We’ve all had the experience of surfing the web, clicking on a hyperlink in an article, and ultimately being directed to a 404 error page that says something to the effect of, “Oops! We can’t seem to find the page you were looking for!” This is known as a broken link. And though they can be frustrating, they’re also opportunistic.
Internally, broken links can have a negative impact on your site visitors’ collective experience. If you have broken links on your website, they need to be cleaned up, replaced, and/or revitalized.
But broken links can also occur offsite. And the right type of broken links can actually become huge white-hat opportunity for expanding your SEO efforts through strategic link building.
As you know, links are essentially the internet’s version of roads, streets, and highways. With the help of clickable hyperlinks, they assist in directing traffic from one web page or site to another.
Link building is the art of accumulating strategic links that point from other websites back to your own. It’s designed to encourage clicks to your site’s most important pages. But more than that, it’s a method of enhancing your website’s SEO standing in pursuit of climbing the search rankings and establishing authority.
Link building is time- and resource-intensive – so it’s helpful to leverage any and all strategies to get ahead. In light of this, we present to you an under-the-radar strategy known as broken link building.
Broken link building is predicated on a phenomenon SEO experts refer to as “link rot” – the natural tendency for links to eventually break down and no longer work. (By one estimate, approximately 25 percent of links die off every seven years.) Websites shut down, web pages become obsolete, and bloggers ignore the upkeep of their content – any number of factors comes into play. The result is a bunch of blog posts, news articles, and web pages with clickable hyperlinks that lead to 404 error pages.
Nobody likes dead links. They’re frustrating for the owner of the content that’s using the hyperlink, as well as for the readers/visitors who try to click on the hyperlink to gain more information on a topic, term, or reference.
Here’s where broken link building comes into play. It’s a simple strategy where you find broken links on the internet that are relevant to your industry, niche, or brand and then contact the webmaster or author of the content and offer to help by providing a fresh, working link to replace the one that’s broken.
Broken link building is time-intensive, but can be highly rewarding. It’s also mutually beneficial. The owner of the content gets a functional link, the readers get a useful resource, and you generate a new backlink that helps to amplify your SEO efforts.
Broken link building sounds great in theory, but how do you actually get started?
Here are two of the most effective methods – broken down into easy, digestible steps:
We call this the Premium Method, simply because it requires access to the Ahrefs SEO tool, which can be a little pricey for some budgets. (But if you want to test out the waters, they’re currently offering a seven-day trial for $7.)
Begin by creating a list of websites that you’d like to develop backlinks from. This can include major industry sites, as well as some niche websites and blogs that have a high degree of intersection with your target audience.
Next, run a Google search for the keywords that you’re trying to rank for and add the top-resulting domains to your running list. (This helps ensure you don’t forget websites simply because you lack familiarity with them.)
Armed with a spreadsheet of websites, go over to the Ahrefs Site Explorer tool and enter the first domain into the search bar.
After running a search, you’ll be presented with a side bar of options to sort and organize your results. Find the header that reads Pages and click the little drop-down error. You’ll find a few different options, but you want the one that says Best By links. This will provide you with an option to filter results to just 404 Pages. (On a large website, you may get dozens of dead pages. On small niche sites, you might only see a couple per domain.)
The next step is to check out the referring domains for these 404 pages. Ideally, you want pages that have lots of referring domains to authoritative websites. This gives you more linking opportunities.
Once you think you’ve found a good 404 page to work with, then head over to the Wayback Machine. (This is a useful internet archive tool that shows you what pages used to look like in the past.) Run the URL through the tool and look for instances of the web page from previous months or years. This will show you what the page looked like before it became defunct.
Now that you know what the page looked like at the time, you have a pretty good idea of what the referring domain wants linked. You can then recreate the same content in your own words, or create a brand new piece that’s closely related.
Once you’ve created your content and uploaded it to your site, you can reach out to the blogger or website master and send a simple email where you politely point out the broken link and offer to help by supplying your fresh, functional link as a worthy replacement.
The Free Method works much like the Premium Method does – but without the expensive Ahrefs Site Explorer tool. Instead, you can use one of a handful of free Chrome plugins – like Check My Links.
Using the same spreadsheet of domain targets that you created in the other method, head over to the first website on your list. Now manually dig into their blog archives and start reviewing individual posts. As you click on different posts and pages, any invalid or dead links will show up in red.
Much like the previous strategy, paste these links into the Wayback Machine, and review what the content used to look like. Recreate the content in your own words, pitch the author, rinse, and repeat.
Finding broken links is the dirty work. It requires hours of time mining pages, reviewing content, and crafting fresh content. But for this time and effort to yield benefits, you have to be effective with your link building outreach.
The easiest option is to use a tool like Ninja Outreach, which automatically mines contact information from the websites you input. This includes names and email addresses. You can then send bulk emails that are personalized to the recipient. The tool even lets you input your own templates, which you can use for different types of contact.
The other option is more time-intensive but doesn’t require a subscription fee. You can simply use your Gmail account and a tool like FindThatLead. (Or you can manually search for contact information on your own.)
Once you’ve found the right contact information, you’re ready to pitch your useful, functional link as a replacement for the broken, ineffective link. For your convenience, here’s an example template. (You’ll obviously want to tweak it to fit your own strategy and voice, but it gives you an idea of what the process looks like in action.)
“Hey [insert Name],
I was recently browsing [insert website] for some research on a project I’m doing and came across your post on [insert headline or brief synopsis of the article]. I found it extremely informative and well written. However, when I tried to click on [insert link] for more information, it took me to a 404 page.
I know how hard it is to keep track of every post you write, so I just thought I’d give you a heads up and hopefully improve your SEO!
By the way, I actually have some pretty helpful articles and resources on my own website that could be natural replacements for the broken link. Maybe you’d be interested?
Here’s a recent post I published on [insert topic] that would be a perfect complement to your piece.
Feel free to link to it if you think it would be of any value – but no pressure!
Have a great day,
It’s important to understand that broken link building is not a get rich quick scheme. It can take weeks or even months to generate meaningful results. A 5 percent to 10 percent response rate is considered pretty good. And of these responses, you might only cash in on 50 to 75 percent. But when you do, the results will justify the energy and effort.
Patience is the key to effective broken link building. While the quality of links certainly matters, quantity also comes into play. Look into hundreds of broken link opportunities with the understanding that only a few will ever work out.
Calibrate your mindset, cultivate patience, and the results will come. Combine these with your larger link building strategies and you’re certain to gain a competitive SEO advantage moving forward.