There are few things worse for a webmaster than a 404 Not Found error.
It should be your worst nightmare — sending the visitor somewhere that doesn’t exist. I say that it should be your worst nightmare very deliberately, as many bloggers do not give too much thought towards broken links and how effectively they can drive people away from websites.
Consider your own behaviour when presented with a 404 error: how does it affect your perception of the site you are on? How likely are you to attempt to dig around in search for what you were expecting to see? Are you more likely to simply move on? A visitor’s interest in your website is often a tenuous thing — to strain that relationship by offering up a broken link is unforgiveable.
Although you can work on creating an interesting and unique 404 error page, as far as I am concerned the best cure is prevention. With that in mind, in this post I want to introduce you to an excellent free plugin that will help you to eradicate 404 error pages from your site altogether.
Introducing Broken Link Checker
You may have heard of this plugin before — in fact, I specifically mentioned it as part of my feature on the Periodic Table of WordPress Plugins. It is an extremely popular plugin and with good reason: it can help you to make 404 error messages on your site a thing of the past.
Broken Link Checker’s functionality is simple yet extremely effective: it will crawl and test every link on your site to make sure that each one resolves to the defined URL correctly. If the plugin encounters a problem (such as a 404 error), it will add it to a list of broken links that you can then deal with accordingly.
It should be mentioned that Broken Link Checker has attracted the occasional poor review recently, with some people complaining that it simply doesn’t work. I have experienced no problems with the plugin and the majority of reviews are still overwhelmingly positive. Many people tend to leave negative reviews because of a problem with their own unique WordPress setup rather than the plugin itself, so I always take such reviews with a pinch of salt. It is possible that you may experience a conflict with a particular plugin on your site if you use Broken Link Checker, but I believe it to be well worth the potential “risk.”
How to Use Broken Link Checker
The process of using Broken Link Checker is extremely simple.
The plugin does all of the hard work by scanning your site for broken links in the background. Once it is finished, it will present any broken links that it has found to you within WordPress.
There are two ways you can quickly check to see if Broken Link Checker has located any broken links:
As you can see, the notifications are intuitive and easy to spot — if a broken link appears on your site, you’re going to know about it quickly.
For the purposes of this post I am using my blog — Leaving Work Behind — as a guinea pig. As you can see from the above screenshots I currently have two broken links on my site, so the next step is to check them out. You can do that either by clicking on “Found 2 broken links” in the dashboard widget or by clicking on the “Broken Links” menu item under Tools in the sidebar.
You will then be presented with a screen like this:
As you can see, both of the broken links on my site are as a result of 404 Not Found errors, but the plugin will find any link that does not resolve correctly. For example, it would list any URL that does not load due to a non-reactive server.
The above display is pretty self-explanatory. You have the URL of the broken link, followed by its status, the anchor text used, and finally the post or page on which it appears. However, the real beauty of Broken Link Checker is that it allows you to correct or remove these links on the fly. Just hover over a broken URL and you will be presented with a list of options:
Again, the options are pretty self-explanatory: you can edit the URL, remove the link (while retaining the anchor text), mark the link as not broken (if for instance a temporary server issue has been resolved), or simply dismiss the link.
In the above example I know that the link is broken as it points at a 301 redirect that I have since removed. As such, I need to edit the URL so that it points to the correct location:
It’s that simple! Without leaving this screen you can take whatever necessary measures to fix any broken links. And with the widget on your WordPress dashboard, any broken link on your site won’t remain broken for long.
Any links that you dismiss can be found under the “Dismissed” link at the top of the page:
As you can see, the above screenshot demonstrates what other error messages you might see. The link to Life Stoked is a good example as I know that it is a regularly updated blog. When Broken Link Checker last scanned it there must have been a temporary server error which led to it being marked as a broken link. But since I knew better (and upon checking found that it was back online), I was able to mark the link as “Not broken.”
There may be times where you need to look at the post or page within which the link is contained in order to understand its context. The trafficplanet.com link above is a good example of that. All I need to do is hover over the source link and click on “View.” I can then find the link within the page:
I can see that the link leads to a specific forum post that no longer exists. Therefore, the best thing to do in terms of the user experience is to:
- Change the link to the Traffic Planet forum homepage
- Add a note to the post stating that the named service is no longer available
One quick change via the Broken Link Checker plugin and a small edit to the post and I’ve resolved any potential confusion for visitors to the post.
A Peerless Plugin?
I am not aware of any other plugin that matches the functionality offered by Broken Link Checker. In a world packed with endless varieties of SEO plugins and the like, this comes as a surprise to me. Personally I would like to see some competition in an area that I believe is vital to the ongoing usability of any blog.
For the most part I write blog posts that I like to see stand the test of time. I generally like to write “evergreen” pieces that are as relevant a year from now as they were today. With that in mind, it is very important to me to make sure that the pages I link to in old blog posts remain correct in the future. That is why I consider Broken Link Checker to be such an invaluable tool.
As always, if you have any questions or comments please do not hesitate to ask them via the comments section below!