Old, broken links can still hurt your website SEO, even in 2021.
Recently, there’s been some industry discussion about broken links for SEO – namely, ‘does fixing broken links still matter for SEO?’ That’s the sort of question that gets an SEO consultant excited, so let’s delve deeper…
First and foremost, there is no denying that a broken link can still negatively impact the user experience of your website. If a user is browsing through a site page, clicks a link you’ve included and is faced with a 404 error page, it is, at best, annoying. At worst, it could mean they leave your site and no longer engage with your content or products. Broken links can result in a loss of business, for sure.
If you are working to improve your site’s page ranking, chances are you will be keen to improve your site’s overall page authority. Broken links can impact this page authority and with lower authority, you are more likely to decrease your ranking – especially if your competitors are keeping on top of broken links.
What are a few broken links between friends?
Surely a few broken links aren’t going to impact your SEO efforts, right? Wrong! Broken links are not only annoying for users, but they can also hurt your SEO too. If users cannot navigate your site easily, they will spend less time on it – in fact, research shows that 88% of users are less likely to return to a website after a bad user experience. If this happens regularly, search engines will assume that your site is providing a poor user experience. Eventually, this will negatively impact your search engine ranking.
But broken links are not a lost cause: you can fix them and give your site every chance of improving its search engine ranking.
What are broken links?
A broken or dead link is a link that you click but doesn’t work or doesn’t take you to the page you were meant to see. Links are ‘broken’ when they point to a page that no longer exists or cannot be found.
What causes broken links? There are many common reasons why a page might be missing including:
- Making a typo when you created the link
- Deleting an image, video, file or an entire web page
- Renaming or moving a page and forgetting to update your internal links
- Linking to content like images, videos and PDFs that have been deleted or moved
- Changing domain names and moving the site to a new URL
Examples of broken links
You can easily recognise a broken link if you click on it and it returns errors like:
- 404 Page Not Found: The page or content has been removed from the server
- Bad Host: The server cannot be reached or doesn’t exist or the hostname is invalid
- Bad Code: The server violated the HTTP Spec
- 400 Bad Request: The host server doesn’t understand the URL on your page
- Timeout: While trying to connect to the page, the server timed out
Broken links can be divided into the following:
Broken Internal Links
These are links that go from one page to another on your own website. For example, if you’re just starting on your SEO journey, find out more about SEO basics. See? That’s an example of an internal link.
Broken internal links make it more difficult for Google to crawl your site’s pages. If a page has a broken link, Google can’t find the next page. This can indicate to Google that your site isn’t properly optimised, which may hurt your rankings.
Make life easier for Google – whenever you make any changes to your website, you should always check that your internal links are working correctly. Depending on the size of the site you manage, this shouldn’t take too long and is worth doing from an SEO and user experience perspective.
Broken External Links
External links refer to links that are pointing to another website. These are, of course, much harder to control compared to internal links. Broken external links point to an external site that either no longer exists, has moved locations or has not implemented any redirects. Broken external links are bad for a user’s experience and if you were hoping that using external links would improve your page authority, you would be left disappointed.
Checking external links can take longer, as you will have to manually check them from time to time. If Google Spider detects too many 404 error pages, your website’s ranking will decrease from the search engine’s perspective, so broken external links certainly can damage your site.
Broken backlinks are when another website links to a part of your website with any of the errors contained in the list below, such as misspelling, removed content etc.
Your page loses out on page authority because of these links, so where possible, always fix them to make sure that they don’t affect your ranking.
Causes of broken links
One of the best ways to prevent broken links from happening in the future is for you to understand how links are broken. A few of the most common causes include:
- Incorrect URL spelling: You may have misspelled the link when first setting it up, or if it’s external, the page you are linking to may include an incorrect spelling in its URL.
- Change to website site structure: If you’ve completed a site migration, or changed your URL structures, you will need to set up a redirect to avoid breaking any links.
- Content has been moved or removed: The link may be pointing to a page that is no longer there. The best practice here is to either remove the link completely or locate the new link for the article.
- External site no longer available: If you are linking to a website that is no longer available, the link will appear broken.
Why are broken links so bad for SEO?
