in 2018, who’s to say that in 2028 the target (either website or individual page) of that link will be active? Such is the natural life cycle of a link. Unfortunately, web pages cannot stay relevant forever: when certain topics fall out of vogue, the pages related to that topic gradually become defunct, and as a result all the links pointing to that particular page across the web are left dangling. Though this may seem like no biggie when looking at isolated links, broken links rack up quickly, which can lead to serious problems (or opportunities) for SEOs – more on this later.

The official name for this process is ‘link rot’, sometimes ‘link decay’ or ‘link death’… fun, right? It’s a result of linked pages falling out of use and referring pages failing to update their links, which in turn results in a bunch of 404 errors where there was once relevant information. The internet is a dynamic place where content rarely lasts. Memes, personalities, viral videos: they all come and go. Likewise, hundreds of links materialise and disappear every second. Studies have found that the median lifespan of a web page comes in at just under 10 years, which when you consider the sheer number of web pages on the internet (over four billion!) speaks for a lot of broken links – certainly enough to get the attention of SEOs like ourselves.

How should SEOs keep up in a landscape where links can be considered merely temporary? What can we do to reduce the effects of link rot on our own websites? And first things first…

Why are broken links worth un-breaking?

Not all of you will be familiar with the power of links, so let’s go back to the basics. At Yellowball, we like to think of links as votes of confidence, or endorsements. Since they usually come from third parties, links provide Google with an objective measure of the quality of your website which proves influential in the ranking of your website. Links from other sites pointing at your website (inbound links), links from your website pointing to other sites (outbound links), and even links from your website that point to other pages within your own website (internal links) help Google decide where to rank your site within the search engine results pages (SERPs).

But you can’t just have any old link… You have to make sure that they are worth something. Only backlinks which provide some value to users and are relevant to the web page in question will have a positive impact on the authority and visibility of your website. It’s imperative that:

  • the links appear naturally and are not spammy
  • the links are relevant to the content and helpful to users
  • the links point to active web pages and not barren 404 pages

You can learn way more about the importance of links than we can fit into a few sentences by reading our blog series on the subject, but right now we’re going to focus on this last point: backlinks are only valuable to the SEO potential of your website when they actually work. Consider two scenarios: a) an industry blog is trying to link to your website with the wrong URL, and b) an industry blog is linking to another website but the link gives you a 404 error instead. Both cases provide a ripe opportunity for link building and increasing the authority of your website. Why? Because broken links can usually be fixed. If you make a broken link point to your site, you have essentially created a new link and as such it will administer a fresh dose of link juice.

That’s enough of the whats, let’s look at the hows

Fixing broken outbound links

It’s not just about broken links to your website from others. Google does not like broken links, and when they find broken links on a website they are inclined to see that site as unreliable. Think about it: if you were to read a scientific study which quotes several sources that no longer exist you would most likely take it all with a pinch of salt due to the lack of up to date references. In the same way, websites plagued with hordes of broken links tend to look pretty unreliable – that’s why academics are concerned about the effects of link rot on the authority of journals.

Healthy and active links, on the other hand, make for a more fresh and functional website that enjoys increased authority – both in the eyes of users and in the eyes of Google bots. As such, SEOs should take it upon themselves to filter through all the links leading from their website and replace all the broken ones with active ones that point toward relevant and valuable web pages. Alternatively, if the content no longer needs an outbound link you could just remove it altogether. This may be a long and arduous process for some (especially those big sites with more pages), but it’s nothing a free Chrome extension and a comprehensive spreadsheet cannot fix. Trust us, the results will be so benefit both your SEO and the user experience of your website.

How to use broken links to your advantage

There are several ways in which broken links can help you bolster the authority of your website (a practice usually called ‘broken link building’). Although they may be problematic right now, they also present a great opportunity for you to acquire a brand new inbound link to your site. This process involves two separate approaches:

  • Finding broken links on the web that you can replace with links to your own website
  • Fixing broken links that once pointed to your website but no longer work

For the most part, if a website features a link that doesn’t work the host will appreciate the opportunity to replace it with a link that not only works, but is also better than the previous link. Your job is to locate the broken link and provide that opportunity. Look through industry sites, and make sure that you target sources with high authority that will look good in Google’s eyes (we use Moz’s PA and DA metrics to measure a site’s authority). In order to find these sites, utilise a combination of the relevant SEO tools (Ahrefs and Moz are noted for their ability to locate strong broken link opportunities) and of course a sufficient amount of common sense. Such tools can produce a list of pages within a specific niche (often based on a target keyword), but not all show the pages which feature outbound links to 404 pages or nonexistent domains. Use tools such as the W3C link checker to crawl a chosen web page for a list of broken links upon which you can readily capitalise. In all, the criteria for a useful broken link are as follows:

  • The link is in fact broken and needs replacing with something better
  • The link is within a domain relevant to your industry which attracts a relevant audience
  • The link is from a high quality website with high domain authority

Once you have a list of broken links belonging to high authority websites within your industry you can then contact the site with some new content – this could be anything from a previous blog post on your site to a brand new infographic. Hopefully, the site owner will appreciate the gesture and jump at the chance to patch the link up. In contrast to guest posting where links are far more competitive and webmasters are less willing to link to your site without any incentive, fixing broken links on pages that capture your target audience is a relatively friendly approach, with equal benefit to both the chosen page’s quality and your website’s overall backlink profile.

As for the latter approach (fixing links which previously pointed to your site but no longer work) most SEO platforms have tools for identifying broken inbound links, often known as ‘lost links’. Whether the URL structure has changed (for example, you have changed your site to HTTPS) or the page being linked no longer exists, all you have to do is identify the broken links and make the necessary changes to your own website. Links to 404 pages can easily be fixed, either by adding a redirect to the page (see: 301 redirects) or fixing the page altogether.