RAIDERS OF THE LOST LINKS
Published 27th August 2019
Links have long been an important factor when it comes to site ranking. Site owners go to great lengths and spend large budgets on acquiring links in order to rank better. Clearly, then, losing good links is the last thing you want your site to suffer.
But are you actually aware if you are losing links? And why does it happen? When it comes to preventative measures, a link audit is one housekeeping activity any site caring about its rankings should be doing regularly.
Despite their importance, links do not get as much attention in Google Search Console as onsite issues. Google does offer a link report that covers top linked pages on the site, top linking site and top anchor texts used in these links, but it is far from comprehensive. It’s also notoriously incomplete, with Google only showing the site owner a fraction of the link data it knows about. Hence the need for external link tools.
It should be remembered that link tools are a third-party data source, and the data they present may be different from the data Google is aware of and takes into consideration, especially since some links are simply ignored by Google. Ideally, you should have as many different data sources as possible, so a comprehensive link audit should rely on Google Search Console data and link profile data from at least two different external link tracking tools – the more the better. My go-to tools are Majestic and Ahrefs. There are pros and cons to each, but together they can give us a more complete picture. Among their many other features, both offer reports covering a site’s lost links.
There are a number of reasons why and when link tools report a site’s links as lost. To understand them we need to look at how link tracking tools operate. Link tools get their link data by crawling the web, much like search engine bots. For example, Majestic’s crawler is called MJ12 and you can see it in your site’s logs.
It’s not enough to just crawl the web once. To have fresh, up-to-date information, link tools need to regularly recheck the links they already know about as well as crawl new portions of the web to discover new links. Considering there are more than 200 million live sites out there, this may seem like a daunting task. Furthermore, in addition to crawling and these collecting the data, link tools also need to understand when to consider a link as dead. To a link tool, a link is a combination of three elements: source URL, target URL and anchor text. If at least one of them changes, it will no longer be the same link.
THE MISSING LINKS
Checking a client’s site recently, I saw that it had lost 75 links on 1 August. That might sound a lot but further investigation showed that these links came from just three unique domains – in fact there were only three unique links. What had happened was the target URLs they were pointing to were changing. This, in turn, was causing them to be seen as lost links.
Here are some other reasons why a link may be seen as lost by a link tool:
- If an RSS feed of an external site no longer includes the post/article that contained the link. RSS feeds usually include only X latest posts.
- If the URL of a linking page changes, for example because of newer content pushing it to the next page of an external site it’s featured on.
- If a site is inaccessible at the time of a crawl by the link tool. In this instance any links from it to other sites will be reported as lost, even if the site is only temporarily down.
In some of these cases, it may be helpful to check the correlation between lost links and new links to understand what’s really happening. If links change their URLs rather than cease to exist entirely, they will be shown as new links at about the same time.
Occasionally you may see spikes in the number of lost links reported at certain points in time. This may be due to the way tools such as Majestic recrawl and recheck vast amounts of links if a site has a large link profile. Fig 1 above is a screenshot of a site’s lost links report in Majestic, where spikes of lost links can clearly be seen every 30 days:
Link tools usually have a detailed explanation of what they see as lost links and why. Majestic’s and Ahref’s reasonings can be found at the end of this article. Apart from purely technical crawling issues, here are some other reasons why external links can really get lost:
- They can be removed willingly by the site owner for whatever reason.
- They can become broken links due to a site update/redesign etc.
- The domain linking to your site may have expired.
In some of these cases, links can be recovered. If a well-earned, valuable link has been lost due to a mistake, it makes sense to reach out to the site owners and give them a heads-up about the issue. They may not even be aware of it themselves. Once it’s fixed, you will get your link back (though there is no guarantee you would be able to recover 100% of your lost links).
Regularly reviewing your lost links is a useful investment of your time as it can tell you what link acquisition techniques work for your site and what techniques only give you a temporary boost. These findings can be then used for planning your future link acquisition activities
Majestic’s explantion for why links are deemed lost: blog.majestic.com/training/why-are-my-links-deleted/
Ahrefs’ explanation: http://help.ahrefs.com/en/articles/920461-understanding-link-lost-reasons