The internet is led by user experience. Broken links hurt that experience; if a user clicks on a link and is faced with an error message, they will likely click away to a competitor website.
Google has stated time and time again that having a couple of broken links on your site will not affect your rankings. However, the negative impact of broken links can show in other ways. For example, when a visitor lands on a broken page, they will usually leave within seconds. By spending less time on your site, Google’s search algorithms will assume it’s because you aren’t providing visitors with high-quality content or information that’s relevant to their search. This, of course, then results in lower rankings.
How to find broken links on your website
There are many tools out there that can help you find broken links, many of which are free to use.
Google Search Console
A popular choice is Google Search Console, as it tells you exactly what Google is seeing and is great at detecting pages on your site that return errors. Simply go to Coverage → Excluded and see if there are 404s listed there. It is a good idea to check specifically within the submitted sitemap so you can remove those pages from the sitemap. It is worth checking Google Search Console regularly for new 404 errors – and once you find any, fix them as soon as possible.
Many free and paid SEO tools that crawl sites offer insights into broken links. Popular options include SEMRush (paid) and Screaming Frog (free, although quite limited), both of which can see broken links the crawlers find on the site. There are plenty of SEO tools out there that can help you check for 404s, but it’s worth talking to an SEO professional about larger SEO projects.
How to fix your website’s broken links
After you have identified the broken links on your site, it’s time to fix them. Work your way through each link and page and find out why it’s broken. If the link is internal, such as you’ve changed the URL of a page on your site, set up a 301 redirect towards the new page. This will send visitors to the new page and will also tell search engines that the page has permanently moved.
If the backlink is external, the process isn’t always as easy. Often the only option here is to contact the site’s owner and ask them to update the URL with a new one directing users to the correct page. They might not respond, but it’s always worth asking.
I fixed my links, but nothing’s changed – why?
There is definite value in fixing broken links for SEO, but it’s not always the final answer. Sometimes the fix won’t be effective. Why?
Links only matter if Google finds value in them. We all want to believe our content is fresh, relevant and of high value, but – at least in Google’s eyes – it’s not. Some simply are considered low value. This includes a broken link that leads to a webpage that hasn’t been updated since the site was set up for example. It doesn’t get any traffic and sits at the bottom of the search results. Fixing these broken links won’t bring much value to your SEO rankings.
Not all links count. Consider the internet: it’s full of links that Google isn’t interested in. These can include spam links or links with no traffic going to them. No amount of fixing those broken links is going to result in a better SEO performance – your time would be better spent producing high quality, relevant content instead.
Redirected to an irrelevant URL. You fixed the link, but you redirected it to an irrelevant URL. How many times have you clicked a link and been redirected to a company’s homepage? You probably didn’t want the homepage, you were looking for a specific subject page. Google counts these types of redirects as soft 404s; your redirect will work but they don’t consider the redirected page to be as relevant as the original. Again, this is unlikely to help your SEO performance and overall site ranking.
How to take control of your broken links
- Fix them! You knew that was coming, didn’t you? Experience shows that in many instances fixing broken links does have a positive impact on your SEO performance. The benefits that can come from fixing those links are clear. Plus, any broken link is a bad user experience, so even if you don’t see a huge change in your ranking, at least fixing broken links could improve how users interact with your site.
- Make high authority pages a priority. If you own or run a large website, it’s simply not going to be possible for you to fix every broken link – nor would that be a good use of your time. Instead, prioritise only the high-value links, or links from pages that themselves have a lot of value.
- Redirect to relevant URLs only. Try to link to the same page. Where this isn’t possible, choose a page that is as close as possible to the original. If you don’t have a relevant page to redirect to, don’t just redirect the link to an irrelevant page – Google will know and your ranking will decline.
The bottom line
Broken links have a negative impact on user experience, your Google rankings and can even impact your overall business revenue, so taking some time to fix them is well worth it. Do remember though that you should not expect huge increases in traffic and rankings if you fix them; pinpoint higher value links and prioritise those. Keep your site fresh, write high-quality SEO content and only use redirect links for relevant pages.
If you’re keen to further improve your website’s SEO and need some expert advice, please do get in touch.