November 19, 2019

Blogging SEO: Dealing With Backlinks to Old, Dead Content

When I relaunched Beer and Coding earlier this year, my plan was to go full on Tabula rasa. In support of this, I purged all of my existing content, dating way back to 2009. No backup, no archive, no nothing. Clean slate.

While greatly therapeutic, it also means I destroyed a decade's worth of content and all of its built-up equity with a single snap (editor's note: shoe-horned attempt at an Infinity Gauntlet reference, don't worry there will be more). I'll pause here for a moment to let all of the SEO evangelists weep softly...

Yep, it's a dead Link pun. Sorry.

Since my relaunch, I've noticed quite a few old, dead articles that are still receiving hits from backlinks, external links across the interwebs. By default, Blogger automatically redirects all 404's to the website's main URL, which seemed like a tidy way of handling things. Again, I'll pause for weeping...

The issue is that search engines are strange and fickle mistresses. No, wait, that's not quite right. That sounds like I might be insinuating that there is some magic and wonder to be found inside the blackbox algorithms. Search engines are exacting, biased tyrants. There, that's better. In any case, handling backlinks this way does not preserve any of their ranking or search engine value. The proper (editor's note: overlord-friendly) way to handle this is to use individual 301 redirects to reroute dead backlinks to a new content location. But the snap...

So, much like End Game, I'm now trying to reverse the past. Luckily, in this reality, someone has already invented a time machine, or more specifically, a Wayback Machine. And, after a little bobbing about in the timestream, I pinpointed the June 21st, 2012 archive as the most complete snapshot of my past content. Now to collect the stones.

Using the crawl reports in Google Search Console I identified what dead content is still receiving activity through backlinks. This information appears in the Search Console under Index > Coverage > Excluded. Typically, you would look for the "Not found (404)" excluded type. In my case, since Blogger was redirecting my 404's, my hits were under "Page with redirect".

An exhilarating shot of the Google Search Console interface

My dead backlinks fall, more or less into four categories:
  • Articles that would still be relevant or have historical value.
  • Articles that have been superseded by new content.
  • Articles that will be superseded by new content.
  • Articles that no longer have value.

Game plan time. For superseded articles, I can set up redirects to the new replacement content and all is good. For articles I (editor's note: optimistically) believe are still relevant or hold value, I can pull the old content out of the Way Back Machine, repost it and do the same redirect dance. And, if I stagger the release of this content it means I can fill in holes in my content calendar with "vintage" articles. Bonus.

This leaves just the last two categories, the true 404's. Not going to spend any time on these ones, but to make things easier to track going forward, I did set up a custom 404 page. For Blogger, this option is located in the super obvious Settings > Search preferences > Errors and redirection > Custom Page Not Found. I gave my 404 page a bit of window dressing and it ended up looking like this:

Hi there.

If you reached this page from a link on another website, you were probably trying to access content that was created before Beer and Coding was rebooted in 2019. You can read about the relaunch HERE.

Yep, it's a dead Link pun. Sorry.

I am working through restoring all of relevant, historic Beer and Coding content. Until then, if you are willing to do some work, you can access it HERE, via the Way Back Machine.


And there we have it. A few articles sacrificed, but many others now have a chance live on in this new timeline (editor's note: last one, promise).

Finally, for those who hate reading through my meandering posts, here are your CliffsNotes:

  • Backlinks to old, dead content are not good.
  • Allowing them to 404 does not help SEO.
  • Shoving them all to your root URL isn't much better.
  • Use Google Search Console or a backlink checker to identify your problem children.
  • Set up explicit 301 redirects to route backlinks to real, relevant content.
  • If you need to get old content back, try the Wayback Machine.
  • Enjoy that feeling of high-fiving a million angels, you deserve it.

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