Everyone in our field knows that inbound links are an important facet of search engine optimization (SEO) – search engines regard them as votes of approval from the linking sites. That’s why webmasters and optimizers invest so much work on link building.
Unfortunately, with link building, you are usually left counting on someone else to do the job that’s so important to you. You actively ask another webmaster (or blogger, online author, or worse yet, a casual, social media user) to link to a page on your website. You depend on them to do the job right. You can even give them explicit instructions on the exact URL to use as part of your link building request. But unfortunately, while you can lead that horse to water, good luck in getting it to drink!
The problem of broken inbound links is all too common. Your intent with link building is typically to promote a specific product, a download, a subscription, or something that is important to your site. Heck, you might even just be promoting your site for general public exposure.
So what do you do when after making the big effort to find the right, relevant website, identifying the right technical contact on that site, and asking that person for a link, but they toss a typo in the URL that points to a non-existent page?
If you spend many a good hour in the link building process, you’ll inevitably find a certain percentage of those efforts that should have been good instead will go for naught. And worse yet, once those bad links are published, if the linking site is an authority site with significant influence in your community on the Web (and isn’t that who we pursue for link building?), that broken URL may begin to propagate, unfixed, across the Web.
Remediating Link Disaster
So what do you do when you discover an inbound link you worked so hard to earn is broken? If there is only one instance, you should definitely invest the time to reach out to the linking site’s technical contact and ask that he or she resolve the problem. Unfortunately, it’s rarely the case that there’s only one.
In these days of viral content, there may be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of broken inbound links, pointing to numerous pages. The idea of asking hundreds, if not thousands, of webmasters to fix their individual broken links to you is surely a daunting, if not futile, task.
Worse yet, with the daily flood of post-it-and-forget-it content on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it may be extremely hard, if not impossible, to get the sources of the broken links changed. And if one of those bad links goes viral, it’s a heartbreaker.
Right? Well, not necessarily. If the broken link at least has your domain name correctly spelled, you have a chance to throw a metaphorical net around that valuable Net traffic and bring it back under your control. Here’s how.
How Many Broken Links Do You Have?
You first need to get a handle on the scope of the problem. I suggest using your Google Webmaster Tools account (you do have one, right?) to check the status of your site.
Once logged in, go to Diagnostics > Crawl errors > Web tab. Check to see how many Not Found errors you have.
Google’s list will include all 404 errors, generated by both pages on your site and those external sources attempting to link to pages on your site. The report includes a list of broken URLs on the site, the HTTP error (404), the number of links on which the broken URL is used (this data is hyperlinked, so you can drill down to see the exact pages that use the bad link), and the last date crawled in which the broken link was detected.
Note that if you are so unlucky to have a large number of 404s, you can download the data from Google Webmaster Tools in CSV file format to review offline as a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, as of when this blog post was written, this download was not problem free.
In the test run I made using the link Download all sources of errors on this site, while the downloaded CSV report did include the number of pages on which the broken link appeared, it did not include any drill-down data identifying those pages, despite the fact that this data was available in the online tool. (Dear Google, Please fix that! Thank you! Your pal, Rick).
Correcting Very Commonly Repeated URL Errors
If you have one (or a few) consistently mistyped URLs that are commonly used (or perhaps gone viral), you may be able to easily capture that otherwise lost traffic by setting up a 301 redirect on your webserver for each broken URL (this assumes you can infer what the intended destination URL was supposed to be).
Depending upon which webserver platform you use (the process is different between Apache and IIS, but the result is the same), setting up a 301 (aka permanent) redirect tells the search engines that the URL used originally is no longer valid, but an updated one is available.
This gets the link user to the page they intended to see rather than a 404 File Not Found error, which is good! As a bonus, since 301s are permanent redirects, search engines also transfer any link juice from the previously broken URL to the valid URL on your site (even if that valid URL’s page is one you just created as part of the broken link recapture process).
