As time goes by, there is an increased risk of your website's outbound links directing visitors to pages that no longer exist. These outdated links are usually referred to as “Broken Links”, “Dead Links”, or “Link Rot”.
Broken links negatively affect your website's SEO and hurt the user-experience of visitors. Do not be alarmed if your website has broken links as most websites do, however it is in your interest to repair broken website links and either change the URL of the link or remove the link altogether.
Whilst it is technically possible to manually check pages on your website for broken links, it is impractical to do so. Thankfully, there are a number of tools and services that scan your website for broken links and generate a report for you.
In this article I would like to share with you the best options that are available to you.
What Are Broken Links & Why Are They Bad?
If you have a broken link on your website, a user will click on the link and be taken to a 404 page that states that the page is not available.
This is obviously frustrating to the person reading your website as they clicked on the link with an interest in viewing the page you linked to. For example, if an internal link is incorrect, you will stop the flow of traffic by preventing users from visiting another page on your website.
So how does this situation arise?
Broken links can occur due to a mistake by the website owner. For example, if you mistyped the URL (e.g. www.wbsite.com instead of www.website.com), the broken link would be caused by you.
Human errors such as this do happen from time to time, however most broken links are caused by external websites that you have no control over.
An external link that was correct at the time of publication can become broken for a number of reasons.
- The permalink structure of the website has changed
- The page slug has been renamed e.g. website.com/sports-news/ to website.com/news/
- The page has been deleted
- The website has closed down
- The website has changed domain, but the website owner did not set up URL redirects
It is good practice to get into a routine of regularly scanning for broken links and correcting them, however most website owners are guilty of not making it a priority.
I can relate to this as managing an active website is time-consuming and there is always something else that you can work on. Additionally, removing broken links can be quite boring due to the repeitive nature of checking and replacing links.
I would however implore you to take the time to fix broken links. Doing so will enhance the user-experience of website visitors and improve your search engine ranking. As a result of this, your organic search traffic should increase.
How to Check for Broken Links
It is simply not practical to manually check each page of your website regularly for broken links. This is why website owners use broken links software and services.
Let's take a closer look at tools and services that allow you to scan your website for broken links.
Google Search Console, formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools, used to display pages with 404 errors in the “Crawl Errors” page. In 2018 the crawl errors page was replaced by the “Index Coverage Report” and “URL Inspection Tool”.
Google have stated that this new report system focuses more on issues that matter to Google.
“The old report showed every single error encountered over the past three months, including some stale, transient, or relatively unimportant errors. The new reports focus on the issues in the past month that matter to Google: you are only shown an issue if it threatens to remove your page from the index or prevent the page from being indexed.”
At first glance the new coverage report does not appear as useful as the old Crawl Errors report; however I still found it to be useful for correcting internal broken links. It highlighted pages that I had previously set as sub-pages, old blog posts that people were using an old permalink structure, and post categories that I have since changed.
You do still need to do a lot of investigation yourself, but you can use the index coverage report to correct internal linking mistakes and reduce the number of visitors that are sent to 404 pages.
Ahrefs is a premium SEO solution that gives you a complete analysis of your website.
Their site audit tool helps you check your website for 119 pre-defined SEO issues and gives you recommendations on how to resolve them. This particular feature is incredibly useful as it highlights 404 pages, broken redirects, and time-outs. You can also check for broken backlinks via the Ahrefs Site Explorer tool.
Ahrefs plans start from $99 per month though you can trial their software for a week for only $7.
Another popular SEO tool is Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool. Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, the desktop application can report 404 errors and server errors.
The free version of the application limits crawling to 500 URLs. This should be sufficient for small websites, but larger websites and blogs will have to upgrade to the paid version which is £149 per year.
Xenu's Link Sleuth is a free desktop application that helps you find broken URLs for any website. It is a Window's application, but it can be used on Mac and Linux computers though the help of other software.
