When Link Audits Become SEO Audits: 6 Ways an Inbound Link Analysis Can Uncover Technical SEO Problems

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The Inbound Link SEO Audit

When launching an SEO initiative, it’s incredibly important to perform a thorough inbound link analysis. Link audits can reveal a website’s strongest, weakest, and riskiest links. It can also help you understand more about the domains linking to a given website, and which content attracted those links. And above all, a robust link audit can drive future link building efforts.

But, that’s not all it can do. It can also reveal serious technical SEO problems. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for a link audit to morph into a technical audit, which can uncover a number of SEO issues that should be addressed. And those technical SEO problems can be major barriers to a company’s organic search efforts.

Based on this phenomenon (the morphing link analysis), I decided to provide some examples of what you can find, including some actual cases I’ve come across while performing link audits. Below, I’m going to cover six ways an inbound link analysis can uncover hidden SEO dangers. Let’s begin.

6 Technical SEO Problems That a Link Audit Can Uncover

1. Canonical Problems and Duplicate Content

If your site provides the same content at multiple URL’s, you can easily be splitting your search power across those URL’s. You may end up with several pages containing the same content, but with none of those pages ranking well. I find this often when performing link audits.

Link-wise, you can come across situations where inbound links are split across both the canonical and non-canonical versions of a piece of content. And in extreme cases, links could be split across dozens of URLs (or more). Imagine the power that the canonical URL could hold if you consolidated the link equity from across duplicate pages. That’s a serious opportunity, and it’s one that’s relatively easy to address.

Example: During a recent link audit, I found three versions of the same page, with over 4,000 links from over 700 domains being split across the three. Needless to say, the company should consolidate those pages, or at least use the canonical URL tag to consolidate search power.

Link Audits Uncovering Canonical Problems

2. 404’s

Almost every link analysis I complete reveals wasted links. When conducting a link audit, you can easily identify all inbound links leading to 404’s (the header response code for “page not found”). If those links lead to pages that don’t resolve, then the site in question cannot benefit from the links. That’s a complete waste of links.

Once you track down 404’s, you can either ensure the pages resolve correctly (by issuing a 200 response code) or 301 redirect them to the most relevant pages on your site.

During a link audit, I found one page that was 404-ing that had close to 2,600 links. And many of those links were from relevant websites within the company’s niche. The good news is that the company could quickly fix this by having the page resolve correctly (with a 200 code), or by 301 redirecting that URL to a relevant page. Again, multiply this example by the number of 404’s wasting link power across an entire domain, and you can see the impact it could have.

Link Audits Revealing 404's

3. Cutting Off Link Influence with Redirects or Weak Pages

Many webmasters don’t realize that they have powerful pages on their sites that don’t leverage their power to influence other pages.  For example, imagine you had a powerful page on your site with many inbound links from industry sites, but that page doesn’t directly influence any other pages on your site (by linking to relevant content). I see this all the time.

Login pages on popular sites provide a great example. Clients are always blown away when I list their top pages from an inbound link standpoint, and login pages make the list. It actually makes sense if you think about it.

If you have clients, customers, users, etc. that need to log into your system, then your login pages will naturally build links from a number of sources. But since they are just login pages, companies usually don’t spend much time working on them SEO-wise. Wouldn’t it be smart to leverage that power to influence other key pages on the site? You bet.

Login Example: I once uncovered a login page with over 7,000 links from over 150 domains, but that login page didn’t contain any links to relevant content on the site. It was simply a webform. Since it’s a powerful webpage SEO-wise, it could absolutely influence other relevant pages on the site. Where you link depends on your specific site, but an obvious choice would be to your core service pages.

There are more examples of wasting link power beyond login pages. How about pages that 302 redirect to other pages on your site?  302’s are not search engine friendly and can block search power from being passed to the destination URL.

