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  Resuscitating Dead Links

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

You recently overhauled your web site, but the search engines still have numerous links to your old web pages. Many of the pages those links lead to are gone completely, and those that remain are no longer up-to-date. You need to know how you can remove these dead links from the search engines so that the engines have links to your new pages only.

I hear this story or something similar to it at least once a week. My response often startles people: "Why the heck would you want to do something insane like that? It's the last thing you should do."

I can think of only one or two reasons why you would ever remove a dead link from a search engine. First I'll focus on why you shouldn't remove dead links and then on how to revive them so they help you.

Sometimes Dead Is Better

First and foremost, remember that nearly every web site marketer is trying to get his or her site as fully indexed as possible by the search engines. Most site owners are frustrated that they can't get more of their sites' pages indexed by search engines so that links to their pages appear for certain searches. If you are lucky enough to have old pages from your site come up in search results, why remove those pages?

If your reasoning is that the pages coming up in the search results are old, no longer updated, at a different URL, or from a previous site, you are missing the boat completely. You have exactly what you crave: a page of your site that has been indexed by the search engines and appears in the search results.

Don't look at old links as trash to be discarded; look at them as antiques to be restored!

For example, if you do a search for a term that is relevant to your web pages, and one of the pages among the search results is a dead link from your site, don't remove it because it's a dead page. It might take you years to achieve the same ranking for your new pages, if you ever achieve it at all.

Instead, look at the file names of all your dead pages appearing in the search results, and update those pages again. Bring them back to life. But be careful. If you make drastic changes to those pages, the rankings may get screwed up when the engines revisit and reindex those pages. This is what happens if you automatically redirect people from old pages to new ones.

I suggest a subtle addition of one line to any page that is no longer maintained. That one line should simply be a link back to the corresponding page of your new site. And voilą! The dead page that is already in the search engine databases becomes a useful tool for bringing people to your new site. You should install an automatic redirect only when you are 100 percent sure that none of your old pages are indexed with the search.

Recycle, Reuse, and Re-create Your Pages

I've even had clients re-create web pages with the exact same file name of pages that they had removed from their local servers because we found references and links to the old pages and file names in search results.

Think about it: You'd be crazy not to do this. If you do a search and find links among the search results to pages that no longer exist at all on your server, then re-create those pages/file names ASAP. The search engines don't know and don't care if you do this. All they have in their indexes is a reference to a certain web page address to which they will send a user. So it's up to you to make sure those references are alive and well; 404 error messages are wasted opportunities.

I've also heard from a client who made one-line changes to his previously dead files and then added those file names to his robots.txt page, effectively keeping the engines from reindexing those pages and yet still maintaining the existing rankings. This sounds much more technical than it really is. After all, a search engine index is a huge list of links and associated text for those links. The engines have no idea how many of the URLs in their indexes are alive or dead at the server level.

Earlier I mentioned that there are certain situations where it does make sense to try to purge dead links from the engines. One such situation is if you no longer have access to the pages that are no longer updated, and they existed at an old URL. There are some other situations in which purging makes sense. But by and large, if you can find links to your old pages in search results, then don't get frustrated. Be happy, and get busy.

Until next time, I remain,

Eric Ward, the Link Mensch

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