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Outreach Monks

Link Decay: The Silent SEO Killer

Nothing lasts forever.” Take the quote as you may, but did you know it also applies to backlinks? 

Anyone who’s been in the online marketing space knows that employing SEO practices is crucial for building your brand. It’s also no secret that building backlinks is fundamental to your entire SEO repertoire and it’s justified.

After all, Google execs have already pointed out that links are major ranking factors in SERPs. Major SEO players also corroborated this by finding correlations between high SERP ranking and backlinks.

In other words, backlinks boost your SEO. But then again, backlinks also don’t last forever. 

When backlinks start to wither, those inbound links that built your SEO could very well be the ones that destroy it.

How?

Enter: link decay.

In this article, we’ll explore how link decay ruins SEO, when it happens, and strategies to alleviate link decay.

Link Decay, Defined!

Link decay, otherwise known as link rot, is an event when links no longer point to their intended destination, which could either be a web page, file, or server. This event may happen for various reasons like indiscriminate web updates, domain expiration, content relocation, or failed URLs. Unfortunately, the effect of link decay spans beyond page errors and may even harm your SEO. 

A comprehensive 7-year case study on link rot found that links may start decaying as early as 1 month and this will progressively increase with time, regardless of the website’s size and domain authority (DA). 

Here’s a snapshot of the rate of link decay from 1 month to 7 years, according to the research:

link decay rate

The damage of decayed links to SEO is still manageable within the first three months. However, this trend sharply declines after the first year. Link decay percentage can reach a staggering 43.39% within 7 years. This means that almost half of the backlinks you collected through the years will have deteriorated after 7 years. 

Unfortunately, backlinks and SEO are tightly linked.

In a study of Google traffic, Ahrefs found that the more referring domains point to a web page, the more traffic it receives, suggesting a strong correlation between backlinks and traffic. On the other hand, Backlinko also discovered that more backlinks may translate to better SERP ranking

Both analyses are merely correlational studies. There’s absolutely no way to figure out the causation unless we have empirical data on Google’s SERP ranking algorithm. Still, the available data and shared experiences from SEOs and webmasters point in the same direction: links do help SEO.

But with link decay happening under our noses? The same backlinks may shatter your SEO efforts without you batting an eye.

So, how does Link decay damage SEO, really?

Link Decay and SEO— A Match Made in Digital Dystopia

Before diving into this, it’s important to note that link decay is not unidirectional. Link decay happens to all types of links, whether that’s inbound links (backlinks), internal links, or outbound links. SEO will likely be affected when link decay happens to either of the mentioned links. 

Below, we curated the top three reasons why link rot and SEO are a website’s nightmare:

  • Link decay promotes a negative user experience

Broken links are big red flags in Google’s page experience metrics. 

Encountering broken links on a web page may cause frustration to users, resulting in high bounce rates, lower time-on-page metrics, and reduced engagements. All of these may indirectly impact SEO rankings because Google’s core ranking algorithm is designed to reward pages that offer a good user experience.

page experience

Here’s the thing: Search engine optimization is all about fine-tuning websites to rank positively in search engines, like Google, right?

Therefore, in conjunction with diving into SEO, we also have a responsibility to understand Google’s mission and align our optimization efforts to the search engine’s objectives. One of which is page experience

Actively monitoring inbound and outbound links is one SEO strategy to ensure that web pages give users the best UX possible.

  • Loss of site credibility

Another damaging effect of link decay is harming a website’s domain authority. Keep in mind that backlinks, especially do-follow backlinks, transfer a level of link juice to the sites they link to. This results in an increase in the destination page’s DA.

With backlink decay, linked sites may undergo a steady decline in their domain authority. Broken or inexistent backlinks may signal to Google that the site lacks credibility, potentially leading to lower SERP rankings.

Moreover, a collection of faulty backlinks may also harm your site’s backlink profile, which may result in a site-wide decrease in search rankings. Ultimately, this diminishes your brand’s perceived credibility among users and your customers.

  • Limited Search Engine Crawlability

Backlink decay also limits the crawlability of your website. Search engines rely on links to connect one web page to another and lost links act as dead ends to their journey. Decayed backlinks may impede the crawling process, causing search engines to miss valuable content or updates on the linked page.

Link decays can have a significant impact on a site’s SEO, but how exactly do link decays occur?

