Fixing the Web's Lost Content: An 8 Step Guide for Link Builders

Interested in a link building strategy that's effective, scalable, and even provides a sort of public service? Here's how it works: you find pages linking to dead pages, research the content, revive it on your site, then e-mail the webmaster to let them know their link is dead and point them to your replacement.

Using broken links in link building is by no means new. In the past, this technique was typically used as an icebreaker for starting a conversation with a webmaster who you hope to contact ("Hey did you know you have a broken link on your resources page, and oh by the way, can I get my site on there too?").

As Kristi Hines pointed out, its genius is that by "checking for broken links ... [webmasters” have a reason to go modify it."

What's new about this strategy is that it takes an extreme approach to designing an entire campaign around creating content curators want to link to -- it's a safe bet they want to fix their dead links. Here's how to do it.

What you need:

Step 1. Find Relevant, High-Authority Pages that Might Have Dead Links

Run a Google search for high-authority content in your industry. The trick here is to think in terms of "broadly relevant" content.

So let's say you're building links for an e-commerce site that sells overclocking equipment (stuff that makes computers run faster), then you would seek web pages that discuss computing, the computer industry, or specific models of computers. Here's an example Google search you might run (after switching my Advanced search options to 100 results):

[site:.edu intitle:"computer history" -inurl:pdf -inurl:doc -inurl:ppt

This returns a list of 100 web pages on .edu domains that mention "computer history" in their title tag (while removing any pages that include .pdf, .doc, or .ppt because our focus is web pages that contain dead links).

Step 2. Create a Text File with Your URLs

To find what broken links lay within these pages, we need to get all of the pages into a .txt file. The easiest way to get from a list of Google search results to a text file is to install the Google Results Bookmarklet in your browser. While viewing a search results, just click the bookmarket and it will extract all of the URL's into a clean list, which you can copy and paste into Notepad and save.

Step 3. Run the Link Checker

Now we're ready to hunt for dead links. Fire up Xenu Link Sleuth and click Options, and then Preferences.

Because you want Xenu to visit every page in your list and check all of the pages that that those pages link to, set your crawl depth to 2. Also, uncheck the boxes "Ask for password or certificate when needed" and "Treat redirections as errors."

Now close the options and click File, then Check URL List to start crawling the pages in your .txt file. Once Xenu starts crawling, click Options and make sure Check External Links is checked.

Now go put a kettle on the stove and give Xenu time to visit every page in your list and every link it finds on those pages. This will take some time.

Step 4. Review the Missing Pages with Inbound Links

At this point, Xenu should be done and you should have dozens if not hundreds of broken links to review. Expand Xenu so that the In Links column is visible, and sort by In Links count.

Scan down the list until you see a page marked "not found" or "no such host," ideally on a .com domain. These are dead pages with inbound links that need to be resurrected.

Step 5. Research Each Missing Page

The key to this entire link building strategy is to understand the context of the link and whether you can realistically resurrect the content (or provide a close-enough replacement).

So once you've identified a page that's missing, find out where the original links were placed (in Xenu, right-click the link and choose URL Properties). Visit those pages and take a look at where and how the links appears.

Next, visit Wayback Machine and paste the URL of the dead page into the search box. If you're lucky you can view the original page content.

Try to get a solid understanding of whether the missing content can be moved to a new site or not. Not all can, and that's fine.

Step 6. Decide How to Restore the Content

Now you need to decide how exactly you want to bring the content back online. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this.

This is part of the art of content promotion. Ideally, you want the smallest "gap" between the content that was originally linked-to and the content you post to replace it.

Here are some possible ways to resurrect content:

  • PDF It: Save the page to PDF and place it on your site. Placing the content on your site in a PDF is valuable for link building in two ways. First, a link to a PDF on your site helps build general authority for your domain. Second, if you embed links to other pages within the PDF, these may pass some authority to the pages you link to (no evidence, but gosh Matt Cutts gets so cagey about this question!).

  • Create a Page About the Original Content: Create an article that discusses the missing content from the perspective of an encyclopedia entry about the long-past website. For example, if the missing content were a blog, you couldn't restore the entire blog. However, you could write an article discussing the history of the blog, include some screenshots, and quote some of the sample content.

  • Create a Close Cousin of the Original: Create an alternate version of the same content, but with your own take on it. For example, if you found that a dead page contained a nicely curated list of links, you could post a similar page on your site, perhaps with different subtitles, layout, and list of resources.

  • Observe and Report: Don't create anything new, just give the webmaster an alterative URL (such as on archive.org) but ask for a link pointing to your site as another resource. This only works if you have existing content that makes sense for their page that doesn't seem too blatantly commercial.

Step 7. Upload the Replacement Page to Your Site

Once you've decided what content to restore and how to replace it, post it on your site. If you can, create a separate directory and very plain template for restored content (e.g., example.com/resources/history-of-the-punch-card.html).

Step 8. Contact to Page Owner with the Broken Link

Contact the owner of the page to let them know about the broken link and how they can fix it. As always, an effective outreach e-mail is critical to your success.

Time-tested techniques include sending it directly to the exact owner of the page, addressing them by their first name (or official title where appropriate), not using a standard template, and following up if you fail to hear back. Also, in this case, use a matter-of-fact tone in your e-mail and don't mention that you restored the content specifically for them.

One of my favorite things about this strategy is that dead links exist everywhere, and the number you can find, and links your can attract, is only limited by your ability to imagine relevant content searches. But like everything in link building, it's only effective if you promote genuinely good alternative content and conduct your outreach in a personalized, human way.

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