How Do Broken External Links Affect SEO?

Christy Walters


August 22, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

closeup of laptop screen with a 404 error that shows a broken external link

A broken external link is a connection on your domain that points to another and no longer works. When your links don’t take people where they want to go, it’s frustrating. It can also lead readers to question the authority and authenticity of your brand. They may wonder if you really know what you’re talking about if you can’t even provide links that work. And since user experiences and SEO go hand-in-hand, if you’re not pleasing your audience, you’re likely not pleasing search engines either. Today, we’re talking about how broken external links affect SEO with topics like:

How Do Broken Links Affect SEO?

Fixing broken links is an SEO best practice, but why? To answer that question, we have to understand what a link does for your website and content, and what it means when they’re broken. Every external link you use in your content sends signals to search engines. When you choose credible external links and use relevant anchor text with them, you tell Google that you know what you’re talking about. When bots and crawlers index your site and determine everything looks good, that boosts your rankings. If the link breaks, for any reason, you lose those signals and that boost.

It helps to think of hyperlinks in your content as roads. When the links work, they allow users to travel easily from your site to another. It’s the same way you’re able to travel from one town or county easily on an open road that connects the two. When a link breaks, it’s like having a road closure. Now people can’t get from your website to another easily. And it doesn’t matter if the reader takes a detour to get to the other content. You’ve already lost your SEO signals from the links.

Broken links don’t just affect the site linking out. They also affect the site receiving a backlink from that connection. Broken backlinks result in a loss of link equity and domain authority for your site. There’s also the potential that they affect conversions and sales if readers and visitors can’t easily get from one domain to another. When you fix broken links, in theory, it restores all these signals and benefits. Your brand and search engines strive to provide valuable content and a great user experience. Fixing broken links helps both parties reach those goals.

Related: External Links vs. Backlinks: What’s the Difference?

What Causes Broken Links in Your Content?

There are plenty of instances and hiccups that cause broken external links in your content. Some come from mistakes from your internal content team. But most come from changes made on the host domain. Some of the reasons for broken links include:

  • Link typos: If a member of your content team makes a typo when writing a link, it appears broken. URLs have to be exact to take visitors from one domain to another online.
  • Deleted content or pages: When the host site deletes content, that breaks any external links attached to it.
  • Renamed pages or content: Renaming a page that changes its URL creates broken links.
  • Site restructuring: If the host domain restructures its hierarchy or sitemap, this may cause broken links if URLs move or change.
  • Domain name changes: If an organization changes its primary domain name, all links to the former domain break.

While these situations affect your external links, if you make similar changes on your own site, they can also affect internal and backlinks. It’s best to avoid changing your content URLs after publication unless you absolutely have to, as doing so affects your site’s backlink authority and SEO signals.

Related: What’s in a Name?: Parts of a URL Structure

Broken Link Examples and What They Mean

closeup of laptop screen with a 404 error that shows a broken external link

Image via Unsplash by @introspectivedsgn

There are different ways links break and there are also different error codes to signal broken links. When searching your content for them and determining how to fix them, you may encounter errors like:

  • 400 Bad Request: The host server can’t read or understand the URL linked to your page.
  • 404 Page Not Found: The content or page on the other end of the link no longer exists on the server.
  • Bad host: A server with the hostname does not exist or is unreachable.
  • Bad URL: The URL is in the wrong form and is unreadable, which can happen because of a typo, such as an extra slash or a missing bracket.

Does Fixing a Broken External Link Always Improve SEO?

When we talked about how broken external links affect SEO, we told you that, in theory, fixing those links should bring back all your SEO, signals, and domain authority. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. If you’ve fixed your broken links but aren’t seeing any SEO progress, here are a few potential causes:

The Links Never Counted

Links to spam websites, non-editorial links, or links Google finds manipulative doesn’t help your SEO. These links hurt it. Or, at the very least, they don’t improve it. That’s because Google doesn’t count these links in your content. It’s like they don’t exist. Replacing a broken link with one that doesn’t count is just making busy work for yourself.

While there’s no definitive guide on what links count or don’t count with Google, use your best judgment. Links from reputable sources and brands that have excellent reputations almost always count. If you have to question the credibility of the site you link to, choose a different source.

Related: When To Use External Links in Your Content To Boost SEO

The Original Links Had Low Value

The original link may not have improved your SEO in the first place. Unlike spam or manipulative links, low-value links do count toward your SEO profile and bring it down. While broken links bring down your SEO ranking too, fixing one only to put a low-value, unhelpful link in its place doesn’t help.

What does help is to run content and link audits on any blog posts or articles that contain broken links. Go through the sources on the other domains. Ask yourself if they provide value to the reader. Look at the content and see how relevant it is to your topic. Review the layout of the website to see if it looks legitimate. If the content or website doesn’t pass these tests, it’s better to replace those links with different, better ones. That could go a long way in improving your SEO rankings.

