The other day, I was reading a blog post that linked to an article on another website. When I clicked the link, I was redirected to a 404 error page. Noooo! I really wanted to read that article. But when I looked at the URL of the page, I noticed that the person who wrote the initial blog post had accidentally used a tracking link.
A tracking link is basically the permalink for a web page, plus a bunch of code that is added by some kind of tracking software, like HubSpot, to help the owner/distributor of that content track how many people see it and which source they are coming from (email, social media, a digital ad, a call to action on their website, etc.). There's nothing particularly sneaky or privacy-invading about tracking links; they're a lot like the people counters at big stadiums. All they do is tell the website which gate you came in.
When I removed the tracking code, I was able to reach the correct page and read the article. Normally, tracking code wouldn't result in a 404 error, but in this particular case, something had changed since the creation of the link. Maybe the website had changed from one type of marketing software to another, or maybe they had gotten rid of the campaign that this particular link had been a part of. Maybe the person who copied the URL to embed the link didn't grab the whole thing.
There are lots of reasons that tracking links might become invalid, but there are very few reasons that a permalink would change. When you embed a tracking URLs in a piece of content on your website, you're risking problems down the road when, after a few months or years, 404 errors disrupt your visitors' experience with your content. If you don't think those older blog posts still get traffic, maybe it's time to dig into your website analytics a little bit!
Here's how to find any tracking links that may currently be causing problems on your website, as well as how to identify and remove tracking code in the future.
Finding Existing 404 Errors Caused By Tracking Links
One resource I use to detect 404 errors on a website is a free resource called Broken Link Checker. It will crawl your entire website and detect any 404 errors that may pop up, including from links to other sites (external links) that you include in your content.
If your results show an error from an external link and the link includes a lot of gibberish (see below), there is a good possibility that some kind of tracking code is involved. In the next section, I'll show you how to strip the tracking code out of links before you use them in your content.
How to Take Tracking Code Out of a URL
Before you copy a link to use in a blog post, take a minute to look at the URL. Does it start off "normal" (www.website.com/page/...) and then include a lot of random letters and numbers? Here's an example of a link from our website that includes tracking code:
As you can see, after the question mark there are lots of random characters that make no sense. A question mark is the most common divider between the original URL and the tracking code, though you may occasionally see other things. To test this, try removing everything beginning with the question mark. In this case, the permalink would look like this:
As you can see, you reach the same page after you remove the tracking code. When you're adding a link to a blog post or other piece of content, first check for tracking code, remove it, and test the new link to make sure it works. Then, go ahead and embed that link wherever you want in your content.
If you get a 404 error after removing the tracking code or the page is not displaying correctly, you know that something you removed was necessary. Sometimes, an element of the text after the question mark is necessary for the page to display the correct information, and cannot be removed. If that's the case, it's also less likely to be changed in the future and end up causing 404 errors down the line.
What about Tracking Links in My Own Content?
Are you producing content of your own that includes tracking links? If so, don't forget to keep an eye on your 404 errors in case anyone linking to your content used a now-expired tracking URL. While you don't have control over other people's websites, you could always reach out to them with the correct link or create a 301 redirect for the old tracking link. Always, always, always test your website for page errors, because these errors have a significant impact on important SEO factors like page ranking and page performance.
At the end of the day, do you necessarily have to strip out every piece of tracking code you see? No. This is all about future-proofing your content as much as possible. The world isn't going to end if you accidentally use a tracking link, especially if you're monitoring broken links on your website. However, this is definitely a stitch-in-time situation; if you take a few easy precautions now, you won't have your blog readers trying, and failing, to visit the resources you're sharing with them later. I can tell you from experience, it's frustrating.
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