This past summer, I audited a site with over 2,000 inbound links leading to a 302 redirect. The fix was easy, but the company would never have known about that problem without having the link audit performed. That would have been 2,000 links wasted…

An example of a login page with over 2,000 inbound links from 99 domains:

Logins Building Links4. Rogue Pages, Subdomains, and Root Domains

During link audits, I often come across isolated assets that are completely wasting search power. For example, files, pages, subdomains, or even root domains that have been forgotten.

These forgotten assets have sometimes built up enormous amounts of search power, yet have been banished to the SEO world of wasted links. Sometimes these pages were left over from online campaigns, special events, or possibly were left behind during a redesign. Unfortunately, if the pages are left behind, they can’t influence other pages on the site or even the root domain in extreme cases.

Example: I once found an orphaned subdomain with thousands of pages indexed and over 11K inbound links. The subdomain contained the old navigation, which means it wasn’t influencing any pages on the root domain (the navigation links all led to 404’s).  Even worse, the old subdomain now had a newer version of the content located on a new subdomain, which only had a fraction of the links that the old subdomain had. 301 redirecting all of those old pages to the most relevant newer pages enabled my client to recoup those wasted inbound links.

An example of a rogue subdomain with over 2,000 links from over 200 domains. This can easily be addressed now that it has been uncovered:

Rogue Subdomain Building Links

5. Format Repurposing & Security Concerns

When identifying the top content attracting links, you can start to get a feel for the types of content that are attracting those links, including file formats. For example, you can find pdf’s, doc’s, swf’s, etc. that have built links. This can be problematic in situations where the files building links aren’t optimized properly, aren’t influencing other pages on a website, or that are simply hard to deal with usability-wise. For example, if you link directly to a swf, that flash file will play full screen in the browser window (without providing a standard website navigation).

When you find documents like this with powerful inbound links, you can repurpose the content into a standard set of webpages, and you can better optimize the content. This can often lead to building more links down the line, as well as providing the ability to influence other key pages on the website. You can also use the rel canonical HTTP header if you are dealing with non-html files. For example, if you want to keep a certain PDF active, but need to direct its search equity to another page.

In addition, there are times you can find documents that shouldn’t be available in the first place and that pose a security problem. For example, documents that mistakenly reside in public folders on a website, and have been identified and linked to by other websites. Those documents could be from marketing, IT, customer service, etc. Needless to say, you would want to remove those documents and consolidate their link equity, if possible.

Link Audits Can Reveal Various Types of Content and File Formats Building Links:

File Formats Being Linked To6. Domain Strategy and Private Networks, a.k.a. Penguin Food

This final bullet isn’t necessarily a technical SEO problem, but it does relate to domain strategy, so I’ve included it in this post. I mentioned Penguin earlier, and this bullet relates to uncovering links that can get you in trouble (based on the domain strategy you employ).

In my Penguin findings post, I mentioned that private networks could get a website in trouble. A private network is when a company buys a number of domains and cross links each domain to the others using the anchor text they want to rank for. It’s an artificial way to generate exact match anchor text links, and many got hammered when Penguin hit.

I’ve uncovered a number of private networks during inbound link audits, and there are times when revealing those networks surprises everyone involved. That’s right, not every company using a private network understands that network is setup. For example, the domains and links could have been set up by an employee who had a great deal of autonomy and already left the company. It could also have resulted from purchasing a domain and not understanding its link profile.

Example: You can read my case study about a Penguin recovery that stemmed from my client getting hit by Penguin due to unnatural links being set up prior to my client owning the domain. Needless to say, it’s incredibly important to understand what you’re getting into, and an inbound link analysis can help you identify those types of problems.

So, uncovering private networks (whether they were implemented knowingly or not) is incredibly important since those networks leave websites susceptible to getting hammered by Penguin. Addressing the use of private networks can save companies from Penguin pain down the line. For companies I’ve helped with this situation, removing those links and building a strong link building strategy was the right move.

