What is Link Rot & How to Fix it?

We love links around here.

Can’t you tell?

So we don’t take too kindly to instances where external factors come into play and compromise the integrity of link building efforts.

And if there’s one thing that has the ability to turn hard-earned backlinks into mush, it’s link rot.

Link rot is the enemy of link building – a silent yet destructive force that’s continually working to undermine a website’s results.

The most troubling part about link rot is that it often goes undetected for months or years at a time, at which time it’s spread to the point of compromising entire link building campaigns.

But there are fixes and solutions for businesses, marketers, SEOs, and bloggers who are willing to get messy and address the underlying factors.

What is Link Rot?

Link rot is precisely what it sounds like.

It’s the degradation of links over time.

More specifically, link rot refers to two things:

1. Disappearing Links. It’s the decay and disappearance of links over time, which leaves in-text backlinks prone to dreaded 404 “Page Not Found” errors. In these instances the page that’s linked to quite literally disappears from the internet and ceases to exist.

2. Reduction of Power. Links don’t always disappear, but sometimes there’s a gradual reduction of link power as time passes. Either the information becomes obsolete, or newer content is produced that’s seen as being more authoritative and higher in quality.

Most people are referring to the first issue – disappearing links – when they discuss link rot. As such, we’ll be discussing link rot within this context.

Every website – including yours – is under a constant process of decay.

In one sense, link rot is a direct reflection of the real world.

Just like a small amount of moisture multiplied by many months and years of time can cause an otherwise healthy piece of wood to decay into a brittle and spongy texture, time multiplied by neglect can cause a website’s link profile to lose its shape and strength.

Link rot is something that affects every single website and blog. There’s no immunity.

According to one in-depth study on the topic, 30 percent of shared links are dead link and useless within 24 months – something that shocks most people. (Suddenly the internet doesn’t seem so timeless, does it?)

While the foundational pillars of the internet are firm and long-lasting, the billions of smaller components are constantly being torn down, rebuilt, replaced, and reconstructed.

Over a period of 20 years, 98.4 percent of web links experience rot.

This rot ultimately leads them completely inaccessible to future generations.

Research and data curated by Textmetrics reinforces just how prevalent link rot is. Just take a look at the following data points:

  • The average internet page lives for just 100 days.
  • The average website is only live for roughly 2 years.
  • The half life of links on the web is just 2 years.
  • Links are disappearing at an astonishing rate of 5 percent per year.
  • An alarming 12 percent of a website’s inbound links (backlinks) point to 404 pages.

Those are alarming figures!

But if you think it’s just tiny niche blogs and poorly run websites that are facing this problem, think again.

While spammy pages and clickbait stories shared on social media are prone to rapid link rot, they aren’t the only victims.

Did you know that more than 50 percent of U.S. Supreme Court opinions contain dead links? Likewise, 70 percent of Harvard academic journals suffer from link rot.

If legal judgements and scientific research – two linchpins of modern society – are prone to the effects of link rot, then it’s reasonable to assume that every website, blog, and online resource is as well.

Why Do Links Rot?

Why Do Links Rot?

Now that we have a clear understanding of precisely what link rot is, let’s dig in and analyze why links rot in the first place.

Some common causes of link rot include:

  • Expired domain. A hefty percentage of link rot is due to expired domains. This often occurs when the website is a hobby or side business and the owner lets the domain registration expire. It can also occur when the domain owner no longer has the financial resources to keep a website active.
  • Changed domain. Sometimes webmasters or business owners will change a domain and fail to properly migrate their content and/or establish the appropriate redirects. In these cases, links get lost in the shuffle and rot ensues.
  • Business shutdown. It’s not uncommon for massive organizations to purchase smaller companies and eventually shut them down after a few years. Google’s acquisition of the photo sharing website Picasa in 2004 is a great example. The website was eventually shut down in 2016 and the entire user base/photos was shifted over to the new product, Google Photos. However, in the process, any links pointing to Picasa-related content have long since rotted away
  • Political censorship. While much darker – and not nearly as common as the other causal factors on this list – there are times when government censorship and other sinister political factors play a role in taking down websites and links. This is certainly true in communist countries like China, but there are also plenty of accusations made against other governments, including the American government.

At the end of the day, most link rot is the direct result of neglect – either intentional (closing down a website) or unintentional (not following proper protocol when making changes to a page).

Why is Link Rot Problematic?

Link rot might be normal, but it’s not acceptable.

Some link rot is inevitable, but the more rampant it is, the more detrimental it becomes.

Link rot is troublesome for numerous reasons, including:

  • Confusion. When a reader is skimming content and they see a hyperlink in the text, they anticipate that the link will provide them with a source and/or related information. If they click on the link and are taken to an error page, this causes confusion and frustration.
  • Dampened conversions. Sales funnels are predicated on pushing users through a series of pages until they ultimately end up on a page where they can make a purchase. If there are broken links along the way, conversion rates plummet. (In some cases, they can even drop to zero until the link rot is remedied.)
  • Crawling friction. Search engine crawlers don’t like friction. And if you have broken or dead links, these crawlers can get lost or stuck in your website. Eventually, their inability to navigate will cause them to leave without finding what they came for. This hurts your SEO and suppresses your search ranking potential.
  • Damaged reputation. From a branding and PR perspective, too many dead links redirecting to 404 pages has a negative impact on how people view your website and brand, in which case you may want to merge websites. You risk being viewed as archaic, out of date, or even clueless. (“Maybe this website isn’t active any longer?”)
  • Compromised SEO. Strong SEO is predicated on airtight linking, strong navigation, and good website metrics. Link rot negatively impacts all three of these elements, which damages SEO and hurts future traffic and conversions.

