Broken link building: the only guide you will ever need

What’s broken link building? Essentially, it's catching link building opportunities that arise from some links on a site being broken, hence the name.

While it has always been more of a white-hat SEO technique, broken link building moved from periphery to center-stage after Google’s Penguin update. Previously, there existed easier and faster ways to get links. Post-Penguin, the SEO community began looking into less popular, but more legit link acquisition methods.  That’s how broken link building suddenly got momentum.

How does it work?

Imagine that you have a site that sells rock climbing gear. In order to build links to it, you look for relevant niche sites (preferably educational/non-commercial ones) that have pages titled "useful links," "suggested resources," or something of the kind.

Now, if you see that any of the links on those pages are broken (point to "dead" pages), you can contact the site's webmaster and (1) tell them you've found broken links on their site and (2) suggest your own piece of content as a replacement.

For example, I could contact the webmaster of SmithRockClimbing.com, and ask them to replace a link on their "Gear and Equipment" list with a link to my site (well, if any of those links were actually broken).

What you'll learn from this guide

From this guide, you'll learn how to find broken link building opportunities, and what tools you can use to do it faster.

By the way, these opportunities may exist not only on third-party sites, but also on your own site (if you have 404 pages with external links pointing to them). That's why the guide has 2 parts:

  • Part 1. Broken link building on your own site
  • Part 2: Broken link building on third-party sites

Broken Link Building Tools

There will be quite a few tools mentioned throughout the post. I decided to provide a list of them upfront (in order of appearance) for you to see the scope of instruments you may need to perform broken link building at a decent pace.

They are mostly free, with some paid tools (that have free trials) listed as well.

Part 1: Broken link building on your own site

This method consists in finding 404 pages on your site, checking if there are any external incoming links pointing to them, and, if there are any, setting up 301 redirects to fix the broken "link juice" funnel to your site.

Let's see how you can do this step by step.

Step 1. Finding 404 pages

You can see your site's 404 (non-exiting) pages in several ways:

- Check in Google Webmaster Tools under Crawl - > Crawl Errors

- Use W3C's Link Checker to see which pages on your site are 404s

- Use a third-party on-page SEO tool that shows 404 pages

Step 2.Checking links to 404s

Once you get a list of 404 pages on your site, you'd need to check if there are any external links pointing to them. For that, you'd need a tool that (A) shows 404 pages on a site and (B) lets you see the backlinks pointing to them.

E.g., in WebMeUp, you can see this data under Pages -> Site audit -> External incoming links.

Upon completing this step, you should end up with a list of your site’s 404 pages that have external incoming links. The rest of the site’s pages are of no interest to us at this point.

Step 3. Analyzing links to 404 pages

At this point we need to determine the value of links pointing to the 404 pages we just discovered. If those links pass decent SEO value, then the 404 page they're pointing to is worth "saving."

First off, you'd need to check if those links are live and dofollow, and analyze backlink pages for the following parameters:

- the backlink page's relevance;

- the backlink page's PageRank ;

- the backlink domain's age and authority;

- the anchor text used, etc.

You can get this information in a number of ways. For example, you could:

1. Visit the linking page and check its parameters using a browser extension like SEOquake

2. If you have used WebMeUp to discover links to dead pages, you can analyze these incoming links under Pages -> Landing pages -> (click the page you wish to analyze) -> Backlinks

Eventually, you should end up having a list of 404 pages with the best-looking backlink profiles. Those are the pages that are worth being restored or redirect to other relevant pages of your site.

Step 4. Creating 301 redirects

So, the final step is to find appropriate replacement pages for the dead pages on your site, and to set up 301 redirects. If you can't find any relevant pages to redirect your 404s to, consider bringing them back to life.

Voila – now you know how to squeeze additional SEO value out of broken link opportunities that exist on your site!

Part 2: Broken link building on third-party sites

While one usually has only a limited number of 404 pages on their site, additional broken link building opportunities arise when one finds broken links sitting on reputable third-party sites.  Getting a link from a site like that would be great, wouldn't it?

What you’d need to do is contact the site’s webmaster and

(A) Point to them they have broken links on the site;

(B) Provide them with some good-to-go, just-copy-and-paste references to use instead of the old "dead" pages.

This process mostly consists of the broken links discovery part + the outreach email part.

Depending on the content strategy you have, you can either start with picking a piece of content (created by you) to offer as a replacement, and then see if you can find a home for it (scenario 1). Or you could first look for broken link building opportunities, and then see which of your content would make great replacement material (scenario 2).

Because both scenarios are essentially the same, let’s look just at scenario 1 in detail.

Step 1. Do keyword research

When searching for link prospect sites, the biggest mistake you can make is to simply search by your SEO keywords. Usually, great broken link sites are found by less commercial, more general-use keywords that let you dig into different aspect of your niche.

So, sift through your target keywords and pick those that are more general-term, even if they're not so popular with the searchers. Additionally, you can use Google Keyword Planner to get more keyword ideas. Let's say, if I sell rock climbing equipment, I may search for general rock climbing terms and see what suggestions I get.