In comparison to Ahrefs and Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool, Xenu's Link Sleuth is a no-frills affair and it has not been updated since 2010 either.
Despite this, many people continue to use the application to check broken links as it still works great and is 100% free to download.
Broken Link Check, also known as Online Broken Link Checker, is a free online broken link solution.
It generates a report of broken links on your website and shows the page where each link is published. The exact server response is also denoted.
I found the reports from Broken Link Check to be quite accurate as it highlighted many affiliate links on my website that need to be updated.
An alternative to Broken Link Check is Dead Link Checker. It works in the same way by displaying the status, the URL, and the source page.
Dead Link Checker is free to use, however the website also offers a subscription plan from $9.95 per month that can scan your website daily, weekly, or monthly. Email reports of the broken link results are sent after each scan.
Check My Links is a free browser extension for Chrome that crawls through a web page searching for broken links.
Since this extension only scans the page you are on, you should consider this extension as an additional broken links tool that complements your main broken links solution.
It can be useful for detecting broken links in your website design and navigation and for checking links in long articles. For example, when I scanned one of the resource pages on my blog it highlighted that two website links were broken.
How to Use WordPress to Check for Broken Links
There are a few useful WordPress plugins available that can help you detect broken links. All of which are free to use.
Please be aware, however, that these plugins can put a lot of strain on your website server so when you are scanning for broken links you may find it difficult to perform other tasks in the WordPress admin area. If you have a basic hosting plan, you may slow down the front-end of your website too.
Thankfully, the plugins do have some settings to help you reduce the strain on your server so I would still encourage you to test these broken link solutions. Just be sure to track the performance of your website when a broken link plugin is scanning.
* Note: WP Broken Link Status Checker was also tested for this article, but it did not complete the scan or show any broken links.
Broken Link Checker is a popular broken links WordPress plugin that is active on over 700,000 websites. It is a highly-configurable solution that lets you apply custom formatting links to broken links and select which post types and link types are scanned.
With a plugin such as this, I like to activate the plugin, scan for broken links, correct each link, and then deactivate the plugin. Doing this ensures my website performance is not affected, however if the plugin remains activated you can regularly scan your website for broken links. You can define how many hours should pass before another scan is performed and be emailed about new broken links.
Additionally, in the settings area you help address performance issues by defining the server load limit and the percentage of your resources you want to allocate to the plugin.
It has some useful features such as a dedicated stats tab and an edit link that takes you directly to the edit page for the page where the link is broken. I did however find it a little frustrating that navigation links on the results page are not paginated. You therefore need to skip through results using “Previous” and “Next” links.
The free version of the plugin is limited to 500 URLs. You can increase this limit to 25,000 for 45 euros by upgrading to Link Checker Professional. Upgrading also unlocks options to check broken images and videos together with scheduling functionality.
Link Checker has some useful features, however if you have more than 500 pages on your website I would recommend trying out Broken Link Checker first.
I have found 404 Solution to be so useful that I now have it activated on my personal blog. It does not scan your website for broken links. Instead, what it does is automatically redirect visitors who landed on 404 pages to the page they should have arrived on.
This has helped me in a number of ways. Firstly, it is helping me increase traffic as users are directed to the correct page instead of a 404 error page. Secondly, 404 Solution has created a log of the 404 pages that are receiving traffic. This has helped me see posts and pages that I have linked to incorrectly due to changing permalinks, changing parent pages, and changing category names.
In other words, 404 Solution addresses the main problems associated with incorrect internal links. It redirects visitors to the correct page so that you do not lose traffic and it also explains which URL issues need to be resolved. This helps you correct the internal linking issues you have and reduce the number of redirects that are necessary.
What to Do with Broken Links
So far we have focused on finding broken links, but what should you do when you find them?
The answer is that it depends.
One of the reasons that correcting broken links is so time-consuming is that you need to inspect each link individually and then decide on the best course of action.
