Redirecting broken links to live pages on your website is a great way to “reclaim” lost link equity. However, redirects can be tricky. It is important to keep SEO best practices in mind before you get started in order to make sure that the job gets done right the first time so that both users and bots are happy.
Keep reading to learn more about how you can do this with little to no SEO experience!
What Do HTTP Status Codes Mean for SEO?
When a user or bot tries to access a webpage, they send a request to the server that the page is hosted on. The server then responds with an HTTP status code. This code tells users about the condition of the page that they are looking for, such as live, broken, moved, and more.
There are 5 different classes of HTTP status codes in total, but for our SEO purposes, we will focus on 3 specific types:
- 2xx: Successful. The page is live and can be accessed successfully.
- 3xx: Redirection. The page no longer exists at the original URL, but the content can still be found at a new address.
- 4xx: Client Error. The page could not be found at that URL. In other words, it is broken.
Link equity is the search engine ranking factor based on the theory that value and authority are passed through links to webpages. This assigned value and authority is calculated by Google’s search engine algorithm (based on a variety of ranking factors) and is transmitted from one page to another. However, the “flow” of link equity can be interrupted by status code issues.
Link equity can only pass through 2xx and 3xx links. It cannot pass through 4xx links.
Think of links as doors and of webpages as rooms. Pages that return 2xx status codes are like open doors – they can be visited by users browsing the web and crawled by search engine bots with ease. Meanwhile, pages that return certain 3xx codes (especially 302s) are like trap doors that lead to even more trap doors. Even if they eventually lead to a room (i.e. a webpage), redirects can be confusing for both users and bots because it forces them to take extra steps to get where they want to go. Finally, pages that return 4xx status codes are like closed (and locked!) doors. When users and bots reach broken links, they get stuck because there is nowhere else to go.
Therefore, when a link is broken, then the value and the authority from the referring page is not passed on to the target page.
How to Get Link Equity Back with 301 Redirects
Regaining the benefits of link equity is easy! The following steps can be helpful for guiding the process:
Step 1: Identify 404 and 302 Errors
Use Ahrefs, or your favorite tool, to find any broken external links to your site. Filter results by “404: Page Not Found” response codes. In general, 404 errors should take priority because they completely block the flow of link equity from referring domains to your site. It is also a good idea to check for any “302: Found” temporary redirections, formerly known as “302: Moved Temporarily”.
These should be changed to “301: Moved Permanently” to signal to Google and other search engines that they should be re-crawled and re-indexed at their new “home” (i.e. their new URL address). However, it is important to touch base with any internal teams before changing temporary redirects to permanent. There are legitimate reasons for temporary redirects, such as site migrations. That being said, sometimes temporary redirects are never changed after a site migration and need to be made permanent to reflect that change.
Step 2: Identify Best Match Live Content
The main goal of this task is to reroute link equity from a broken link to a live page via a 301 redirect. In order to do this, you need to find existing content on your site that matches the missing content on your broken page as closely as possible.
If you do not have access to the CMS for your client (or sometimes even if you do), then you will have to find these pages manually.
You can accomplish this by performing a site search on Google using the “site:” boolean operator in the search bar.
The syntax for a Google site search is:
- site:domain keyword
- site:gofishdigital.com seo
In other words, this operator performs a Google search for all indexed pages that include the “gofishdigital.com” domain that are relevant to the keyword “seo”.
You can even take this a step further by appending “&filter=0” to the end of the search engine results page URL in the browser address bar. After pressing the “Enter” or “Return” key, this will show all results for the query, not just the most relevant, in the case that Google might be filtering some results from displaying in the SERP for reasons beyond the scope of this post.
This technique helps find content on your site that matches the search intent of any broken links. So, if your broken page is about PPC, then you would include the keyword “ppc” in your site search to find all relevant pages on your site that are about pay-per-click.
If you do not know what the original content on a broken link is about from prior knowledge, then look for keywords in the URL itself. These can be helpful hints to what the original page was about and are a great reason to always have slugs optimized for SEO.
Click on the most relevant link in the SERP to check that the landing page is live and returns a 200: OK status code. After all, a webpage that returns a 3xx or 4xx error can still possibly be included in Google’s index (if it broke or redirected after Googlebot originally crawled it successfully)!
If there are no exact-match or best fit pages for a broken page, consider their parent pages. These pages are typically category pages for sections of a website and can usually be found at their parent folders in the URL addresses. For example:
In the case that there is not a relevant parent page (or any page for that matter) on your site that is directly related to the content of the broken page, then consider leaving it as a 404.
Not all 404s are bad. For example, imagine that a user follows a link with the anchor “smartphone case for Google Pixel” and is redirected to the homepage of a mobile accessory website (maybe because the cases are no longer in stock and thus the product page was taken down). Redirecting to distantly related pages can do more harm than help from a UX perspective because it might make users confused. However, a 404 page clearly communicates that the page that the user was looking for is no longer available. Although it may be disappointing to the online shopper, it sends a meaningful message.
Step 3: Create a Spreadsheet to Map the Redirect Paths
Now that you have matched all broken links to live matching or best fitting content on your site, prepare a spreadsheet in Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to hand-off to developers for implementation. Note, a spreadsheet can still help, even if you’re doing this all by yourself! This can be as simple as two columns. Column A can contain all of the links to be redirected (referring pages) and column B can list all of their new URL addresses (target pages).
Step 4: Implement the Redirects and Reclaim Link Equity
Create a ticket for your developer team or go into your content management system and set up the 301 redirects yourself. That’s it! A job well done.
Throughout the link reclamation process, it is important to keep UX in mind. Broken links can create a poor user experience (in most cases) simply because they are dead ends on the user journey. That’s why our job as SEOs is to make sure that both users and bots are happy by opening doors for all. Not only do thoughtfully implemented redirects regain the benefits of lost link equity, but they also create a more fulfilling user experience!