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How to find & fix broken backlinks pointing to 404 pages on your site (and a look at some of the crazily high authority links that top brands are wasting)…

11 min read

SEO
Home / SEO / How to find & fix broken backlinks pointing to 404 pages on your site (and a look at some of the crazily high authority links that top brands are wasting)…

Building high authority links is hard.

That said, if you want to gain a competitive advantage and rank for high competition search terms, you’re going to need great links (and for us as an agency, that means using digital PR to combine engaging content assets, creatively contagious stories and PR tactics).

So then, why do many SEOs frequently allow (often) significant numbers of authoritative and topically relevant links that they’ve earned over time point to 404 pages on their site?

Time and time again, I see hundreds of broken inbound links pointing to the sites of businesses that I speak to and their competitors, often from some impressive domains.

Point in question?

Appliances retailer AO.com has a link on this page from Microsoft.com, a support guide on Windows 7 support ending.

See the links to Microsoft’s retail partners?

They’re literally trying to send traffic (from relevant content that is essentially encouraging any remaining Windows 7 users to go out and upgrade to a Windows 10 computer) to the retailer.

It’s a useful link from a user perspective, and as far as SEO value goes, it’s a follow link from DR96 / DA99.

But let’s take a look at where you land if you follow the ‘Shop Now’ link under the AO.com logo.

Seriously?!

But if we dig a little deeper, we can see that the link points to:

https://ao.com/help-and-advice/guides-and-advice/featured-products/upgrade-to-windows-10.aspx

A quick Google search returns 30 results for a directory-level search…

Interestingly, this actually includes the apparent parent page or category of the page that’s linked to from Microsoft:

https://ao.com/help-and-advice/guides-and-advice/featured-products

BUT; this then redirects to https://ao.com/brands/features-we-love.

Has the content moved and no one redirected all of the pages correctly?

It definitely seems that way if a high authority link from Microsoft is pointing to a 404 page, especially given that the content appears to sit here.

This link authority could have been preserved either by implementing a 301 redirect to the page’s new location or by reaching out and requesting that the link’s target page is updated.

And this is only the start; keep reading and I’ll share deeper insights into the scale of this issue for many brands, once we’ve looked at the reason you need to pay close attention to broken links

These links are wasted. They’re not going to help you to rank, even though they should be.

In fact, Gary Illyes confirmed on Twitter back in 2015 that Google ignores links that lead to 404 pages.

You need to fix links that are pointing to 404 pages (and other 4XX error codes, such as 410 errors, but for ease we’ll refer just to 404 pages) and it’s a quick win link building tactic to reclaim the lost authority that your site should be earning from these.

This is a tactic that forms the very basics of pretty much any link building strategy that I run for clients (and one of the first things that I check when speaking with any potential client, too), and it makes total sense to reclaim link equity from links that already point to your site, but that aren’t contributing towards your growth.

Before you go out and invest resources to build even one more link, take 15 minutes to look for broken links that are currently pointing to 404 pages that could be working harder for your site and clean these up.

After all, you’ve done the hard work in landing the link in the first place.

SEO success comes from prioritising your efforts and knowing where you gain those quick wins.

If there are pages on your site that have great links pointing to them but return a 404 error, those links aren’t being counted by Google’s algorithm.

In reality, it’s usually the case that links point to 404 pages because of a site redesign or platform migration, that the site’s structure has changed, that older pages have been deleted (but not redirected) or that the link was implemented incorrectly and points to a page that never even existed in the first place.

But almost regardless of how these broken backlinks came to be, any smart SEO should set aside time on a monthly basis to run a quick analysis and prevent lost link authority from building up.

So let’s look at how you can do that.

Finding 404 pages with backlinks is actually really simple and straightforward, and it’s for this reason that it’s often concerning to see that so many sites that are wasting the links that they’ve worked so hard to earn.

You should be checking your site for broken backlinks and fixing these on a regular basis.

But the process you need to take depends on the tools that you’ve using or have available; and that’s not just for finding these broken backlinks but also to further analyse the fixes that you should focus on.

I’ll walk you step-by-step through the process using the following tools:

Finding broken backlinks with ahrefs is super easy.

Enter your domain into the site explorer tool and head to the broken backlinks page. I’d recommend viewing this by ‘domain with all its subdomains.’

Pretty simple, right?

Sort by DR, showing the highest first.

Here, you’ll see not only a list of broken backlinks that point to 404 pages on your site but also the total number.

In this instance, there’s 5,363 broken backlinks pointing to the domain, including links from Microsoft, BBC, FT, Lifehacker and more.

Go ahead and run a full export of this list.

At this point, I want to find two things:

  • The number of 404 URLs on the domain that are causing the broken backlinks (often, these broken URLs have accrued more than one link).
  • How many of these broken links are low-quality ones that wouldn’t add value.

Knowing this can really help you to prioritise fixing the broken links, rather than working through the list from top to bottom, only to find that many have already been resolved higher up.

I’m using Google Sheets to find these insights.

We need to remove duplicate 404 pages and can easily do so using the built in remove duplicates tool.

You’ll find this under Data > Remove Duplicates

Tick that the data has a header row and select only the ‘Link URL’ column to analyse:

Doing this leaves us with, in this example, 767 unique URLs that have links pointing to them but which return a 404 error.

