Broken Backlink Building In The 2020s

Cara Bowles    By under Link Building.

Broken backlink building is an old strategy, but it can still be a very useful one. Sites linking to missing resources don't want a broken link on their site and might want to link to a new resource in its place. But old broken backlink building strategies don't center the needs of sites with broken links enough. For a modern broken backlink building strategy to work, you need a resource tailor-made for your outreach.

Use this game plan as a starting point for your strategy.

Find Previously Popular Sites Or Pages That No Longer Exist

For us as marketers and SEOs, the purpose of broken link building is to capture referrals and search engine authority. But in an attempt to earn links, sustainable success is unlikely without fully understanding the value a webmaster gets out of sending a link your way and fully understanding the purpose of the link for users.

A broken link building strategy that starts with the resource and then seeks out sites with broken links to link to it can work, but it isn't the ideal strategy. Webmasters typically link to a site with a fairly specific goal in mind. They chose that specific resource to link to for a reason. If your resource doesn't serve the same purpose for them, they don't have much reason to replace the broken link with a link to your page. Instead, since the resource they once linked to doesn't exist anymore, they are more likely to simply remove the link.

For the webmasters you are reaching out to, the purpose of broken link building isn't to send links your way. It's to replace a missing resource with a suitable replacement.

That's why the most effective broken link building strategy has its foundation, not in how you approach outreach, but in replacing a resource that no longer exists.

So the question is, how do you find a resource that doesn't exist anymore?

One useful place to start is with a link crawler such as Ahrefs. If you have signed up for the service, you can use it to find broken backlinks on any site. You can do this by entering the domain name in the search bar and hitting ENTER, then from the left navigation, you can select Broken under the Backlinks heading:

ahrefs broken links

After clicking it, you will see a list of referring pages with backlinks pointing to 404 pages on the domain. The referring page is the page that links to the broken link. The URL listed under the Anchor and backlink column is the missing URL:

ahrefs broken links page

You can click the drop-down arrow next to the broken URL to access more information about the missing page. The Link statistics section can give you a good preview of whether the missing page has enough broken links pointing toward it for it to be worth considering as a resource worth replacing. If so, you can click Overview to further evaluate the value of the page, then explore the backlink information for information about how many of the links are followed and so on:

ahrefs broken links dropdown

Check a few high profile sites in your industry or topic for missing resources like this and save the ones that look the most promising in terms of broken link building opportunities. A good resource will have multiple backlinks from valuable sites, and a quick check of the links will reveal that they are the types of links that make sense to update and maintain, rather than simply remove if a new resource were to take its place.

Check The Missing Resources In The WayBack Machine

The WayBack Machine is a historical archive of the web run by archive.org. Like Google and other search engines, they periodically crawl the web and keep an index of many of the pages on it. But instead of using it to create a search engine, they use it to keep a record of web pages throughout history. For that reason, you can use it to view web pages that no longer exist.

To use it, start from the homepage. Enter the broken URL of a resource you are considering replacing in your broken link building efforts, and click the BROWSE HISTORY button:

wayback machine homepage

Not all pages will have a record in the WayBack Machine.

As we said before, the WayBack Machine operates much like a search engine. This means that pages with more links pointing toward them, especially from pages that themselves have more links pointing toward them, will get crawled and indexed more often. Inevitably, this means that pages with few backlinks, or pages with backlinks from pages that don't have many of their own backlinks, may not get indexed at all.

If the missing resource you are considering was never crawled by the WayBack Machine, you will get a message saying that the WayBack Machine has not archived the URL:

wayback machine not in archive

If you encounter this issue, it's a good sign that it isn't worth pursuing this resource for a broken link building project. If a resource had valuable links from valuable sources, the WayBack Machine most likely would have crawled it at some point. Generally speaking, the more link equity a page has, the more often it will be crawled. If the missing resource isn't in the WayBack Machine, throw it out and look at other alternatives.

If the page has been archived, you will be taken to a page that tells you how many times it was archived and in what date range. You will see a year by year historical timeline with a histogram representing how often the page was crawled each month, and below you will see a calendar where individual dates are colored to indicate that the page was crawled on those dates:

wayback machine archive

Clicking on an individual date will take you to a cache of the site as it appeared on that date. You can navigate to different years by clicking on the timeline at the top. Here's what we see if we navigate to August 21, 2013 at Northcutt.

wayback machine archived northcutt.com

Well, there's a blast from the past.

The WayBack Machine won't necessarily have everything on the page indexed, particularly things that were handled with scripts or Flash or plugins.

Browse through the resource at different periods of time to see if there were any important changes to it over time, particularly changes to the substance of the content more than changes to the site or page design.

Remember, your end goal is to create a resource that serves as a suitable replacement for this one at any stage of its history. You will be contacting any or all of the pages that linked to the resource in the past, and recommending your new resource as a suitable replacement to link to.

In order to do so, you'll need to make sure it's possible for you to create a resource just as good and ideally better than the one that has gone missing. You'll need to be able to do so without directly copying the resource or violating copyright law.

Evaluate the historical record of the page with all of this in mind.

Do this for all, or at least several, of the resources you are considering creating replacements for.