Most people don’t understand how serious link rot truly is.

By grasping the deep-rooted impact of link rot, you’re ahead of the game.

The next step is to do something about it.

How You Can Fix and Avoid Link Rot

How You Can Fix and Avoid Link Rot

Link rot is something that’s going to occur “naturally” over time.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.

There are plenty of ways to proactively strike back – and that’s what we’re going to discuss in the rest of this article.

Take a look at some specific ways you can fix link rot and/or avoid link rot moving forward:

1. Review and Address 404 Response Codes

Take the time to carefully review your site to find dead links.

This can be done fairly easily and effortlessly with a link crawler like Screaming Frog SEO Spider, Moz Pro, or DeepCrawl. (You can also check individual URLs and pages with a Chrome plugin like Check My Links.)

When crawling your site, you’re looking for any page that gives you a 404 code.

Take each of these pages and update the link so that it points to a new/live page with relevant content. If no such page exists, you can remove the rotten link altogether. The Internet Archive is a valuable resource for preserving external websites, ensuring the sustainability of internal links even when those links break over time.

For links that you move, create a 301 redirect pointing to the new destination. This ensures the link actually counts as a link.

The key is to make sure the 301 redirect is going to a page that is considered equal to the page that was previously linked to. (You can’t just 301 redirect everything to your homepage. This has no positive impact on PageRank.)

2. Only Use Essential Links

When linking out, be judicious with the links you integrate into your content.

Quality is far more important than quantity.

Every additional link you integrate into your content creates an opportunity for another broken link.

Only include essential links from reputable and stable sites in your content. This significantly lessens the chances that you’ll have to spend a lot of time and energy warding off link rot later down the road.

Using only essential links also helps the user experience of your site.

Excessive linking is distracting and can lead your website visitors to feel overwhelmed. With each additional link, you devalue the rest.

By using links only when they’re necessary and essential, your readers are more likely to take these links seriously and see them as important and worthy of attention. In order to maintain the accuracy and credibility of our content, we regularly check the web links provided in our external links section for any issues such as link rot that need fixing.

3. Link to Pages Rather Than PDFs

Link rot problem is very common when there’s a PDF involved.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with linking to PDFs, you should know that they’re much more prone to rot over time.

If you link to a lot of PDFs, you’ll end up with an abnormally large link rot percentage in two or three years.

The good news is that many pieces of content are available in both a PDF and web page format. If given the option, you should always link back to the web page.

Web pages, as fickle as they can be, tend to be more stable than PDFs (which are often renamed and moved around).

4. Keep URLs Compact

Long URLs with dozens of characters and various codes/strings at the end are just asking for rot.

The more information a URL has attached to it, the more chances there are for something to mess up in the future.

Alway be on the lookout for the most compact form of a URL. The cleaner the URL is – meaning no unnecessary information after the core – the less likely it is to have issues.

Cleaning up links is usually a fairly easy process – and one that you can train your eyes and tune your mind to.

For example, whenever there’s a “?” in a URL, the characters after it are usually tracking codes and other non-essential information. Try removing this portion of the URL and see if it still works.

5. Take Care of Your Own Links

Link building is all about generating high quality backlinks from authoritative websites – and it takes a lot of work!

Losing an earned backlink is frustrating and detrimental to your website’s SEO.

Thus it’s also important to take care of your own website links and URLs.

Using the same principles as we’ve discussed in the preceding techniques, you can lessen the chances of having your own links rot.

Here are a few tips:

  • Create landing pages for all PDF documents.
  • Use basic and descriptive URLs that won’t need to be changed over time.
  • If you are forced to change a URL, set up a quick redirect.
  • If content is ever superseded, consider keeping the original content and including a bolded hyperlink at the top of the page directing readers to a newer version of the page at a separate URL.
  • Your server needs to be optimized so that it can effortlessly handle incorrect URLs featuring uppercase letters. For example, if a user types in mywebsite.com/MyPage – it should automatically redirect to mywebsite.com/mypage.

How to Leverage Outside Link Rot as a Link Building Opportunity

How to Leverage Outside Link Rot as a Link Building Opportunity

Another website’s link rot can be your gain.

That’s right, link rot can actually be used as a method for building up backlinks and enhancing your own site link profile.

The concept is known as “broken link building.”

We go into the entire process of broken link building in this in-depth resource.

However, we’ll provide a quick recap here.

Broken link building is essentially the process of identifying broken or dead links (link rot) on other websites and blogs.

Once you find these broken links, you create your own fresh content to replace these deep links.

Then you reach out to the individual or company in charge of the web page and let them know that they have a broken link (which you can replace with content that’s twice as good).

That’s the simple gist of broken link building. In actuality, it’s a much more time-consuming and complex process.

The key is to establish the right processes, automate the repetitive aspects, and outsource the elements that suck up too much of your time.

By putting broken link building on autopilot, you’re able to pick up new backlinks on a consistent basis without much trouble. (You can also rest easy at night knowing you’re helping to reverse the effects of link rot, which erode the internet from the inside out!)

Build Links the Right Way

Build Links the Right Way

There’s nothing simple or easy about link building.

But it’s an integral element of being successful in today’s web climate.

Link rot often stands in the way of this success.

By understanding what link rot is and how it can be overcome, you can lessen its impact on your content, SEO, and marketing goals.

Hopefully this article has given you some tangible tips that you can use to move forward.

The longer you wait to apply this information, the less likely it is that you’ll do anything about it.

Now’s the time to brainstorm an action plan and get to work.

What are the three to five action steps takeaways you have?

Timothy Carter