Last week, we began discussing how you remove pages without causing 404 errors. We left off after step 1, reviewing visitors to a particular page. This week, we'll continue with step 2, reviewing external links to the pages you want to remove.
After reviewing visitors, you'll want to review how many websites (other than your website) link to that particular page. Why look at the total number of external links referencing a page you are about to remove?
First, some number of your visitors are arriving on your website after clicking on the links contained on those other websites. For example, there might be a news site that wrote a review about the products you offer. People reading that review get excited about your product. They want to learn more. So, they click on the link to learn more and possibly buy that product. If you suddenly remove a page, those people will arrive on an error page instead of the page they wanted.
Second, Google, Bing, and other search engines use links as one of many factors to determine which search results to show your website in. They also use links to determine where to put your site in those search results. The more links you have, the better your chances of coming up higher in the search results and the better your chances of showing up in more search results. This leads to more visitors coming to your website from Google, Bing, and other search engines.
So, if you suddenly removed pages from your website and created a 404 error at the URL where the page use to be, you'd end up with some number of visitors clicking on those links and reaching a 404 error page. Visitors would leave your site frustrated by the error, which would cost you visitors and cost you customers.
Along with that, removing those pages would also cause Google and Bing to ignore links to those pages you removed. This would lead to those pages being removed from the results which could cause you to lose visitors and, more importantly, lose customers.
Returning to our Blue Widget product example (from part one), we'd want to see how many other websites link to the five pages about the Blue Widget product that we're planning on removing. While there are several tools to help you obtain the number of links, we recommend Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer.
In either tool, you put in the URL to the page you are about to remove and you will get the total number of external links, or backlinks, that link to that page. If you use Open Site Explorer, be sure to filter the results to only show external links to a particular page. If you use Majestic SEO, you want to use the number for "External Backlinks". You can, of course, use both of these tools (and others) as the number of links will vary per each tool.
For our example Blue Widget product, we might find the following links to these pages:
|Page URL||Total Links To Page|
In this example, the blue-widget-overview.html page has the largest number of links, followed closely by the blue-widget-faqs.html page. As a result, these are the two pages most likely to cost us visitors (and customers) if they were removed and returned a 404 error. Because of that, it is more important to prevent 404 errors on these two pages than the other three pages.
However, the blue-widget-terms.html page has no links to this page. Given that, this page won't have any visitors from an external link. Plus, with no external links to this page, it is unlikely that search engines will rank this page highly in the search results. As a result, we might be able to let the blue-widget-terms.html page become a 404 error and not prevent it from becoming a 404. To decide on final priority, we'll need to bring total backlinks and total visits together (in step 3).
As was mentioned before, you obviously should try to prevent every 404. But, if you are removing hundreds of pages at once, it may be impractical to prevent every 404. In that case, you can use external links as one way to help determine which 404s will present the biggest problem and work to prevent those.
Along with looking at total external links, you can also look at Open Site Explorer's Page Authority Metric or Majestic SEO's Trust Flow and Citation Flow metrics. The higher the number, the more likely it is that this page is ranked highly in search engines and the more likely it is that this page has more visitors coming to it from external links. As a result, you'd want to prevent 404s from occurring on any URL with a high Page Authority, Trust Flow, or Citation Flow number.
The next step is to put the visits and backlink information together to determine which pages could present the costliest 404 errors. You need to prevent the more costly 404 error swhen removing pages from your website.