Choose Which Missing Resource You Want To Replace

apple selection

Choosing which resource to replace is a judgment call that can't be reduced to a single factor. The sheer number of broken link opportunities alone isn't enough, since this doesn't tell us anything about how valuable those links are.

The sheer URL score in Ahrefs or any other link archive isn't enough either. These numbers are a good guiding metric, but they aren't used directly by Google and can't tell us precisely how Google values the links. Also, a very small number of very high profile links can make a resource valuable to search engines, but when it comes to broken link building, this does mean fewer sites to reach out to, and the possibility of failing to earn even a single link from your efforts.

The resource itself is obviously also crucial. Its relevance to the content of your site and your target audience is central. Your ability to create a suitable replacement for the resource without violating copyright is crucial. The sensibility of reaching out to sites that used to link to the missing resource will also depend on the resource, particularly if its popularity had more to do with the content itself or with the trust placed in the creator of it.

You should have a decent idea of what your outreach strategy will look like before you make a selection and start creating your resource. Review a decent portion of the pages linking to the missing resource to get an idea of what types of personas you are writing for, whether they are reachable and their sites are still active, and possibly even to mention or cite them within your content.

Selecting which resource to start with is about finding a balance between factors like:

  • Enough broken links exist that you are likely to get a meaningful number of responses in your outreach
  • The links come from relevant, authoritative, active sites likely to respond to you
  • A resource like the one you are replacing would be valuable to your target audience and could be a useful way to earn traffic or act as a lead magnet
  • The type of resource, the types of sites that link to it, and the reasons they linked to it should all fit together in such a way that reaching out to those site owners with a replacement resource feels natural and not forced
  • You have the resources to create a suitable replacement for the piece of content without violating copyright

It will take some experience with outreach and broken link building to gauge these things more accurately over time, and it's normal not to know precisely how to weigh these factors against each other. They will be different in every industry and for every brand so there's no way to give a concrete answer in this blog post. Just make sure that you are considering all of these factors and making your best-educated guess when you are prioritizing which projects to start with.

Create The New Resource

writing with pen

Once you've made your selection, it's time to create a replacement resource.

Since every resource is different, it's impossible to write a step by step guide about how to do this, but here are some guiding principles.

We've said it before, but do not violate the copyright in creating the replacement resource. Review the original piece of content for how it solved the problem of searchers and the reason sites were linking to the page. Your new resource should meet all of those needs, but it can't meet them in precisely the same way. If the only way your resource can be as useful as the original is by copying it wholesale or misrepresenting who you are, pick a different resource.

Start from the ground up by asking why people are linking to this resource. Base your understanding of this on the content itself in addition to a fair number of the linking pages themselves.

Ask yourself the best way to solve the same problem. Ideally, your solution should be better. Brainstorm and list ideas out on a piece of paper if it helps you come up with more potential solutions. Remember that the goal isn't to create something "more impressive," it's to solve the same problem better. Your mindset needs to be solution-focused.

Also, keep in mind some best practices that apply whenever you're creating a linkable asset:

  • Collaborative projects often earn links more easily: Anyone who collaborated with you will want to show off their work. This doesn't necessarily mean you need to convince anybody to put in the effort for you, but it does mean it's helpful to cite and promote others within your resource where it makes sense. These can be brands and influencers who previously linked to the missing resource, and it can be others you'd also like to reach out to after publication. Remember, just because the project is inspired by a missing resource and broken link building opportunities, this doesn't mean you shouldn't promote it through other methods.
  • Put care into choosing a medium: In particular, if the original resource was a video, image, or web application, the odds of your broken link building efforts being successful if your resource is a blog post are slim. The central question, however, is which medium best solves the problem in question, the one that sites were linking to the original resource for. Within the limits of your resources, blog posts shouldn't be your default. They are only one type of content of many, and they aren't always the best solution to a type of problem. Choose the medium that solves the problem most effectively.
  • Don't create to fill a word count: See our post about words per page. On most sites, the best-performing pages are by no means the ones with the most words. Word count is a decent proxy for effort, and effort is a decent proxy for how well a page solves its target problem, and for that reason, there are correlations between a higher word count and most Google first page results. But word count alone isn't a ranking signal. The reason that the best performing content on most sites is short is that it solves a problem without taking up too much of the user's time. The ideal solution to the problem at hand isn't necessarily a long blog post. Remember, aim to solve the problem first and foremost.
  • You are creating a resource: There is a reason I keep referring to the project as a "resource" and that's because it's precisely how you should think of it. Not as a blog post or "content." This is a resource site owners maintain a link to for a specific purpose, usually to solve a problem. If you think of it as a resource or even a product, rather than content or entertainment, you are more likely to hit the mark.
  • Don't be easily replicable: You are setting out to replace a defunct resource and that should give you some idea of how replaceable content on the web can be. If the sites you reach out to could just as easily fix their broken links by linking to something else that already exists and is easy to find with a simple Google search, they don't have a lot of incentive to link to your asset in particular. Some may be thankful that you contacted them and return the favor by linking to you over another virtually identical option, but your efforts will be most successful if the resource you create doesn't simply replicate something that already exists or that could be easily created by somebody else.
  • Aim to top the original: Your resource should be a suitable replacement for the original, but ideally it will be better. It should be designed from the ground up to solve the problem better than the original, it should be more up to date, and it should be informed by any changes in the industry that have happened since the original was posted. You want to be better, not by upping the word count or the "features" of the resource, but simply by solving the central problem fundamentally better.

