“Given enough time, everything tends toward chaos.” It’s an inescapable law of thermodynamics you might have heard of, and applies to everything in the universe, including backlinks to your websites.
And yet, some SEOs out there expect that, once completed, their optimization efforts will remain unspoiled and evergreen forever. What’s worse, they act surprised when those unrealistic expectations translate into rank loss and other adverse site complications.
It doesn’t matter how well-executed and once-effective your SEO is; left unattended, entropy catches up eventually.
This is something that becomes particularly evident with one of the most popular tactics we use to generate organic traffic and better rankings: link building.
It comes in lots of names – backlink breakage, link rot, link death… But the long and short of it is that, after some time, your hard-fought link building strategy will waste away. And if you are not paying attention, its remains will negatively impact your site and work against you.
So, let’s go over the topic of link death in a bit more detail, and see how the pros deal with it.
Why Does it Happen?
Putting high-brow musings on physics aside, the fact is that those valuable backlinks you worked hard to obtain will eventually break as the internet moves on.
Maybe its target website gets updated or outright removed. Sometimes host servers fail or get permanently decommissioned. Domain names change, registrations lapse or get transferred… I could go on enumerating the reasons, but the result is the same: many of our valuable backlinks will eventually be reduced to 404 error pages.
And that’s if you are lucky and the link actually dies.
Other – arguably more insidious – problems with link death come when they don’t entirely break but are instead rendered ineffective. Over time, new pages or posts push older ones away from the home page and direct viewer attention, thus reducing the amount of link juice they once supplied.
So, in spite of your best efforts, you’ll always have a percentage of broken or ineffective links on your site to deal with.
But not everything is lost. Let’s talk about how you deal with them.
Here’s What You Do: Backlink Reclamation
I first heard about the concept of link reclamation from Eric Ward, and the premise behind it is pretty straightforward: finding, fixing, and replacing online content from all the links on your site that no longer work.
First task at hand is to check all 404 response codes on your site and see the nature of the link breakage. Tools like Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and DeepCrawl help you do this nicely, but there are a few free alternatives out there that work as well.
However you go about it, generate a list with whatever broken link (those returning 404 codes) pops up. It will act as your reclamation checklist.
Start by fixing broken internal links, as those will be easiest to address. Run down the list and determine what happened in each instance. Did you move the page it was originally pointing to? Replace with the correct new link. Is the page the link is pointing to down? Time to fix whatever issue it has and get it back online!
After you have taken care of all the issues with internal links, move on to the external ones.
Reclaiming External Links
When an external link points to a page or web asset that has moved on your site, the fix is rather easy. Locate the new address and create a 301 redirect to the new destination. Do that with every instance et voilà; you are done.
However, when the page or asset they are linking to no longer exists or has been taken out of circulation, things are a bit trickier.
In these cases, 301 redirects won’t do any good, since Google treats them as a soft 404. In other words, Google deems “soft 404” any redirects to pages that, while indeed present on your domain, their content isn’t closely related to the original backlink recipient.
For example, if you have a bunch of external links pointing to a particularly popular post on your that has become obsolete, or to a page you’ve removed from your site, redirecting them to your homepage will do zilch. Google won’t pass any link juice and PageRank will remain unaffected by those redirects.
Instead, you’ll want to bring said content back, and do it the right way.
Create an updated version of the obsolete content. One that clearly represents the original piece’s intent while containing up-to-date information, and redirect those links to this new, updated piece.
If the links are pointing to a page you had since removed from your website, consider bringing the page back online if it won’t be a detriment to your content.
Another – albeit less common – instance of broken external links are those pointing to a misspelled page on your domain. Maybe the source link mistyped the intended page’s address or added a number at the end that ends up on a 404 on your site.
If you can identify the originally intended webpage, just a simple redirect is in order. For example, if they are linking to www.yourwebsitename.com/blogg, they are clearly trying to reach your blog.
That said, sometimes the misspelled link isn’t that easy to pin down. In those instances, you might want to take a look at the page where the link comes from and infer through the content’s context the page they were trying to link to. Once you think you have it, do the redirect.
Reclaiming Links from Images
One last thing you might want to check before moving on are links generated from images you own.
These types of images can be a good source of backlinks, but are also liable to break over time. You can use Google images – or directly look for the image URL on Google – to track down in which other sites your image appears, and see if they are properly linking to the source.
If they do, your job here is done. If they don’t (or the link being used is broken because you changed the image or it no longer exists), try and reach out to the site and ask them to fix it. Not only will most sites gladly make the fix; you can leverage this initial contact for further link collaborations in the future.
Here’s Why You Fix These Things
Dealing with Link Death isn’t sexy.
It won’t overhaul your site’s ranking overnight. It won’t suddenly bump up your KPIs. It won’t help you increase conversions. So, why do it?
You do it because SEO is about making sure your website is optimized at all levels. Top to bottom, side to side… you want every possible aspect of your site to run like a state of the art, well-oiled machine. So, you can’t have a deteriorating issue negatively affecting your page’s ranking out of sheer neglect.
That’s not how the pros do it, so why should you?
Make link death diagnosis and reclamation a part of your periodic optimization tasks, and your site will be better for it. Plain and simple.