Private Networks and Penguin

Highlights and Next Steps:

Before I end this post, I wanted to list some key points and next steps. If you are having a link audit conducted now, or if you are thinking about having one completed, keep the following points in mind:

  • Link audits can typically be completed in a relatively short period of time. And as demonstrated in this post, they can help you understand your link profile and possibly uncover SEO technical problems.
  • Ensure the person or agency performing the link audit understands that you want to see technical SEO problems that pop up during the audit (instead of bypassing the issues because they fall under “Technical SEO”).
  • Have your developers and designers attend the link audit presentation. Amazing conversations can happen there. Get everybody on the same page with what needs to be changed.
  • Move fast, based on the results, and don’t sit on the findings. Understand the problems and move fast to rectify them. The longer you let them reside on your site, the worse the situation can get.

Summary: The Morphing Link Audit Can Be Powerful

Having an inbound link analysis performed can be extremely powerful for understanding the link profile of your website.  But as I covered in this post, it can also identify serious SEO problems. So, before you build more content, add sections to your site, build more links, etc., you should fix the technical problems that could be inhibiting the success of your SEO efforts. Then, once your platform is strong, you can drive forward with your content strategy and link building efforts.

Now excuse me, I have another “inbound link SEO audit” to conduct. 🙂

Glenn Gabe
Featured SEO Writer for SEJ Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Advertising, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. Glenn has over 18 years of experience and has held leadership positions both in-house and at a global interactive agency. During his career, Glenn has helped clients across a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods (CPG), ecommerce, startups, pharmaceutical, healthcare, military, education, non-profits, online auctions, real-estate, and publishing. You can follow Glenn on Google+ here.
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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/full-service-seo Nick Stamoulis

    You want to keep your site as free from 404 errors as possible. Not only are they wasting any inbound links, they also create a bad user experience and can impede the path of the search engine crawlers.

  • http://seattleseoconsulting.com Brett Patterson

    Great article Glenn, its important to not waste the link juice you already gained and just like Nick said above, this should also give the user a better expierence.


    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Brett, and that’s exactly right. There are so many companies that don’t know the most powerful pages on their websites link-wise. Those pages can absolutely influence other core pages on the site, but often don’t…

      Regarding usability, that’s definitely true for 404’s. But there are still many pages that don’t 404, but that aren’t leveraging their power SEO-wise. The login example I used in the post is a great example. Some have built thousands of links, but simply provide a form. That’s also a waste. 🙂

  • http://seobasicwithmee.wordpress.com/ Deepak Jha

    If you found any 404 error on your page then why not we try to use 302 redirect until we create a new page?
    what do you think…

    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Interesting question. If you have a page that’s 404’ing, but don’t have the content that was originally there, then I would recommend at least getting some basic information up and running (and having the page resolve correctly). You can use a 302 if you think the new content will be ready soon. That said, if the page is already 404’ing, and has been for a while, I would just focus on getting the right content on the page as soon as possible. Theoretically, you should have that content archived somewhere… There was a page at one point that attracted those links. I hope that helps.

  • Jeff

    Thanks Glenn, I was able to reclaim some lost SEO value for my site!

    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Outstanding! Glad my post was helpful. How many links did you gain? 🙂

  • http://www.glasseshunter.com Emily

    Glenn,thank you for so great article,any suggest about how should I earn links?

  • Marquie

    What tools did you use for your audit?

    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Hi Marquie. I use a number of tools when performing link audits. The three listed in the screenshots were Open Site Explorer, Majestic, and ahrefs. I find using several together during an inbound link analysis provides the most comprehensive view. I hope that helps.

  • Ted

    Hey Glenn, Great article! Do you do Penguin/ Panda Audits for others? I could really use some help with one of my sites that took a big hit in April and every update since. Would be nice to have a clear plan of attack. Thanks 🙂

    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Ted. Yes, I do a lot of work with Panda and Penguin. Can you contact me via my site (gsqi.com)? I’d to learn more about your situation. Thanks again.

  • http://www.myrateplan.com Logan

    Hi Glenn,

    Which software did you use to perform the link audit (the software in the screenshots)?


    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Hi Logan. The three tools listed in my post are Open Site Explorer, Majestic, and ahrefs. I find using a number of tools helps me gain a comprehensive view of the links leading to a domain. I hope that helps.

