Have you ever clicked on a link, expecting to find more information on a topic, and instead been taken to a 404 page?
We’ve all been there. Broken backlinks are one of the most terrible things one could encounter online—second, perhaps, to your awkward 13-year-old school picture on a public domain for all to see. Okay, maybe they aren’t that terrible, but they are quite annoying.
Beyond the irritation they cause for users, broken backlinks aren’t great for your site. Sure, they aren’t directly hurting your site, but they aren’t providing any benefit, either.
So what are you supposed to do when your site has broken links?
What Is a Broken Link and How Does It Happen?
A broken link is a hyperlink that no longer works. It typically leads to some type of error page, like a 404, and doesn’t deliver the information the user is looking for. Links can break for various reasons, but typically, they’re caused by changes to your website. You might have done a site migration to a new domain, removed old pages or outdated content from your site, or moved pages and content to new URLs without redirecting the old URLs accordingly. There are other reasons broken links happen, but these are the most common.
Why Are Backlinks Important in the First Place?
Backlinks are one of the main factors that search engines, specifically Google, consider when ranking a site organically. Backlinks signal to search engines that your site is authoritative, credible, and relevant. The more links you have, the higher your likelihood of ranking. That is, of course, except for the broken ones.
Why Are Broken Backlinks Bad?
Even though you won’t be penalized by search engines directly for your broken links, they’re still not ideal (for several reasons we will explore) and can have a residual negative impact on your ability to rank.
Bad User Experience
Search engines want users to find what they’re looking for, so when a link is broken, users can’t easily find the relevant content they’re searching for and expecting to see. As many of us have observed and encountered first-hand, broken links result in a poor user experience.
Negative Brand Association
Along with the user experience factor, broken links impact brand recognition. Users may associate your website or brand name with the frustration of a broken link, which could damage their perception of you. Broken links may also cause users to question the credibility of your site and brand overall.
High Bounce Rate
From an analytics and organic search perspective, broken backlinks can result in a high bounce rate. When users land on 404 pages, they don’t usually stick around and click through other pages on your site. Instead, if they are not getting their needs met, they will leave immediately and get their needs met elsewhere. Search engines calculate the users who leave your page quickly and determine that your site isn’t a useful resource, which can further hurt your organic rankings.
No Link Equity
When it comes to organic search, broken links don’t pass on any link equity, so they don’t help your site move up in organic rankings. As mentioned before, links are one of the most valuable factors for search engines, which is why it’s such a shame to have them on your site—you worked hard to earn those links, and once they break, the work you did to earn them won’t pay off.
What to Do With Your Broken Links
If you’ve found broken links on your site, all hope isn’t lost! Although those links aren’t helping your site right now, you can still go about getting their equity back using a few methods. Here are a few tactics I recommend for salvaging broken links.
Fix Your Broken Links
Out of anything you can do with your broken links, reclaiming them is the best option. Through the process of link reclamation, you can restore broken links to their former glory. To reclaim your links, reach out to the sites containing your broken link, let them know that it’s broken, and offer them a new one to replace it with instead. When reaching out to site owners, make it a point to highlight that having a broken link also creates a bad user experience on their end, too, and will interrupt the user journey. This tactic is simple yet extremely effective—much easier and faster than trying to build a brand new link to replace a broken one’s equity.
Here’s an example of what you could say:
Subject: Broken link on [Website Name]
I hope this finds you well! I’m reaching out to thank you for referencing us as a resource for your readers and to let you know that the page you referenced on our site no longer exists, and that link is now broken. As you know, this creates a bad user experience for both of our site visitors.
We still want your readers to have access to a relevant page, so here’s a new link to an active page that can replace the broken one:
Page with broken link:
Please let me know if you have any questions!
Depending on why your link is broken, you’ll want to modify what you say to reflect that. For example, if you’ve gotten rid of old content from your site, you might use a template like the one above. But if you’ve done a site migration and all of your original content still exists, just under a new URL format, you might say something like the following:
I hope this finds you well! I’m reaching out to thank you for referencing us as a resource for your readers. Due to a recent site migration, that link is now broken. As you know, this creates a bad user experience for your site visitors.
We still want your readers to have access to the correct page, so here’s an updated link that leads to the article you originally referenced:
Page with broken link:
Please let me know if you have any questions!
As a general note from our experience reclaiming links at Portent, we’ve found that fixing broken links to product pages can be difficult. Especially if a product no longer exists and you’re trying to replace the old URL with a link to a new product, sites aren’t as inclined to fix the link even if it’s similar. On the other hand, fixing links to informative or editorial pages is more successful. Additionally, sites run by reputable, goodwill-focused companies, like charitable organizations, are typically even more successful than that.
Redirect Your Broken Links
Completely fixing broken links is ideal, but if you cannot get other sites to cooperate and update your broken link with a new one, redirecting is the next best thing. While redirected links don’t pass as much equity as a direct link, they still pass on more than a broken one—and you’ll want to take any link equity you can get!
Redirects improve user experience by taking them to a relevant page instead of a pesky 404 error page. Unfortunately, redirected links might result in a slightly slower site speed and take a second or two longer to load, but again, this is far better than a 404 error. Plus, redirects are something that you can do—no need to rely or wait around on other website owners who may or may not ignore your request to fix a link.
Don’t Lose That Link Equity!
Backlinks are valuable, and you’ve worked hard to earn them, so don’t lose the link equity they provide by letting broken links stay broken! It’s up to you to take care of your broken links and make sure users don’t have a bad experience on your site. Once you do, you can salvage that user experience and rebuild the authority and rankings you set out for.