Attracting good inbound links is no easy business.

Therefore it’s important to ensure that any links that do point to a website – whether obtained organically or via more manual means – are utilised to the fullest.

This article provides a brief introduction to inbound links, methods for identifying them, and advice for maximising their value.

What’s in a link?

It’s widely acknowledged that links are the single most important factor when it comes to obtaining higher search engine rankings. Of course there is a lot more to SEO than links alone, but for the purpose of this article we just need to know that links matter.

Until just a few years ago, a successful SEO campaign could be achieved by building links en-masse, with little regard to the sites on which they were built. In simple terms, it was most links wins.

Google’s algorithm is much more advanced today, and while there is still an element of links as votes involved, the metrics used to analyse those links go way beyond numbers and anchor text. In a nutshell, it’s now more a case of best links wins; quality over quantity.

However, putting SEO aside for a moment, it’s important to acknowledge the humble link for what it is; a connection between one webpage and another.

This considered, it could be argued that the most valuable links are not those listed on the most authoritative domains, but rather links that refer the best visitors.

404: user experience not found

From a user point of view, links are only as good as the page they point to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken on a new client to find they have some great links pointing to 404 pages.

Not only does this suck for the user, it sucks for SEO as the potential value (link juice) of those links from a purely algorithmic point of view is being thrown away.

To avoid this scenario, you can take the following steps:

Fire up Google Search Console and head to the Crawl Errors report. Within here you’ll see numerous error code tabs, with a list of error pages beneath them. Here is a screengrab of some 404 pages:

404 errors - Search Console - Browser Media

List of 404 pages (URLs blurred to protect client anonymity)

Click on any of these urls and you’ll be presented with further details, including a list of internal and external links pointing to that page:

404 errors - Search Console - linked from - Browser Media

List of links to 404 page

Unfortunately there is no shortcut to exporting all ‘Linked from’ data in one hit, so if you have a lot of error pages it’s going to take some time to go through each url individually and list every link pointing to them.

This is where a third party link analysis tool such as Link Research Tools  comes in useful; you could simply export a list of all 404 errors from Search Console via the download button on the main crawl errors report page, import that list for bulk analysis, and then export the data as a spreadsheet for review.

Bringing dead pages back to life

Having now identified a list of 404 pages with links pointing to them, ideally the next step is to redirect these pages (via a 301) to a live equivalent.

There can be a temptation to save time and redirect everything to the homepage, but unless there really is no better alternative it’s always best to ensure the user ends up somewhere relevant to the source.

The problems outlined above are often seen on ecommerce sites that have a lot of product churn: a product may get discontinued and the page is left to die a slow and miserable death.

For those that manage such websites it’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking Search Console regularly to ensure 404 pages are kept to a minimum, and having a redirect strategy in place for dealing with redundant pages.

Above all think about the user. What are they expecting to see when they arrive on your page, and what can you do to make their experience one to remember for all the right reasons?