  • http://www.designk.de Phil

    i would be also interested on the tools, software you use for the audit!


    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Hi Phil. See above. 🙂

  • http://essentialmarketer.com Steve Feeney

    Hi Glenn

    Great article and all of it spot on. We so often use a tool like Majestic to find a websites top 100 pages i.e. the pages with Inbound links to them.

    We will then input this list into Screaming Frog and run it in list mode to check the status of the sites top 100 pages.

    We usually find that many of these pages return 404 error codes…. but the other benefit is that you can use Screaming Frog to see what the general health of the sites on-page SEO is like at the same time. i.e. Page Title’s,, H1’s, meta description etc. etc.

    More importantly perhaps, it is possible to get some quick wins for the client when you follow the instructions in your post… which hopefully impresses them and helps win them as a long term client 🙂


    • http://www.hmtweb.com/marketing-blog/ Glenn Gabe

      Thanks for your comment Steve, and I’m glad you found my post valuable. And you’re absolutely right about supplementing your inbound link analysis with a tool like Xenu or Screaming Frog.

      Actually, I just wrote a post about finding false negative redirects using Screaming Frog (on my own blog). You might be interested in reading that post. I find too many webmasters only check the initial redirect, and not the destination. It could be a silent killer of SEO. 🙂

  • http://FrenchEntrée Matt

    The software used is OpenSiteExplorer. You can perform three searches a day for free, or comes with unlimited use if you’re an SEOmoz user (like moi). You only really need to do one search though, with filters at “only external”, “all links in root domain”. Job done 🙂

  • http://www.trophycentral,.com Neil

    Glenn, great article – thanks. I took a look at opensiteexplorer for our site and already started learning some interesting things. Fr example, our home page rank relative to competition was very good, but our domain rank was not. I am not sure how I drive improvement for the domain itself, but at least I know what I need to research! … Thanks.

  • http://www.twitter.com/claytonjohnson Clayton Johnson

    This is a phenomenal post. It puts a massive smile on my face when I uncover “easy wins” like you mentioned when looking through a back link profile. It seems like almost every site is missing something (and sometimes much more than just “something!”)

    Biggest easy wins are duplicate / canonicalization issues – https/http issues, non www / www seem to be the most common / easily overlooked.

  • Clint

    Ok, so a couple of questions about links to files….

    We have links to .jpg files and .pfd files.

    A) Are you saying that these .pdf files can pass link equity to other pages, and so you need to make sure there are hyperlinks in the pdf file pointing to your other pages? What about .jpg (image) files?

    B) Can copied pdfs hit you with a Panda penalty, if they’re all from other manufacturers? I mean, it seems like if pdf files can help you with links, then they should be able to harm you with duplicate content.

  • http://www.suchmaschinen-experte.de/ Hans


    thanks for the overview.
    If a site is penalized manual by google with the alert of unnatural link building message , for which type of inbound links you are looking? At first place, inbound links taht could be identify by Google from websites, which have sell links?
    Do you know a good guide how to recover from a manual penalization?
    In my research this type of problem is not the same as get hit by Penguin, right?


  • http://webenso.com Kathy Alice

    Awesome article. One comment however, is that in a link audit due to a Google manual penalty, we have deliberately left pages as 404s because the pages had links from mostly low quality non relevant sites with exact match anchor text. In this case these were backlinks we didn’t want to reclaim. Otherwise this article has inspired me to do a link audits in non Penguin/manual penalty situations!

  • http://www.link-fabrik.com Marc Buchmann

    A very helpful article for every linkbuilding! There are existing so often undiscovered backlinks which can be easily unleashed just with a little task instead of hardly generating new backlinks. Thank you!

  • http://www.web-flash-template.com Michael

    Hi Glenn!
    Thank you very much for your article!
    I would like to tell you a little concerning private networks.
    So our website used such a network and was penalized by Google on April. When we removed “bad” links from our auxiliary websites, according to Google’s requirements, traffic to our website is reduced by half.
    Today we are trying to increase it but still don’t have an impressive result.

    Best regards!