Use Google Analytics to find broken inbound links

Imagine this: you’ve spent a lot of time getting backlinks to your website. And it paid off: many websites have links to your pages. That’s great because it not only brings new visitors to your website, it also improves your search engine rankings. Job well done!

But over time, you may change the structure of your website. You change some of the URLs, you delete a couple of pages, or your whole websites gets renewed causing all links to change. All those hard-earned backlinks now point to a page that no longer exists. That’s not only upsetting your visitors, it also harms your SEO activities.

How do you make sure that all those hard-earned backlinks don’t point to a page that no longer exists? That’s pretty hard to find out, right?

Well, using Google Analytics, it’s actually quite easy. In this guide, I’ll show you how you can create a custom report to find broken inbound links. This trick has helped me find and fix many silly mistakes, so I’m sure it can do the same for you.

Contents

The basics: what is a 404 page?

You’ve probably seen it many times: you click on a link and get a 404 - Page not found message. It’s the web server telling you that the thing you were looking for doesn’t exist. 

There can be many reasons for this: the link you clicked could have an incorrect URL. The page it links to may have been moved to another URL, or it may have been deleted.

A 404 page makes it clear to the visitor that the page no longer exists. It also tells the browser that the page wasn’t found, by returning a 404 status code. That’s how the 404 got his name.

We’re going to use Google Analytics’ custom reporting features to find out which links to our website result in a 404 page.

There are 2 prerequisites before we can use Google Analytics to fix links:

  • You need access to the Analytics account and permissions to create a custom report
  • Your 404 pages should have a distinct, recognizable title. Something like “Page not found” will do.

Got that sorted out? Great, follow these steps and you’ll be fixing 404s in no time.

  1. Go to Customisation and click on Custom Report. Click on the New custom report button Step 1: go to custom reports and create a new report
  2. Enter a title like Broken inbound links
  3. Select Explorer as the report type
  4. In the Metric Groups section, click Add Metric and search for Entrances.
  5. In the Dimension Drilldowns section, add:
    • Landing Page
    • Full Referrer
  6. In the Filters section, click on add filter and search for Page Title. Leave the first dropdown to Include, and the second dropdown to Exact
  7. Enter the title of your 404 page in the field. This needs to be the exact page title of your 404 error page. Step 2: set up your report
  8. Select the views to which you want to add this. Normally you would select All views here.
  9. Hit save, and you’re done.
The result: A Google Analytics report showing all broken inbound links

There it is: your inbound broken link report. Select a long time range, and you’ll see all the pages that get a lot of outbound traffic, and result in a 404.

Why am I not seeing anything?
Verify that you’ve entered the exact page title in the filter field otherwise it won’t work.

How to fix broken inbound links?

We have now found all pages that get linked to by other websites but result in a 404 page. There are a few ways to fix that:

  • Ask the webmaster of the website that links to the erroneous page to update the link. It would be great if she could do that but it’s time-consuming and you don’t know if she’ll even respond. Luckily, there’s an easier way.
  • Create a 301 - permanently moved redirect. That means your visitors will be redirected to the correct URL. As a bonus, Google and other search engines will realize that the page has moved, and will attribute the SEO value of that link to the new page. And that’s exactly what we want!

After you’ve set up those redirects you should see a steady decrease of 404 entrances in the report. Good job!

Pro-tip: have reports emailed to you

If you want to stay on top of broken inbound links, create a custom report. In the report view, click on Share, and enter your own email address. Select how often you want to receive this, for instance, select Weekly in the frequency field. Now, you’ll get a weekly overview of all broken inbound links in your mailbox. No broken link will go unnoticed!