Although Google’s algorithm is consistently scaling new heights, with the utilization of progressive machine learning and AI, a solid and effective link building strategy remains one of the most important ranking signals and a key pillar of any comprehensive SEO strategy.
There are many ways to build links for SEO and some people will swear by one method and others by alternative methods. The truth is that every campaign requires a different combination of approaches to building links. More often than not, broken link building can represent an incredibly powerful but underused method.
In this post, I want to explore the art of broken link building. Before we begin though, let’s remind ourselves why link building still matters.
Why link building matters
To determine the ranking of content for any given search phrase or term, Google takes several things into consideration, but let’s take a few moments to consider how it might differentiate two high-quality websites within the same niche.
What makes one website stand out from another in other words?
Both ‘Website A’ and ‘Website B’ contain frequently updated, high-quality content. They also both provide their audiences with excellent user experiences and utilize engaging calls-to-action (CTAs), which encourage mailing list sign-ups and further user engagement.
Where the two websites differentiate however is that ‘Website A’ has a more comprehensive link profile, having earned backlinks from many influential and respected websites. ‘Website A’ also incorporates outbound links to equally influential and respected websites, which deliver additional value to its audience and act as signals or relevancy to Google’s ranking algorithm.
Google will, therefore, determine that ‘Website A’ is likely to be a more prominent industry player, thereby awarding it a more prominent ranking position.
Screaming Frog is a very powerful tool for crawling a website’s links to find 404 pages.
Identifying reputable link sources
The first rule of understanding how broken link building works is to understand and appreciate that not all links are created equal. Learning how to properly evaluate links and separate reputable sources from those that should be avoided is hugely important. Pursuing white-hat approaches will also ensure that you don’t incur a potentially damaging Google penalty.
The MozBar tool is an add-on available for Chrome, Internet Explorer and Firefox and allows you to assess site quality using two quality metrics (domain authority and page authority) directly in Google search results.
Fundamentally, the broken link building process involves identifying a broken link and contacting the webmaster of the website with the said broken link to recommend a substitute piece of content which includes a link to an alternative website. Although undoubtedly one of the most effective and scalable link building strategies around, your ultimate success will depend on how accomplished you are at creating genuinely valuable content that webmasters want to link to.
Whilst there are a variety of link building tools out there, there really is no substitute for manual evaluation when it comes to broken link building. In my experience, the moment you try to automate the broken link building process is the moment you lose all control over quality.
Ahrefs allows you to see all broken links pointing to any given domain (under Backlinks on the left-hand menu.)
Now let’s turn our attention to the broken link building process itself. I’ve broken this down into three stages.
Step one: Prospecting
Identifying broken links to target will always be your first step. There are several different prospecting methods that you might want to use:
Direct URL targeting
As the least scalable method, you would typically only employ this approach if you wanted to target a single website. Securing a link from a single industry-leading website can deliver exceptional results, but it is often tricky to open a dialogue without conveying hints of desperation. As a conversation opener, finding a broken link and bringing it to the attention of a website administrator or blog editor is an excellent way to begin that conversation and develop a mutually beneficial relationship.
Broken Link Builder is a tool made by Citation Labs. Whilst not free, it does go a long way to automating the prospecting stage of broken link building, as can be seen from the screenshot above.
After crawling sites to collate a list of broken links, selecting the very best opportunities to reach out to and broaching the subject in the right way is the next stage.
Targeting resource pages with keywords
This straightforward method is reliant on accurate Google keyword searches that are hyper-relevant to the interests of your website. You will first focus on identifying resource pages with links to keyword-relevant content. After extracting links from those pieces of content, you will then turn your attention to the location of broken content and actively pursue the opportunities that arise.
Link Prospector is a powerful tool for returning huge numbers of resource pages and link pages based on keyword searches.
The keywords you utilize must be relatively broad and categorically relevant in some way, whether that is to your brand, your product, your audience or even your location. From here, you should work to pair your keywords with prospecting phrases to locate relevant pages.
Next is the laborious task of scraping every result from these searches before you can move on to extracting those all-important links. These links will need to be checked for errors before you can then establish the potential prospects within every link you are left with.
Targeting resource pages with URLs
This URL method must always begin with an already recognized website. Mining this website’s backlinks will uncover resource pages which will ultimately lead to the successful pinpointing of relevant link building opportunities.
There are a number of tools and techniques that can be used for broken link building. This excellent video tutorial does it using Ahrefs, BuzzStream and Screaming Frog SEO.
Website selection is the most crucial component of this strategy. The website you choose to target will typically be non-commercial and absolutely must be relevant and authoritative. From here you must then extract every external link, check them for errors and identify the best prospect available to you.
Step two: Content creation
Providing or creating content that either equals or betters that which your identified broken link was pointing to is essential. You must ensure that you understand the purpose of the original piece and utilize this information to help you create new content that fully meets the expectations of all sites who previously chose to link to that now redundant resource.
Of course, it’s likely that you will have content already that can be utilized or repurposed to fit the nature of the broken link you have identified. The trick to scaling this tactic is in creating content that can be used as an alternative for a relatively broad range of broken links. The more specific your content subject, the more likely you are to secure broken links, but the less of them you are likely to find. It’s a catch 22 that will only become easier to navigate with time and experience.
A final note on content is that it’s quite likely that the website you want to secure a link from will have more authority than yours, so if you want to ensure success and a solid return on time invested, you must be creating high-quality content that these sites will genuinely want to link to.
There are several tactics for creating attractive and linkable content when broken link building:
- Aim to improve on the original piece of content without fundamentally altering its original purpose.
- Ensure all relevant statistics and sources are updated.
- Include additional information and citations.
- Say something new or even controversial on the subject (although always back it up and never try to be a sensationalist).
Step three: Outreach
After obtaining the contact information for the owner or webmaster of your target website, spend some time crafting a clear and engaging email that won’t immediately find its way into the recipient’s trash can. There are several ways you could approach this step, each with varying degrees of transparency. As a rule, you can afford to be more immediately transparent, the higher the quality of your content.
- Pose as a user who stumbled across the broken link.
- Include your link with several other related links.
- Outline your replacement content in a follow-up email.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is that you must tailor your outreach correspondence to each target individually. Copying and pasting the same blanket email will not have the same conversion rate as genuinely customized correspondence. After investing so much time identifying these opportunities, don’t waste them. This might not be as scalable but it is far more likely to yield results.
That being said, it will help to have some form of template you can use and modify to each prospect. Anthony Nelson’s broken link building guide for Moz has some excellent templates to get you started.
Although broken link building is just one component of an effective link building strategy, it is an inherently powerful one and, if implemented carefully, correctly and in accordance with search engine guidelines, will deliver a tangible boost to your website rankings.
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