As you see, I just got an idea to search by "rock climbing training" (great for discovering educational sites), "rock climbing gear list" (I may have a kick-ass piece of content written on this), etc.

Step 2. Find relevant pages

The next step is to look for niche sites that may have link building opportunities open. Here, Google is your friend. Most broken link building folks recommend tweaking your Google settings (switch off instant search and make Google provide >10 results) and making use of Google's advanced search operators.

Now let's go ahead and search for pages they (A) contain our keywords, and (B) carry certain footprints. You could search for strings like these (or their combinations/variants):

  • keyword "resources"
  • keyword "suggested sites"
  • keyword "links"
  • keyword  intitle:links
  • keyword  intitle:resources
  • keyword  intitle:recommended sites
  • site:.gov keyword  "resources"
  • site:.edu keyword  "links"
  • site:.co.uk keyword  "suggested sites"
  • site:.com.au keyword  "recommended sites"

*Just replace keyword with any of your keywords; and use your regional domain extensions instead of co.uk and com.au.

Now, how do you quickly capture the URLs you get in Google search results? To easily copy and paste them into, say Microsoft Excel, you can use such browser extensions as Linkclump  (Chrome) or Multilinks (Firefox).

Once you have Linkclump installed, tweak the settings to choose which mouse button will let you select the URLs, and whether you want selected links to be copied to clipboard (that's what we want) or something else.

So, I just hold the right mouse button, select the first 2 search results, head to Excel and click Ctrl+V to paste the copied links.

Tip: If you have SEOquake installed, copy just the pages that would make great link prospects (have high PR, an aged domain, a large number of links, social shares, etc.) This will save you time sorting out poor-quality link prospects later on.

Step 3. Sort pages by value

Once you get a list of potential link prospects, you'd need to priorities the entries according to the SEO criteria that matter to you. Usually, you'd give priority to:

  • Pages from .gov/.edu domains and other obviously non-commercial sites
  • Older sites with higher PageRank
  • Websites with relevant IP addresses
  • Sites with higher Compete scores
  • Sites with a large number of outgoing links
  • Sites with lots of social media signals, etc.

You may have already sorted out pages that are not up to par if you used SEOquake at Step 2.

If you haven't, you can import the URLs you need to analyze into WebMeUp. To paste the URLs in bulk, go to Backlinks -> Management -> Details and click Add backlinks.

Step 4. Pick pages with dead links

OK, now you should have only the most relevant and SEO-lucrative webpage left on the list. The next step would be to see which of these pages have broken links.

Tip: keep the list of relevant link prospects for the future. Even if they don’t have broken links today, they might get them tomorrow.

To look for broken links on link prospect pages, you can use Check My Links, a free Chrome extension. It provides 2 simple metrics: the number of live links and the number of dead links on a page. The beauty of this tool is that it ignores nofollow links. This means it shows only the links that have SEO potential.

Step 5. Find replacement content

So, now that you know which pages are broken on a link prospect's site, to offer relevant replacement for the missing piece(s) of content, you'd need to see what the page contained before it was removed.

Quite often, this is possible to do with the help of WayBack Machine, an Internet archive that records the history of the Web (to the best of its ability).

After you decide which of your pages to suggest as a replacement, it's time to prepare outreach emails.

Step 6. Send outreach emails

The main questions to answer while creating outreach emails are:

  • Which template/wording to use

Many broken link building practitioners recommend sending 2 emails: the 1st one informing the webmaster about the broken links on their site; and the 2nd one saying "oh, by the way, here is what you can link to instead."

  • How to scrape content details (if you use WebMeUp, it'll collect webmasters' contact info.  Alternatively, you can use Citation Lab's Contact Finder).
  • Whether to include all broken links on a page or just the broken link you want to turn into a link to your site.

Well, sometimes, it's worth including all broken links. This adds more value to your message, especially if you tell them which other alternative pages to use instead. However, if the number of broken links on a page is really large, you can limit yourself to pointing out 5-10 broken links max.

Broken link building conversion rate usually varies depending on a niche. If you are in a niche where you find many non-commercial sites that readily respond and accept your suggestions, you may get anywhere from 15% to 50% conversion rate. But in many industries even 5% conversion rate is really good. It depends.

Conclusion

Broken link building is often a scalable SEO tactic. Websites come and go, and new backlink acquisitions opportunities appear all the time. Hence, making it an ongoing task in your SEO campaign is a good idea.

With this guide, I wanted to cover all the main steps of broken link building in detail. However, If you'd like me to expand on any of these steps, or if you know a better way to do some of them – do let me know in the comments!

Alexandra Shkalikova heads WebMeUp’s marketing, PR and support teams which she calls Customer Happiness Team altogether. She started SEO and Internet Marketing back in 2007 and spends every day experimenting, learning and mentoring ever since. When not working to benefit the SEO community, Alexandra is a cooking freak, piano amateur and a snowboarder.