Reach Out To The Sites That Linked To The Defunct Resource

mailbox

Once you have published the new resource, it's time to start reaching out to the sites that linked to the original. Keep these guidelines in mind.

Address Them Directly In The Subject Line

Try to identify the specific person you are reaching out to if at all possible, and be sure to use their name in the subject line. Make sure that they feel directly addressed.

Reference The Broken Link In The Subject Line

Most people receive a lot of emails; webmasters get even more. We've all developed mental filters that we use to avoid spam, and one of the most powerful is identifying context. If somebody we don't know reaches out to us, the first question is "why." If it isn't immediately obvious, our first impulse is to ignore the message and assume they are trying to sell us something.

Your subject line should mention that you found a broken link on their site. Avoid an overly templatized subject line. More context is always better as long as things don't get too wordy. Try to mention the topic of the page with the broken link or the topic of the missing resource. Here are some examples:

Hi [name], I noticed a broken link on your page about [topic]

Hi [name], the link about [topic] on your [topic] post is broken

Try to keep the style informal. Formal subject lines tend to read as more likely to be spam.

Begin The Email With More Context

Again, context is the primary thing we use to mentally filter out spam. If you start your email by introducing yourself and explaining who you are, you're setting the expectation that the subject of the email is you, not them and their needs.

You caught their attention by saying a broken link is on their site, so the first thing on their mind is going to be either how you found a broken link on their site, or which link it is.

Try to address both of these as quickly as possible, within just a few sentences. For example:

Hello [name],

In my opinion, this link was one of the best resources out there about [topic], but the page is missing now:

[URL]

There's a broken link to it on your site here:

[URL]

Ask If They Want To See Your Resource

A common mistake promoters make in their outreach is forgetting to ask the people they are reaching out to if they want to see something or want to do something. More often, promoters will just link to the resource without even asking if the recipient wants to see it.

Some recipients are fine with this, but it can come across as rude or spammy and it makes the mistake of not focusing on getting the recipient to engage. The earlier you get the recipient to engage with the smaller ask, the more likely they are to keep engaging. If you start with a bigger ask you are less likely to get a positive response.

Let's pick up where we left off in the example email above. Here's what NOT to do:

There's a broken link to it on your site here:

[URL]

Since this went missing, we put together a new resource that we think is a good replacement. [A sentence about the resource.] You can take a look at it here:

[URL]

Feel free to replace the broken link with a link to ours.

Have a good day,

[your name]

Don't get me wrong, there are much worse ways to write an outreach email. But consider all of this from the recipient's perspective. At no point were they asked anything.

They might feel a polite impulse to thank you for letting them know about the broken link, and if they have time, maybe they will take a look at your resource, and maybe they will decide to link to it instead of simply removing the broken link.

But consider how much you are implying they should do before responding to you. Before they respond to you they need to take a look at your resource, and perhaps even do the work of updating their broken link with a link to you instead. On top of that, you never actually asked them anything, you just told them it was an option. The default response to an email like this is, "Thanks for pointing this out," because they don't really have any questions from you to respond to.

Here is an approach that tends to work better:

There's a broken link to it on your site here:

[URL]

Since this resource went missing, we put together a new resource that we think is a good replacement. [A sentence about the resource.]

Would you like to take a look at it?

Have a good day,

[your name]

Now, instead of giving your recipient a homework assignment before possibly responding to you, you've asked them a direct and polite question that they can give a direct yes or no answer to. This way, you get them to engage much sooner and much easier, and they have a concrete thing to respond to that doesn't require a lot of mental effort on their part.

Ask If They Would Like To Replace The Broken Link With A Link To Your Resource

After you've given them an opportunity to say yes or no to whether or not they want to see your resource, don't forget to once again ask directly if they would like to update the link by linking to you.

Again, here is what to AVOID:

Thanks for taking the time [name].

Here is the resource we put together:

[URL]

You're free to fix the broken link by linking to this if you want.

Take care,

[your name]

Again, while this isn't terrible, you're never actually asking the recipient if they want to update the link or giving them anything concrete to respond to. Again, the default response to an email like this is something like "Thanks for sharing," which doesn't give them anything actionable to do.

This approach is more likely to get a positive response:

Thanks for taking the time [name].

Here is the resource we put together:

[URL]

You're free to fix the broken link by linking to this if you want. Would you like to do that?

Take care,

[your name]

The only change here is the question "would you like to do that?"

It's a small change but a significant one. This gives the recipient something to latch onto and respond to with a simple yes or no. The other email doesn't necessarily warrant a response at all. That's the difference that asking a question can make.

Conclusion

This game plan walks you through a template strategy that you can modify for your own broken backlink efforts. By approaching sites with broken links and offering a resource tailor-made to replace the missing link, you dramatically improve your chances of success.