A Tactical Guide to Broken Link Building

Like most search engine optimizers, you probably get tired of the link building grind: spending hour upon hour researching bloggers, emailing and tweeting at those bloggers, spending even more time slaving over your blog posts only to be told it's “not the right fit for us.”  It can be painful to build links.

Fortunately for us, however, there’s a way to break free of this grind: it’s called broken link building.

What is Broken Link Building?

Broken link building is the process of finding your competitors broken pages (aka 404 pages), discovering which sites are pointing to these pages, and then getting the webmasters of the “pointing sites” to link to a relevant page on your site instead of the competitor’s broken page.  Simple, right?

Here’s a step-by-step guide to responsible link building.

Step 1: Run the following search queries on Google:

search queries


Go to Google and run the following search queries:

  • “keyword” -inurl:pdf -inurl:ppt -inurl:doc
  • “keyword” -inurl:pdf -inurl:ppt -inurl:doc
  • “keyword” -inurl:pdf -inurl:ppt -inurl:doc

By running these search queries, you should pull up any Web page that has to do with your “keyword” that isn’t a pdf, PowerPoint or Google Document. This is fairly important as its hard to extract links from these types of files.

When you run this search, make sure to open up the advanced search options under the search bar and check “100 results per page”. It’s important for the next step.

Sometimes I add in the command “intitle:” along with the keywords “lists” or “resources” for extra oomph, as most of the broken links tend to be on pages with titles that read “Resources Page” or “Industry Links”. But I only do this when I’m looking for broken links with the Check My Links plugin for Google Chrome. I’ll cover this method of broken link building in a post later this month.

Step 2: Download the Google-Results-Bookmarklet.

Google Results bookmarklet


Did you know that there’s a tool that can export all of your Google SERP’s results? It’s called the Google-Results-Bookmarklet, and it’s a must have for link builders.  To add this tool, just drag the green box below the video into your tool bar area on your browser (I recommend using Chrome’s browser for this tool).  Then, all you have to do is click the “Simple Google Results” button on the page that you’ve run your search query on. Now, all 100 of your SERP results—anchor text included—are transformed into a simple to export list of links.

Simple Google Results

Liam, thank you so much for creating this tool.  It’s amazing.

Step 3: Download Xenu Link Sleuth.

Xenu link sleuth

Copy the SERPS list that the Google-Results-Booklet spits out for you, and then paste it to a .txt file editor, such as notepad.  Save this file in the .txt editor and then reopen what you saved through Xenu’s Link Sleuth tool.

What happens next is amazing.

xenu link report

Xenu spits out a list of all the links which link to each SERP result.  It captures a brilliant amount of page level data including the page's title, how many clicks this page is away from the home page, how many inbound links the page has, and, of course, whether or not this page is broken (aka 404 pages). It's a miracle.

Before opening the notepad list of SERPS in Xenu, click on Options >Preferences in the Xenu menu bar.  Then set maximum page depth to 10. The default is 999, and using this may cause some pages to block your access (for fear you're a spammer).

In this same "Preferences" window, check the box "Treat redirections as errors".  After doing so, you'll be able to sort out 301's and 302's.

Step 4: Export to excel... and sort.

Excel export

Next, export the list by going to File Export to Tab Separate File in Xenu. This saves your list (totaling 9,000 links in this test) to a .txt file, which then can be copied and pasted into excel.

This is where you can get excited.

Once you paste into excel, simply format the entire data field as a table. Note, after pasting the data into excel, the entire field should be selected, and all you have to do is click the “Format as a Table” button in the Home tab’s menu bar. Then, you sort the data by status-code, and you’ll find a big, fat chunk of 404 pages.

Step 5: Hand pick through the list…place good ones in Open Site Explorer.

Open Site Explorer


It’s not over yet.  The previous work only revealed which pages rank for your keyword as well as which of those ranking pages are 404s.  Now, you’ve got to find out who’s linking to these pages.

Go through your list of 404 links by hand, making sure that there are no mistakes: make sure each link has something to do with your keyword and that the list includes only 404 pages.  Then, sort the list by domain (often times, one domain will have a number of 404 pages).  And once you’ve sorted by domain, take the best looking pages of each domain, and place them into Open Site Explorer (or a back link analysis tool of your choosing).  Now you’ve got all the sites linking to this particular 404 page.


Some of these broken pages will have no links pointing to them.   Discard these ones.

Step 6: Use the Google Way back machine to find old content.

Google Way Back

Now that you’ve picked out a few 404 pages that have a number of inbound links, it’s time to recreate the content that the page once held.  I use the Google WayBack Machine for this. With this tool, you can find the last instance of the page in question.

Sometimes the Google WayBack Machine will have no cache of the page that you check or say that “this page is blocked by a Robot.txt file.” Either way, discard these links.

Step 7: Copy the content and then email the webmasters!

Now comes the easy part: COPY the CONTENT!  Check to make sure this content isn’t anywhere else on the Web, of course, but don’t worry too much about a duplicate content filter. More than likely this content was deleted when the page went down.

Once you’ve recreated the page on your own site contact each webmaster to let them know what you’ve found. Web masters will be happy that you’ve spotted an error and offered a solution and you’ll be happy because you’ve got a lot of links.

Sound like a plan?

Emailing webmasters about a broken link does take a certain finesse. Keep your message light and informal, and always act as if you’re just a regular visitor and not as if you’re an SEO.  I’ll write about this art form in more detail in my next post.

Hope this helps with your link building efforts.  See any any tools or steps that I missed? Send me an email at or leave a comment below.

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Comments on this post

  1. Alex Levin said:

    great article Cleo! I would add that you should be more careful about publishing duplicate content if it’s from a page that was up a long time or one from a popular site.

    great tools mentioned here too

  2. This is actually a really interesting strategy. Although, I am not sure how keen I would be on “copying” someone’s old content and reposting it.

    I think a better suggestion would be to either have it point to a page you have created original content on that is similar. If you don’t have that page, create one, but create the content yourself.

    All in all, great post! It was my first time coming here to read one.

  3. This is a great strategy and I’ve been using it fairly successfully for a few months now. Also the link to your twitter profile in your bio error is “broken”, gives a 404.

  4. Too funny. The irony of it! Thanks, Dustin!

  5. Thank you for your sharing useful article. This idea is very useful for me. I am currently doing researches on various topics. Your article will assist me in my research.

  6. Hi, I couldn’t get the .txt file into Xenu, it wasn’t recognized? What file type do you save it as?

  7. Derek W. said:

    This is an awesome guide for broken links, it can get pretty confusing.

    Here is the thing that makes me iffy about Broken Links, how do you not come across as shady? Especially if your copying the old content then emailing the web master and saying, “Here’s your old content that I randomly found!” To me it just comes across bad.

    I am defiantly going to start using the tactic, but I wanted to get your input on how to not come across as a creeper? lol

  8. Pingback: Broken Link Building: The Ultimate Guide for SEOs | Andrew Isidoro

  9. Johnnie said:

    This is the best link building strategy that can get you some nice organic backlinks.

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