Change the URL Address
If a link has become broken because the website owner changed the URL address, you can resolve the issue by finding the new page URL and replacing it in your article.
This, however, is not always possible. Sometimes a page gets removed from the internet altogether. A common reason for this is that the website is no longer active. Depending on the relevance of the link, you may be able to replace the link.
Consider a blog post that references many reports.
If one of these reports was now generating a 404 page, you may be able to find another source to cite in your article instead.
Remove the Link
Link replacement is not always possible and the best, and sometimes simplest thing to do, is to just remove the link.
For example, if you referenced a website by name and it no longer exists, you will probably have to delete the link and rewrite that section.
If the link had been added to anchor text like this, you can keep the text intact but remove the link. This is something which Broken Link Checker helps you do with its unlink option. It is, however, still good practice to examine each link closely as a link replacement or change of address may resolve the issue.
Over time, most WordPress blogs will generate internal broken links due to changing their permalink structure or changing post and page slugs e.g. website.com/sports-news to website.com/news.
In this situation, your goal is to reduce 404 errors by redirecting visitors to the correct URLs.
You can do this by using 301 redirects. This informs search engines that the URL has permanently changed.
Personally, if I made a significant change to my permalink structure, I would set up a 301 redirect using .htaccess; however, if you do not have much experience with .htaccess, you can use WordPress plugins such as Simple 301 Redirects and 301 Redirects to accomplish the same thing. 404 Solution can also be used for this as it has an option to add manual 301 redirections.
Fixing Internal Link Errors
Over the last few years I have changed the URL structure of the pages on my blog. This has resulted in some pages being placed as a parent of pages and others having their parent page removed.
404 solution highlighted the fact that many of my posts and pages were still linking to the old URL of pages. For example, when I moved my web hosting guide from /guides/web-hosting/ to /web-hosting/, some articles still referenced the old URL.
Since all of these broken links were on my own blog, I was able to resolve this quickly using the find and replace WordPress plugin Better Search Replace. You will find this plugin useful when correcting internal linking issues; however be sure to make a backup before you perform a find and replace as one incorrect character is enough to crash your website.
Affiliate links are of the most common sources of broken links. When you scan your website for broken links, the report will undoubtedly highlight any affiliate links that are no longer valid. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of affiliate marketing.
Affiliate links can be broken for a number of reasons:
- The company is no longer operating
- The company has closed your account due to inactivity
- The affiliate program is no longer live
- The affiliate tracking system has been changed i.e. different tracking URLs for affiliates
If a company has ceased operations, you should unlink all links to them so you are not sending people to a dead website. You may also want to delete any content that reference them.
If a company has changed their affiliate tracking system, you will need to log into your account and find the new tracking URL and then update your links accordingly.
You will have a decision to make when a company closes their affiliate program or closes your affiliate account. Do you want to replace the affiliate URL by linking to pages directly or do you want to remove all references to them?
There is no hard and fast rule for this situation. You need to make a judgement call each time.
Every Broken Link is Unique
It can be tempting to resolve broken links quickly and either delete them or unlink them. Whilst this does save time, this can be detrimental to the quality of your content and frustrate readers due to things being out of context.
Reviewing each link individually is time-consuming, however it is the best course of action from an SEO point of view as each link is unique.
Broken links are not something that any website owner can avoid. Over time a percentage of your outbound links will become broken because the pages you linked to no longer exist.
It is good practice to link to original sources rather than websites that reference them. Likewise, you should not link directly to zip files and PDF files as the location of these are frequently changed. Even if you follow good linking practices, you have no control over what other website owners do with their pages. This is why correcting broken links should be considered a regular website maintenance task.
What you do have is full control over the links on your own website.
If you change your website's permalink structure or change the URL of any page on your website, you should ensure visitors are still directed to the correct pages. You can do this using 301 redirects and by replacing internal page links with the correct URL. 404 Solution can help significantly with this whole process.