You've spent a lot of time, a lot of money, or maybe both on your website. It has become a serious investment.
You've made sure it looks nice, it's easy to navigate, and you've listed your products or services in an easy-to-understand way.
And, over the years you've put out some great content.
So good, in fact, that people have linked to it from their websites, blogs, and social pages.
Now, I'd love to end the story there. You build it, they link to it, search engines love it, and you get lots of traffic and customers.
Sounds terrific, right?
But things change. Prices change. Products discontinue. Services evolve. Website platforms change.
Those changes are usually always good - your business is succeeding and growing.
But what about those services pages, blog posts, products, and ideas that have been left behind? When you delete or move them, do they just go away?
Yes. Well, no. Ok, kind of.
In reality, those deleted products and service pages are still probably linked to online from other sites. And that's a problem.
Since every link online is like a 'vote' for your website, the more votes you have, the more your chances of winning - meaning higher rankings.
But if the links go to pages that don't exist, you don't get credit for those links.
This is a very common thing to happen, especially with ecommerce websites. A product is no longer available, so you take it offline. Makes sense. But if someone linked to that product at some point, now you're not getting credit - no vote - for your website.
We were hired once by a company selling dresses to teenagers - over the years they had discontinued hundreds of dresses. And if you know teens, they like to link to fashion - especially items that they like.
Well, over the course of those years, this client accumulated over 17,000 links that they weren't getting credit for!
Can you imagine how much 17,000 links to your site - from your target market - could mean to your site and your rankings? HUGE I tell ya, HUGE!
How to Identify/Find Your Broken Links
Now that we've talked about why you need to identify and fix these links, let's talk about a few tools that we use to find them.
The first one, which is completely free, is Google Search Console (GSC).
Assuming you've already claimed your website (all versions) in GSC, finding the broken links is just a click away. On the dashboard, click the Crawl Errors button.
Here you should see a page titled Site Errors. Below that you'll see a section called URL Errors - that's what we're interested in. In particular, the Not found section. Click on that.
As you can see, this site has 1,025 reported errors. Yikes! Clicking on that tab will show a list of all pages that are reported by Google's search bots as Not Found (404). This means somehow, somewhere, Google followed a link on your site or another site and received a 404-not found error.
This where it can start taking some time to figure out what these links are. You can click the Download button and save all these links to a spreadsheet so you can start to investigate and fix them one at a time.
It should be noted here that Google will only list up to 1,000 links on this report. However, the graph on that page will tell you approximately how many they believe you have in all.
If it's more than zero, you've got some work to do.
Another tool that we use, which is a paid tool, is aHrefs. This tool identifies broken links and gives you a nice listing of them inside the dashboard so you can fix them as they show up. In most cases, especially for business owners, the GSC tool is enough.
Fixing These Broken Links
Now it's time to get your hands dirty, or you can cop out.
By cop out, I mean you can take the easy way out and just redirect every broken link back to your home page. That means if someone (or the Google bot) follows one of these broken links, they'll just end up on your home page. That's ok, if you want to give the user a bad experience with your brand.
Can you imagine reading an article on your favorite site where a guy is talking about how great a product is, and he links to the product - however when you click on it, you just end up at that site's home page? Are you going to go searching for the product he was talking about? Probably not.
So I don't recommend the blanket redirect. Yes, it will solve your problem, but people won't like it. And bad user experience means higher bounce rate, which in turn hurts your site's rankings.
Broken Services Pages
So you don't offer that widget painting service any more. I understand. But at some point, someone on the Internet thought it was good enough to link to. Now that you've deleted the Widget Painting page, that link is broken. What do you do?
Well, if you have a similar service, I'd create a redirect link to that page. (I'll cover how to do that shortly).
If you don't have a similar service any more, I'd recommend creating a redirect link to your Services page.
By the way, I should mention - you could always just put the Widget Painting page back up if you'd like. Problem solved. Or you could put the page back up, and on the page explain why you don't have that service any more, and maybe link to a few people that you know that still offer that service.