Another thing to consider about the value of a link is where it appears on your own site. Let’s say you use a link checker tool and find you have a broken link in a blog post from 12 years ago. The traffic on this post is low and you have the link buried in the middle of the content. How often do you think people find, much less click, that link? It’s probably rare.

Google and other search engines don’t attach as much value to this broken link as others in your content, like one on your top-performing page. Fixing these kinds of links doesn’t help you see a huge jump in your page rankings.

The New Link Is Less Relevant

As we’ve said, sometimes broken external links happen because the host domain moves or deletes the original content. When the content you link to the first time is gone for good, you have two options. First, you could leave that link out altogether if you have other external links on the page. Second, you could replace the link with similar content from the same source, or a new one. Neither option is perfect, especially if the original source was relevant and high-quality.

If it really was that great, it’s possible any alternative source you pick just won’t match the original in either category. You may see some improvement in your SEO but it might not go back to pre-broken-link levels.

This type of situation also happens with soft 404 redirects. Soft redirects happen when a domain changes a URL for a specific page and then adds a redirect to send you to the new content with the old URL. This isn’t exactly a broken external link, but it affects SEO similarly. Google and other search engines may not pass the same link strength through soft redirects as they did to the original page. To fix this type of situation, try replacing the old URL with the new one to avoid redirecting. This could help improve your SEO.

5 Ways To Handle Broken External Links in Your Content

Use these tips to address broken external links in your content:

1. Find Them

You can’t fix a broken link if you don’t know it exists. There’s probably not a team member dedicated to reading your old content daily and testing links. You might find some during your content optimization, but even then, you’re probably not doing that daily either. Many of the metrics tools you already use can tell you about broken internal links. To find broken external links, you’ll likely need a separate tool.

Ahrefs offers a free Broken Link Checker tool. It allows you to search broken links for an exact URL, a path with subfolders, a specific domain, or a domain and its subdomains. This gives you the freedom to check as much or as little of your site and content as you want with any search.

Insert screenshot here

The free version shows you the top 10 broken inbound and outbound links. If you have more than 10, you have to sign up for Ahrefs to see the full report. If this option doesn’t feel right for you, run a search for “broken external link checker” and choose from other free or paid programs available online.

2. Fix Them

It’s still a best practice to replace broken links in your content. Though fixing them may not solve every SEO problem you have, they still improve user experience. This builds trust with your audience and encourages them to come back to your content. Over time, those brief returns, engagements, and shares help increase your search engine results page (SERP) rankings.

Related: 8 Best Practices for External Linking to Boost SEO

3. Prioritize Your Most Important Pages and Content

Always prioritize pages and posts with the most SEO impact. In other words, focus on pages with the most traffic or that rank the highest in search results. But if you don’t know which pages to prioritize, there are tools to help. Moz uses a metric called Page Authority to determine the overall value of a page on your site.

While it’s not a Google ranking factor, it can tell you which pages from your domain may perform best in search. Try the Moz domain analysis tool for free and get a list of the top five pages with the highest authority. This might give you a place to start your search and repair for broken links.

4. Pick Relevant URLs

When fixing broken links where the content no longer exists, you want to make sure the replacements go to relevant information and URLs. To determine if your new links have the same relevance as the old ones, see if they rank for similar keywords. Ask yourself if the new site provides a quality user experience. You can also read through the new content for clarity. If the new source checks out, then it likely has similar relevancy. That makes it a good choice for a broken link replacement.

5. Accept That You May Miss Some Links

The more content your brand has, the more chances you have to find broken links in your content. Broken external links happen, and most of the time they’re out of your control. SEO and content optimization often feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole. You solve one problem and a new one pops up. Finding broken external links can feel that way, too.

Accept that you may not have the chance to fix every broken link on your site before the next batch appears. If you have the time and a big enough staff, sure. Fix as many broken links as you can. But if you don’t have the time and resources, you might not get to them all. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you have a terrible marketing team or you’re sabotaging your own success. Not if you’re prioritizing the most important broken links and doing what you can to fix those.

Choose CopyPress To Develop Your Best Content

Before you can even have broken links, you need content. The reason broken external links are even a discussion topic is that when they appear in your best content, they can damage your SEO. At CopyPress, we want all your content to be your best content. That’s why we work with you to understand your business goals, target audience, and distribution expectations.

Our strategy and creative teams develop high-quality campaign plans and content no matter your industry or content type. Schedule your no-obligation strategy call with our team today, and sign up for the weekly CopyPress email newsletter to get more tips and tricks delivered right to your inbox.

“CopyPress gives us the ability to work with more dealership groups. We are able to provide unique and fresh content for an ever growing customer base. We know that when we need an influx of content to keep our clients ahead of the game in the automotive landscape, CopyPress can handle these requests with ease.”

Kevin Doory

Director of SEO at Auto Revo

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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