You can then refine this list of URLs even further by applying a filter to exclude broken links coming from sites with a DR of 20 or lower.

I use DR20 as a baseline threshold when looking for quick win opportunities (broken links from quality domains), but where you set this is your call and really will depend on the number of broken links.

To do this, create a filter and filter by condition, and set this to greater than or equal to 20.

This leaves 141 pages on the site that have quality backlinks pointing to them that should be fixed as a priority.

Remember, we’re looking for quick wins here and that means finding those broken links that could pass real link authority but are currently being wasted.

This whole process shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes.

If SEMrush is your tool of choice, heres how to use it to find broken backlinks.

Head to the Backlink Analytics tool and enter your domain. You should then see the tool’s dashboard with full insights into your link profile.

Head to the Indexed Pages tab and tick the Target URL error box. This will return a list of 404 pages that have links pointing to them which you should sort by domains to show those with the highest number of unique domains that link.

But this only shows you the 404 pages that have backlinks, not a list of specific broken links that you can analyse based on quality.

That said, this is definitely a useful starting point for fixing the issues at scale on large sites and you can get this insight in seconds.

You’re able to explore each page in more detail to see the specific links pointing to it for more detail, but this needs to be done on a page-by-page basis.

This should act as your priority list for fixing the issues and can be exported if you wish.

Whilst not as useful as ahrefs, if you’ve only got Majestic available, you can quickly find a list of pages that return a 4XX error code that have backlinks pointing to them.

Head to the pages tab and filter by crawl result and choose the 404 (or other) response code.

You’ll then see a list of pages that have been linked to; sorted by the highest number of domains.

You’re able to explore each page in more detail to see the specific links pointing to it for more detail, but this needs to be done on a page-by-page basis.

This should act as your priority list for fixing the issues and can be exported if you wish.

Moz Link Explorer can quickly return a list of pages on your site that return a 4XX error code and, compared to Majestic, doesn’t require you to filter by 404 and 410 etc separately.

Head to the top pages page and choose 4xx Broken from the status dropdown.

Sort by linking domains and you’ve got your starting point.

You’re able to explore each page in more detail to see the specific links pointing to it for more detail, but this needs to be done on a page-by-page basis.

This should act as your priority list for fixing the issues and can be exported if you wish.

It’s worth noting that the insights that you can quickly gain from ahrefs combined with Google Sheets far outweighs any other of the tools for this purpose. That said, not everyone has access to multiple tools and you can definitely gain the insights with others, it’s just not as simple to go into so much detail.

Now that you’ve got a list of broken pages on your site that have backlinks pointing to them (or a prioritised list of broken links), you need to fix these so that the links will no longer be ignored and will pass authority to your site.

But don’t go redirecting blindly. You should be redirecting the broken URLs (and therefore link authority) to a page that is the best-match and closest (or identical to) the original intended target.

You can easily fix these issues using 301 redirects and this handy reference table should help you figure out where to redirect the URL to.

Cause of Broken PageRedirect To…
The page has movedThe new URL
The page has been deletedA page that’s as similar to the original as possible
An incorrectly placed linkThe correct URL

The appeal of using 301 redirects to resolve these issues is that they allow you to fix all broken links that point to a specific page in one action and also pass PageRank (authority).

Reaching out to sites to ask for individual links to be updated is time-consuming and often ineffective, making 301 redirects the most suitable and quickest option.

It’s easy to assume that top brands don’t need to worry about broken links, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s not forget that links primarily exist to be navigational and take a user from page A to page B. If these are broken, that’s a poor user experience.

But the fact that these links aren’t contributing to the site’s SEO performance also cannot be ignored.

Top brands often operate in very competitive SERPs, and there’s simply no excuse to be wasting links in the way that many of these are.

Just think back to my example earlier on Microsoft.com…

This is literally a DA99 link that’s being wasted, but also potential referral traffic that will land on a ‘Sorry – this page no longer exists’ screen.

But this is common, and to share the extent of the problem, I’ve used ahrefs to look at the broken backlinks, with examples of specific high authority links, that point to 10 popular brands.

BrandBroken BacklinksExamples
AO.com5,363Microsoft.com
BBC
Lifehacker
Apple2,221,564New York Times
Washington Post
Bloomberg
Argos306,614The Guardian
Telegraph
Wired
Autotrader112,789The Guardian
BBC
Telegraph
Best Buy27,568LA Times
Engadget
Gizmodo
Currys4,821QZ
Techradar
Wired
The Entertainer7,412Telegraph
BT.com
The Sun
Missguided134,767Metro
Cosmopolitan
Good Housekeeping
Target248,798CNN
Business Insider
AOL
TUI48,307The Guardian
Metro
Elle

That’s a lot of broken backlinks pointing to the domain names of just 10 brands from some of the world’s most authoritative websites.

At the end of the day, finding and fixing broken backlinks that point to 404 pages is often a really quick way to regain lost link equity from links you’ve already earned.

Make sure you’re checking for broken backlinks on a regular basis and keep on top of fixing these.

After all, building great links isn’t easy so make sure that the ones you’ve already landed are contributing to your growth.

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