While I hesitate to define anything link-related as being easy, there are definitely a few things that can be easily fixed, things that can make a sometimes small and sometimes major difference in how your site performs online.
Link builders are certainly not miracle workers, but much of the time, links are still seen as being the way to the top of the SERPs. It’s extremely common for people to say “I know I just need links. Everything else is fine.” Well guess what? It’s not always fine, and many times, there are issues that need to be fixed on-site, ones that can make link building work so much better.
Now, let’s just dive in to three common site issues that matter for link building and see what you can check, why it matters, and which free (yes free!) tool you can use for this purpose.
1. Links Coming To 404 (Not Found) Pages On Your Site
These are commonly used by others for broken link building purposes. Why give them the chance? If you have links coming to pages that are not found currently, you aren’t getting the benefit of those links. Maybe they’re not great ones, but maybe they are. Would you want to get a link from CNN that went to a “page not found?” I wouldn’t.
What Are Your Options?
- If the content has simply been moved, 301 redirect the old page to the new page. This does usually get done of course, but for a large site, some of the pages that aren’t viewed as being critical ones don’t always get noticed enough to get redirected properly. Some sites will have a 301 to the home page for any 404s, and while I’ve done that in the past, it’s kind of annoying when I encounter it elsewhere.
- If the content no longer exists on your site but very similar content still does (like you did sell green widgets and now you only sell black ones) you could 301 redirect the old URL to the one that offers the most similar content.
- If the content no longer exists, there’s nothing else like it, and the user needs to know that; for the sake of user-friendliness, many would advise you to just let it 404 and show a “Page Not Found” error. If that is the case, considering we’re talking about quick and easy link fixes, I would create a custom 404 page (that, of course, contains a link to your homepage at the very least) and leave it at that.
- If you’re getting 404 errors for other reasons (not through existing links on other sites), then how you handle them is up to you. Some people create a list of the most common typos and misspellings and have a 301 in place specifically for those cases.
- Google’s Webmaster Tools is useful for finding these 404s. For your site in WMT, under Health there is a Crawl Errors section. Click on it, and view the Not Found errors (if you have any.) This will provide you with a list of your 404s along with the date they were detected. You can click on a 404 error link, and a box will appear that lets you see where the URL is linked from. Many times, from what I’ve seen, these errors will be coming from your own site or site map; but if not, check out the originating site. If they are trying to link to another page and just got it wrong, contact them to let them fix it. If you notice that a few great sites are sending links to 404s, that’s a good case for a 301 for those pages on your site.
An Example: I used to write for a friend’s marketing blog years ago, and when she retired it, we wrapped up all of my posts and put them into a downloadble PDF which used to be housed on my site. It no longer is, as I think the information in it is not currently relevant, but there are some semi-decent links pointing to it. I’ve allowed that link to simply throw a 404 error that says the page cannot be found. For the purpose of usability, I think that is the right call because the content isn’t there, I have no plans to put it up there or replace it, and that’s that.
For the purpose of link building, though? I could simply (and probably will) 301 that old URL to my agency blog because that’s the closest thing, but I “should” send those links to a custom 404 page (that is done through a 301 of the old URL still) that has a link to my home page and my agency blog so that people clicking on that link will realize that the PDF is not on the site any longer. At least that way, I’m preserving a bit of the link benefits from those sites.
2. No Overall 301 (Permanently Moved) Redirect For Non-WWW & WWW
There’s no universal preference over the non-www or the www version of a site, but you do need to pick one and set up a 301 redirect from the non-desired one to the desired one. You can do this in Google’s Webmaster Tools as well, but considering they aren’t the only search engine out there, I would not think that doing so is enough.
Rex Swain’s HTTP Header Check is my go-to tool for this. I think that I’ve actually been using this free tool for a decade now!
Enter the www version of your URL and uncheck the Auto-Follow Location box. It should return a 200 code generally. Now, enter the non-www version. It should return a 301 code. The reverse is, of course, true if you’re using the non-www version as your preferred version.
If both the non-www and the www versions return 200 codes, you should pick one and fix it immediately.
What happens when you do not 301 redirect one version is that the search engines can index the site as both versions. “If you don’t specify a preferred domain, we may treat the www and non-www versions of the domain as separate references to separate pages.” comes straight from Google support.
This can cause issues with duplicate content, but it also serves to (unevenly) split the link equity. In conjunction with this, build links to the preferred version. A 301 will send some of the link equity through, but it’s not the same as having the link hit the preferred URL.
If you’re intentionally building links to the non-www version of your site and it 301s to the www version, every link you build has to go through that 301, so your overall link benefits are diluted. Why take that chance when the fix is so easy?
3. Not Linking From The Homepage To Your Most Important Pages
I’m not sure why internal link structure isn’t talked about more, considering its SEO and usability value. First of all, if someone hits your homepage and is looking around, the linked-to pages are obviously going to be the ones they find. Some people go the opposite route and link to everything from the homepage, which is just as problematic.
One good way to boost the importance of an internal page that doesn’t have a ton of great links coming to it is to link to it from the homepage, which will pass PageRank.
If you link to 1000 pages from the homepage, each page will get 1/1000 of the benefit. If you link to the most important 10, they’ll each get 1/10 of the benefit.
If you rely on a structure where the homepage links to Subpage A which then links to Subpage C which then links to your critical page (Subpage D), you’ve just succeeded in diluting this benefit because each page is getting a percentage of the homepage’s PageRank.
Now, I’m sure that each site owner/webmaster/client could tell you which are the most important pages of a site, just like they can always name who they think their competitors are. However, I’d advise looking at your analytics to round out your ideas, as you might be surprised.
This can get a bit tricky though, as there may be loads of different things to consider before you decide to place a link to a buried page on your homepage. Maybe moving it to a page linked to from the homepage is enough, if it’s good and previously required five clicks to find from the homepage. I’ve never seen a truly critical page be that buried though, but stranger things have happened.
In Google Analytics you can look under Overview/All Pages, and grab a nice long period of time for the report. This will list your pages alongside their pageviews and loads of other information. Keep in mind that you do really need to use common sense here.
If you see that your Contact Us and About Us pages get very few pageviews, that does not mean that you should remove links to them from your homepage. It would be very odd to have to dig all over a site to find that kind of basic information, so don’t replace anything like that with a page that you want to have more visibility, but you can perhaps add to the navigation in some way. If you can add a critical page, do it, especially if that page doesn’t have a lot of good links coming in.
I’m not promising miracles here, of course, but as I’ve said, link building is not the magic bullet. These are easy fixes. Some of them depend upon a variety of factors that have to do with unique business situations (mainly the internal linking decisions), but take some time to make sure you’re doing things that support all those great links you’re building.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.