How Does Link Decay Happen?

Link decay happens for a variety of reasons. They may be caused by an external event but may also be self-inflicted. Below, we listed 4 primary reasons why link decay happens:

Website Updates

Websites go through changes over time. This can either go from simple content updates to interface redesign or even extensive restructuring. While the website updates are done in good faith, some “positive” developments may inadvertently cause link decay.

For example, changing a content’s slug or URL to promote evergreen-ness invalidates the already existing backlinks to that web page. This leaves you with links that no longer point to the intended content, which may harm your SEO.

Expired Domains

Another major culprit of link decay is domain expiration. Not all domains stand the test of time, especially if we’re talking about decades. In a 2016 research study, only 2 remained out of 360 sampled URLs from 1995 after 20 years. 

Domain names and hosting services require periodic renewal fees. Overlooking these payments results in domain expiration, rendering the web pages within that domain unavailable. Consequently, a linked site loses all the backlinks from those web pages.

Content Relocation

Sometimes, websites can relocate specific content from their domain to different URLs during restructuring or reorganization. During these cases, redirects are often implemented to preserve their original backlinks and guide users to the new location. Unfortunately, inexperienced webmasters may overlook this crucial step, leading to the infamous Error 404 broken redirects.

Failure of URL Shorteners or Temporary URLs

Failure of URL shorteners is a less common link decay culprit, still, using temporary URLs comes with inherent risks. For instance, if the service providing the shortened URL ceases operation, the link becomes unusable. Additionally, expired temporary links will also not serve their purpose. 

That’s why it’s recommended to always use naked links instead of URL shorteners, as far as SEO is concerned. 

3 Tips to “Detoxify” Link Decay

While link decay is an inconspicuous SEO killer, there are ways to weather the effects of link decay:

Use a Backlink Monitoring Tool

Decayed backlinks can harm your SEO without you knowing. That is where a backlink monitoring tool comes in handy. Backlink monitoring tools work by crawling the web and identifying all the links pointing to your website. You can then use this data to correct any broken links that would otherwise harm your SEO.

While countless backlink monitoring tools exist, always choose the one that gives the most comprehensive data. 

Build Links with Authority Websites

Another common culprit behind link decay is receiving backlinks from spammy websites and linking to low DA domains. Either of these two can indirectly affect your UX and trigger Google’s penalties. 

When building backlinks from other websites, always transact with domains with respectable DAs. High-domain authority websites tend to be more established than low-DA ones. Conversely, when creating outbound links, limit your do-follow links to high DA pages as these destinations are less likely to decay in the future.

Take Advantage of Internal Linking Software

Keep in mind that link decay is not limited to inbound and outbound links. Even internal links may suffer from link decay if the destination web page is updated or the domain undergoes restructuring. Moreover, blog posts buried underneath piles of articles may also “decay” when no links point to them.

Internal linking software, such as LinkStorm, uses AI to locate internal linking opportunities across your website. Depending on your objectives, this can give forgotten blog posts a chance to receive or transfer link juice to fellow internal sites.

Conclusion

Link decay is indeed a silent SEO killer.

Why?

Because nobody will inform you about decayed links or content updates that defunct your links. It’s up to you to find the strategies to prevent link decay and mitigate its effect on your website. With keen attention and the necessary toolkit, you can weather the storm of link decay and preserve your website’s SEO.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the average lifespan of a link?

URLs don’t have a lifespan. As long as the domain is active, receives hosting services, and the specific link wasn’t updated, the URL will exist indefinitely.

Do links expire?

Links will expire if the website has also expired. That means the domain is no longer active and is no longer receiving hosting services.

How do you know a link is broken?

There’s no way to know a link is broken unless you click it. A broken link leads to a non-existent page that shows an error message (404 “Not Found”). One way to fix broken links is by adding a redirect that leads it to the correct destination.

Author Bio

author-Joel John Cariño

Joel John Cariño

SEO Specialist and Content Writer

Joel has always found SEO and its underlying algorithms fascinating, which is why he enjoys writing about them. For over three years, his focus has been on helping clients succeed through publishing top-notch content with a kick of direct-response copywriting. He now works as an SEO specialist and content writer at LinkStorm, where he continues to leverage his expertise to drive tangible results.

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