Picture this: You just moved to a new home, and you’re looking for a new set of armchairs. Your best options are three local businesses, so you go to their online stores to browse their catalog and eventually make a purchase. But, when you visit one of your favorite stores, you click the link to the “Armchair” category in their menu, and it takes you to an error page. You don’t get a carefully curated selection of great armchairs, you just get a 404. What happened? You just clicked on a broken link.
A dead or broken link is a link that points to nowhere. When the broken links are internal (that is, pointing somewhere within your website), it’s usually due to two causes:
- The website has been renamed or moved, its structure has changed, and internal links weren’t modified accordingly.
- The linked content has been moved or deleted.
Sometimes, broken links are external. That means that the link that leads nowhere takes us “outside” of our initial website. This is usually the result of linking to third-parties that have moved or deleted their content. Another possible cause for both internal and external broken links can simply be a typing error. These are made more likely by not optimizing page slugs, yourwebsite.com/products/armchairs will be far easier to type correctly (and to remember) than yourwebsite.com/products/[a succession of random numbers and letters].
In this article, we’re going to find out just how dangerous to our website broken links are, both from a user’s and a search engine’s perspective. We’re going to understand the best practices to prevent broken links from occuring in the first place, and naturally, we’re going to learn how to fix broken links if we encounter them.
How broken links harm your customer experience
As our hypothetical scenario shows, dead links translate into a terrible customer experience. When someone enters your website, they enter a “conversion funnel.” They should enter as visitors and leave as customers. Broken links can be roadblocks in this journey. In fact, they can be the end of the road. Our highly competitive online landscape has made users less tolerant of frustration. For instance, a 2019 Acquia report showed that 76% of customers wouldn’t buy from a brand that has given them a single bad experience.
Granted, in our example, we imagined a broken link appearing in a key place that impedes us from making a purchase. But a broken link is never beneficial. Let’s say our company’s greatest competitive advantage is our expertise, and we want to link to a resource that will help our customers solve a problem while proving that we know what we’re talking about. If instead of the great resource that we promised, the user finds a 404, they’ll feel disappointed, not engaged, or willing to trust our business. Dead links can make our website seem confusing and unreliable, projecting a poor image of our brand.
How broken links affect SEO
Aside from customer experience, broken links negatively affect SEO. Search engines aim to offer users the most relevant and trustworthy pages as the highest in their rankings. So, a website that’s full of links that lead nowhere and feels incomplete and fragmented won’t perform as well as one that provides a smooth navigation experience and fulfills all its promises. At the end of the day, search engine algorithms’ ranking criteria can be simplified in two words: User experience. Good SEO practices tend to translate into good user experience and vice versa.
On the other hand, if a backlink (a link to your website on a third party’s site) is broken, it has no effect on your site’s authority. Broken links neutralize your link building efforts. SEO experts usually refer to it as “spilling link juice.”
Now that we know the harm broken links can cause on our website, the next question, naturally, is – how to fix broken links?
How to detect a broken link
Before jumping into how to fix broken links, we first want to detect them. There are many ways to detect a broken link. But let’s take a look at three very common methods. You can do it with the Google Search Console, with a WordPress plugin, or an online tool.
Detecting broken links with the Google Search Console is quite easy. We need to go to the Index > Coverage tab, click to view our Excluded Links, and find which pages are being excluded as a consequence of 404s. There are two downsides to this method: It only covers internal links, and all fixes will need to be made manually, outside the Search Console.
WordPress users can count on a tool such as Broken Link Checker to detect and fix their broken links. When considering a tool to install, remember always to check the reviews, its number of active installations, and whether it has been tested on the latest WordPress version.
Most broken link checkers will be easy to work with. For instance, once installed and activated, a broken link checker parses all your content, looking for links. This process can take from minutes to a few hours, depending on the size of your website. You can modify this plugin’s settings on the “Link Checker” section of your Settings tab. Once the parsing is complete, the broken links will appear on your WP admin panel, under the “Broken Links” section of your Tools tab.
The plugin makes it possible for you to edit the URL, replacing that link everywhere it appears. You can also “unlink,” removing the link but keeping the anchor text. In case the plugin gives a false positive, you can dismiss the link or mark it as “not broken.”
The greatest benefit of using this sort of plugin is that you detect and fix the links within your WP admin panel. If you’ve worked with WordPress, you know how user-friendly the panel is, so you save a lot of time and hassle. A great downside that we need to have in mind is that having many active plugins can really slow down your WordPress website. This type of plugin will be quite resource-intensive, and it doesn’t need to be activated most of the time, so deactivate it or uninstall it once you’ve used it.
An online tool, such as Dead Link Checker can also be a good option to find the broken links on your website. In this case, the process is as simple as entering the online tool’s website, typing in your URL, and pressing a button. Then, the tool will scan your website, looking for broken links. Once the tool has done its job, it will produce a list of the problematic links and their locations. The upside of using such an online tool is how easy it is. You don’t need to install anything or link your website to any service. The downside is that you have to manually enter your website’s admin panel and fix the links one by one, in their corresponding locations. It makes the process a little more cumbersome than using a plugin. This can be irrelevant if we have three or four broken links to fix, but when you have to fix a dozen broken links, it starts to feel like wasting time.
How to Fix Broken Links
Fixing broken links is very easy. The best option will depend on the type and purpose of the link. For instance, if pointing to an external resource that complemented our content, we can delete the link, while leaving the anchor text. Or we could also use the same anchor text to lead our users to a different website.
If the dead links are internal, we should set 301 redirects. A 301 redirect means that the page in question has been permanently moved. If we use WordPress, we can easily set 301 redirects with a plugin such as Redirection or 301 Redirects.
In case of 404s
Eventually, someday, a user will land on a 404. It might be due to an actual dead link or simply because of a typing error on their part. But it’s worth discussing the usefulness of 404 pages and how to make the most out of them.
A 404 is an HTTP standard response code that indicates that the server could not find the requested resource. Basically, there’s no technical issue other than the server being unable to find what you requested.
Some SEO experts used to suggest that, instead of 404, we should use 302 redirects. 302 redirects tell Google that the URL in question is temporarily unavailable, and automatically redirects our users to another page. For instance, we may redirect users to our homepage.
302s are not ideal. They’re not ideal for SEO; in Google’s eyes, 302s don’t have the same leverage as the original content. And they’re not ideal for users either. Imagine you want to visit a certain page within a website, and you land on the homepage, wouldn’t it be confusing? It’s best to be transparent, letting the user know that the content is unavailable (or doesn’t exist), and giving them options to continue navigating your website. For instance, you might suggest that they check your latest posts on your blog, take a look at your most recent products, or simply return to the homepage.
Best practices to prevent broken links
One of the most common causes of broken links is absolutely preventable. Update old content instead of deleting it. If you don’t have the time to update it, consider adding a disclaimer that lets the user know that the content is outdated and offer them a more relevant and recent alternative.
If you recently reorganized or moved your website, be sure to check for broken links and set 301 redirects where needed.
Broken backlinks can be the consequence of very long, randomly generated URLs. Optimize your URLs for clarity and readability. This decreases the chance of misspelled URLs, and therefore, of broken links.
Even if we’re taking all the necessary precautions, regularly checking for broken links is always a smart move, since we might be linking to third-parties that don’t have the same good practices that we have.