So instead of asking countless (and undoubtedly unresponsive) webmasters to fix their broken links to you, you just fixed it from your side. That’s a big win for you, your site, and your customers!
Capturing Future Broken URL Traffic
Setting up 301s is a great way to go to fix known, frequently hit broken URLs. But some large sites that have been around for many years will likely have hoards of one-off broken links.
Sites will also suffer from mistyped URLs at the browser command line. And we haven’t even contemplated what to do about all of the unknown broken URLs yet to come! For these scenarios, I strongly urge you to set up a well-designed, custom 404 File Not Found error message page for your site.
What is this? A custom 404 error page is one you configure your web server to show whenever it generates a 404 File Not Found error. So instead of getting the generic white browser page with the stark 404 error message text, the user can instead see a page using the same site design shown across the rest of your site, including your built-in site navigation scheme, and better yet, a text box used for intrasite search.
You should also put in a soft, short message apologizing for the missing page, but invite the user to try to find the desired content with the site navigation and search tools you’ve provided.
At a minimum, this custom page can help reduce bounces from your site, thereby increasing the chances of keeping a potential customer on your site and getting that conversion. For more information on this process, check out an article I wrote for the Bing Webmaster Center blog titled, Fixing 404 File Not Found frustrations.
Note that custom 404 pages do not earn you the ever-desired link juice you want in the broken inbound link. The link still generates a 404. The presence of a custom 404 page is merely a stop-gap measure in an attempt to keep potential customers from abandoning your site when the content/item they desire is on your site, just not shown in their browser’s generic 404 error screen.
As such, even if you do set up a custom 404 page, still keep a sharp eye on your broken link report in Google Webmaster Tools. If a few new links turn into a runaway problem, set up new 301 redirects for those broken URLs and capture that link juice back for your site.
How About Domain Name Typos In Broken URLs?
Well, that’s a rough spot to be in. You won’t have any easy access to that kind of information in your webmaster tools. However, with your business knowledge, you will likely already know if your domain name is liable to be misspelled and what the most probable misspellings are. As such, if the misspelled domain names are available, you should look into buying them and set up 301s to capture that traffic for your intended site.
If a domain name is already owned (and hopefully not by a squatter!), the best you can hope for is attempting to work with that site’s webmaster to find out if they do indeed get broken deep links that are wildly unrelated to their site architecture.
If so, ask if they will permanently redirect any such common link traffic back to your site rather than have it bounce as a 404 on that site. At a minimum, ask if they could list your site on their custom 404 page! However, if that site’s webmaster is exceptionally cooperative, perhaps they might even consider setting up a link to your site on their home page to let users know how to get to your site, their intended destination.
Hey don’t laugh! It does happen!
I have an example to share. I recently had to download the wonderful shareware graphics app Paint.net, but I forgot the product’s home page URL, so instead of doing a navigational query in search, I browsed directly to www.paint.net to get it. Unfortunately, that’s not the right URL for the app. However, the owner of that domain very kindly works with the folks of the Paint.net app to offer a link to the right page, www.getpaint.net. This is a terrific example of customer-first thinking on the part of that domain owner, and I was impressed (and grateful).
It’s A Wrap
Link building is valuable for SEO, and thus is a worthwhile exercise in which webmasters and SEOs should invest their time. However, with the external dependencies of relying on the generosity, if not trusting in the technical competence, of unknown individuals on those external sites, your hard work may not always bear fruit.
However, by keeping tabs on your site’s broken links report, you can identify opportunities to reel in that lost traffic by setting up 301 redirects. To make sure all users who attempt to browse to a non-existent URL on your site get at least a small taste of its design, style, and most importantly, its main site navigation scheme and optimally its intrasite search, set up a custom 404 File Not Found page.
Now go forth and link build with impunity, knowing you’re ready to handle any mistakes made by those good folks who otherwise are willing to link to us!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.