Another new client comes on and reminds me of the importance of the basics. The site I’m reviewing for the first time has almost 800 broken links. That’s right, eight HUNDRED. The client came on reporting virtually no representation in the search engines. I’m starting to see why. Code that doesn’t validate, content in iframes, and a ton of broken links. Though there are a lot of factors that I think are keeping them down, I’m just going to focus on broken links in this post though.
What are broken links and how do you find them? Broken links are any kind of link that doesn’t deliver the expected page. The link could fail because of a typo or because the target page has moved. There are three major problems with having a lot of broken links on a website; 1. The users can’t get to content you want them to find, 2. The search engines get stuck in these “spider traps” and spend their time waiting for a 404, 403, or 500 response, and 3. It makes the search engines think that your site is unreliable and therefore you won’t rank well because the search engines want to present their users with sites that work. Broken links will also negatively impact the speed with which search engines discover new content on your site because they spend so much time trying to connect to broken links.
In the case of my new client, there’s no way to go through it by hand to find every broken link. It would take weeks. The best way to do find them is to run a spider against the site, like Xenu, and let it do all the checking for you. (I’ll write another post about Xenu at some point with tips on it’s operation, but for now I’ll say that you shouldn’t run it full-throttle against a site because your IP might get blocked for a DOS attack.) Xenu will check every link to see if it works and will report the response. After the report runs, you’ll have a nice list of broken links and the pages where they are listed. Keep in mind though that Xenu doesn’t click on every link. Some older versions won’t work with java onclick attributes and Xenu certainly won’t click in flash elements.
Now that you’ve got your broken link report, what should you do? Fix them! You have to go through each link and try to figure out what went wrong with that link. Was the HTML fat-fingered? Was the link copied incorrectly from a browser address bar? Was the page moved? What error does the server deliver? Once you’ve figured out what is wrong with the broken link, you can try to fix it. If the HTML was fat-fingered, just correct the problem and you should be good. If something else happened to the link, try to find the correct target and replace it. If you were deep-linking and the target no longer exists, try to find it on the site in an archive. If you were citing another site’s article and that article no longer exists, it’s still good practice to give a link to their homepage as credit for the citation.
If you’re an SEO correcting links for a client, it’s important to have a good report for them including recommendations for what they should change in their site editing / page creation policies to prevent it from happening again. Oh, and don’t forget to run Xenu against the site after the corrections have been made. If they got messed up one time, they could get messed up again.