But in most cases, you won't want to do that, so you'll just want to create a redirect to the most similar page on your site.
Broken eCommerce Pages
Unfortunately, ecommerce sites tend to have a lot of products that come and go. From vendors going out of business , products changing product names to new vendors coming in a replacing older items - it can be hectic to keep up with them all!
Take a look at some of the items that we used to list on FloatMissouri - that are now defunct, but listed in the GSC report.
Luckily, our URL structure has enough keywords in them that I can tell what the products were. For example, the third one listed is a bird feeder. In that case, I'd fix that by sending that user to the 'Bird Feeder' category page.
This is typically how you fix a discontinued product link - you redirect it to the category page. You do not typically redirect it to another product, because if that product goes out of stock, you're not creating redirect chains - and those are not good.
Now, it's totally possible that someone fat-fingered the link to my birdhouse, and it actually does exist on my site. In that case, I'd just redirect their poorly-typed version of the URL to the correct one.
Can you how this can become very time-consuming? I just showed you a short list of products that needed fixing, yet the Google Bot reported that I have over 1,000 of them.
But I sure could use another 1,000 good links to my site, so it's totally worth the time.
So What's a Redirect, and How Do I Implement One?
The best way to tell a search engine that a page has moved is to write a redirect. Without going geek on you, it's safe to say there are a few kinds of these, but we're most interested in a 301 redirect. A 301 redirect tells the search engines that the page they're trying to reach no longer exists, and has been permanently moved to the new destination.
And that is good enough to solve the problem for both your users and the search engines. They'll "apply credit" (the vote) to the new page and it will no longer be reported as an error.
So how do you create a redirect?
Well, there are a few ways. I'll cover two: One if you're using WordPress, and two if you're using a different system.
Redirecting a page or URL in WordPress
As with everything in WordPress, there's a plugin for that! The plugin we recommend is called Redirection and is free.
Using this plugin is pretty straightforward. After installing and activating it, you'll need to create a Category. I recommend calling it something like Crawl Error Fixes but you can use whatever you'd like. The plugin may also automatically create a category called 'Redirections'. That's good enough, too.
Let's look at my birdhouse example. Since I don't have that particular item any more, I want to redirect that visitor and the Google bot to the Category page for Birdhouses. Here's how I'd do that.
There are a few things to point out here - first, make sure when you reference a link here that you start with the slash that occurs right after your domain name. This applies to both your Source URL and the Target URL.
Under Action, make sure you choose the 301 option. In this version of the plugin they've called it 'Redirect to URL' but I've seen it change over time, so just make sure you're choosing the 301 version.
Redirecting a URL Without WordPress
Ok, this is kinda dangerous and can take down your website if you do it wrong. Even if you just miss a space or dash, your site can crash to a halt, so be very careful using this technique. Make sure you have a good backup before you start.
In order to do this, you'll need FTP access to your server. If you don't know what that is, it's best that you call someone (like us) to do it for you.
You'll want to edit your .htaccess file. Typically you can just use a regular text editor.
To create a redirect, you'll need to follow this sequence:
I've added arrows so you can see where the spaces are. You'll still need to use the slash at the beginning of each URL, and need to add the 301 so the system knows what kind of redirect this is.
Don't forget to save your file and then make sure your website still works.
Finishing the Repair - Notify the Authorities
Now that we've fixed that link, we need to tell Google that we've done so.
To do that, just click on the link. You'll get a screen similar to this
First, click on the blue link and make sure it actually does forward to the new URL like you told it to. If it doesn't, you've missed a step somewhere.
If it worked, click on the Mark as fixed button and you're done! If all was done correctly, that link will not show up again in the GSC.
Will, This is a Lot of Work
Yes, it is.
But it's worth it. Links are like gold online, and you want to tend over them much as a eagle would tend to her hatchling. It could be the difference between ranking above or below your competitor!
And of course, if you want a professional to look at your broken links, we'd be happy to do so. Just contact us!