Google’s Unconventional Advice On Fixing Broken Backlinks

Google’s Unconventional Advice On Fixing Broken Backlinks

Google’s Gary Illyes recently answered the question of whether one should spend time fixing backlinks with wrong URLs that are pointing to a website, known as broken backlinks. The answer is interesting because it suggests a way of considering this issue in a completely unorthodox manner.

Google: Should Broken Backlinks Be Fixed?

During a recent Google SEO Office Hours podcast, a question was asked about fixing broken backlinks:

“Should I fix all broken backlinks to my site to improve overall SEO?”

Google’s Gary Ilyes answered:

“You should fix the broken backlinks that you think would be helpful for your users. You can’t possibly fix all the links, especially once your site grew to the size of a mammoth. Or brontosaurus.”

Unconventional Advice

Assessing broken backlinks for those that are the the most helpful for “users” is an unconventional way to decide whether to fix them or not. The conventional SEO practice is to fix a broken backlink to assure that a site is receiving the maximum available link equity. So his advice runs counter to standard SEO practice but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because there may be something useful there.

Keep an open mind, be open to different ways of considering solutions. Something I like about his approach is that it’s a shortcut for determining whether or not a backlink is useful. For example, if the link is to a product that is no longer sold or supported in any way, a 404 response is the best thing to show to search crawlers and to users. So there is some validity to his way of looking at it.

Why Broken Backlinks Should Be Fixed

It’s not really a big deal to fix these kinds of backlinks, it’s one of the easier SEO chores to be done and it’s a quick win.

While any benefit is hard to measure, it’s nonetheless worth doing it for site visitors who might follow the wrong URL to the webpage that they’re looking for.

Check Backlinks After A Link Building Campaign

Checking backlinks is also important to do after a backlink campaign, even months after asking for a link, because site owners will sometimes add their links weeks or months later but it could be that they added the wrong URL. It happens, I know from experience.

Broken Backlinks That Do & Don’t Matter

The kinds of broken backlinks that usually (but not always) matter are the ones that show up as 404 errors on your server logs or in the Google Search Console.

There are two kinds of broken backlinks that matter:

  1. A backlink that’s broken because the linked page no longer exists or the URL changed.
  2. The URL of the backlink is misspelled.

Then there are backlinks that matter less and the reasons for that are:

  • Because the broken backlink is from a low quality website that doesn’t send any traffic
  • The link is to an outdated webpage that doesn’t matter and should return a 404 response
  • It’s just a random link created by an AI chatbot, spambot, or a spam web page.

How To Identify Broken Backlinks

Identifying any kind of broken backlink is (arguably) best done done by reviewing 404 errors generated from visits to pages that no longer exist or to URLs that are misspelled. If the link matters then there’s going to be web traffic from a broken backlink to a 404 page.

You might not be able to see where that link is coming from, although it may be possible to search for the broken URL and possibly find it.

The server log may show the IP address and user agent of the site visitor that created the broken link and from there a site owner can make the judgment call of whether it’s a spam or hacker bot, a search engine bot or an actual user. The Redirection WordPress plugin and the Wordfence plugin can be helpful for site owners that don’t have access to server logs.

A site owner may find that using a SaaS backlink tool might be useful for finding broken links but many sites, particularly sites that have been around awhile, have a lot of backlinks and using a tool might not be the right solution because it’s a lot of work for finding a link that doesn’t even send traffic. If the broken link sends traffic then you’ll know it because it’ll show up as a 404 error response.

Fixing Broken Backlinks

Fixing links that no longer exist can be done by recreating the resource or by redirecting requests for the missing web page to a web page that is substantially similar.

Fixing a link to a misspelled URL is easily done by redirecting the misspelled URL to the correct URL.

Another way to fix it is to contact the site that’s linking to the wrong URL but there are three things to consider before doing that.

1. The site owner may decide that they don’t want to link to the site and remove the link altogether.

2. The site owner may decide to add a no-follow link attribute to the corrected URL.

3. There are other sites that may have copied the web page and/or the link and are thus also linking to the wrong URL.

Simply adding a redirect from the misspelled URL to the correct URL fixes the problem without any risk that the backlink is going to be removed or nofollowed.

Fixing Broken Backlinks

Identifying broken backlinks is something that many site owners might stumble on when investigating 404 errors. Some call it link reclamation but any discussion of “link reclamation” is basically about fixing broken backlinks, it’s just another name for it.

Regardless, fixing these kinds of inbound links are one of the few SEO quick wins that could actually benefit a site owner and it could be a part of a site audit especially when it’s limited to finding opportunities in 404 error responses because these are links that are either getting crawled or are being used by potential site visitors.

Listen to the podcast at the 5:32 minute mark for the answer on fixing broken backlinks:

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi



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