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What Is a Broken Link in SEO? Everything You Need to Know

What is a broken link in SEO? Broken links (SEO or not), are essentially URLs in plain and easy terms, that do not work anymore. You can identify a broken link in two easy ways:

  1. Front-end: When you navigate to a broken links/a.k.a a URL that doesn’t work. You know it’s not working because you can see it.
  2. HTTP Response code: The official HTTP response code of a broken link is a 404.
a broken url on feedthecuriosity.com
It should be noted that technically, a broken link will not be called a broken link until it returns a 404 HTTP response code.

The reason I am emphasizing on the second part (the response code aspect) is because that’s how browsers, crawlers, and everybody else recognize a broken link, technically. You can actually have a situation where the page appears to be broken, but is not returning a 404 code. In the SEO community, it’s referred to as a soft 404 page — which can bring its own slew of crawlability issues. (A post for another day).

Seems Simple Enough; So What’s All the Rave About Broken Links?

Link building, in general, can involve a lot of time-consuming work. I truly believe in it, but SEOs also needed some quick wins — in a manner of speaking.

Often, links that break, used to be proper pages working pages. And in a lot of the cases had backlinks to them. When the page breaks/becomes a broken link, all the link equity goes to waste. Links to 404 pages are of no value, because in the eyes of the search engines, the page doesn’t exist.

This fact didn’t digest well within the SEO community, so they had to find a way to leverage all the link equity to broken pages. Without going into too many details (and not the primary intent of this post), an easy solution to transfer link equity FROM broken pages, TO, existing working pages was to 301 redirect them.

Say, for instance, https://feedthecuriosity.com/seo (without the trailing slash) had 100 links from 20 referring domains. Now, if you try to open that URL, you will be 301 redirected to https://feedthecuriosity.com/seo/. Because of this redirect, the equity from 100 links will be transferred to the URL with the trailing slash.

Now, imagine the same happening on 1000s and more URLs. The opportunity to redirect the lost link equity to other appropriate existing URLs can feel like a gold mine.

It should be noted that there are some best practices about how you should handle broken links, if redirecting them is the option you’re choosing. For instance, redirecting all 404 pages (all things being equal) is certainly not a best practice.

In general, my rule of thumb is to stick with the following hierarchy of things:

  1. Try to always go 1:1: It’s more hard-work, but redirecting a broken link to the most closet matching individual URL, will always yield the best results.
  2. If not 1:1, try going back to the closest matching subdirectory: Say, for instance, you have a broken link in the form of example.com/seo/brokenlink101. Ideally, the redirect should happen to a URL like, example.com/seo/basics-of-broken link. However, if that’s not available, it could be considered to redirect to example.com/seo/.
  3. Blanket homepage Redirects: This is a bit tricky. It’s not favored within the SEO community, and even Google, to do blanket 301 redirects to the homepage. My suggestion would be to always try to stick to 1 or 2 above. If not possible, and if you really value that broken link, I’d advice to create a new page to redirect it to, OR, make that page live again. (That’s typically the easiest solution).

How Can You Find Broken Links?

On a high-level, these 3 methods should suffice:

  1. Grab your 404 errors from Google Search console.
  2. Use either of your favorite SEO tools to grab them too. (Will be showing a quick glimpse of Ahrefs).
  3. Use some kind of crawler to crawl your site.

If you really want to turn this into a project, use more than 1 SEO tool. Just make sure to dedupe all of your data from multiple sources, and make it into 1 nice spreadsheet or Google sheet.

How to Find Broken Links From Ahrefs?

Here’s how you can find broken links in Ahrefs. (screenshot to follow after instructions).

  1. Plug-in your domain, subdirectory, URL, etc. in the site explorer.
  2. Under “Backlink Profile,” navigate to broken links section.
  3. Leverage the filter to narrow down your list. Typically, I like to use the “dofollow” filter.
  4. Play around, sort, apply more filters, etc. Once done, Export your list.
finding broken links in ahrefs

How Can You Fix Broken Links?

In my opinion, managing broken links is all about measuring your time spent to ROI ratio — in a manner of speaking. In other words, making a rough analysis of how much you think it will benefit you if you spent X time in this project, and more importantly, do you need to in the first place? The answer to these questions will depend on your research.

If you are a big organization/website, my advice would be to regularly keep an eye out on this. If you’re a smaller organization, and you do get a lot of backlinks, I think you’ll benefit more.

In any case, below are some of the methods — through which, you can fix broken links.

  1. The easiest, and the most time-saving solution would be to make the URL work again. That’ll solve a lot of your headaches.
  2. If your URL has indeed moved to a different location, the “ideal” (albeit extremely time-consuming) solution would be to replace the broken link with the working link. This can fall into two categories:
    • Your own website linking to broken links: This should be fairly easier; since you can go in, and change out the broken link on all pages WITH the working link.
    • External website Linking to your Broken Links: This involves outreach, and requesting them to replace your broken link with the more 1:1 matching new working link.
  3. 301 redirects: There is a reason I am mentioning this as the last option because while 301 redirects makes it super easy (and that’s actually what ends up happening in the majority of the cases), you have to also understand some of the nuances it involves.
    • Every redirect creates an extra request/hop onto your server. And while all of this happens very fast, it’s something you need to consider for your networking resources.
    • It can waste your crawl budget if these 301 redirected broken link URLs are in your XML sitemaps.
    • It can inadvertently cause redirect chains. So it would help if you made sure you don’t end up redirecting a broken link to a URL that also redirects somewhere. A common mistake that happens here is redirecting to a non HTTPS version. Redirect chains are bad for your server, user, and crawlers. Nobody likes them.
  4. Leave the 404’s be: If your 404 pages don’t provide any value in the sense of traffic, rankings, backlinks, you can leave them alone. Google will eventually drop them.
  5. Sidenote About XML Sitemaps: Generally speaking, it is recommended to remove 404s and 301 links from XML sitemaps.

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Why Do Links Break?

Links turn into broken links for a lot of reasons. For bigger websites, this is a widespread phenomenon. Some of the most common reasons are:

  1. A redesign of your site and URLs took place. Obviously, this would have happened in a more horrible way if an SEO wasn’t involved.
  2. Your site moved to a different domain.
  3. URL case sensitivity: Perhaps there was a time when your site supported uppercase. Now they don’t.
  4. Some server changes occurred where it could cause specific types of pages to break, or a specific site section.

Conclusion

Broken links are a prevalent SEO problem. However, it’s not something you need to solve for always. Whether to fix them will depend on your resources, and how valuable these broken links are to you — upon evaluation.

The most common method to fix them is 301 redirects, and realistically speaking, it’s a big time-saver; however, if you can use the other two approaches mentioned — if feasible, I’d recommend trying those first.