Want to know how changing your articles’ headlines breaks their backlinks? Or are you wondering whether it is okay to edit your articles’ titles? You may have read suggestions that it is best not to edit your titles, with no explanations as to why. So I will tell you.

When you write an article on most content aggregator websites, your title or headline determines your article’s URL. So “How to Write a Book” becomes, “www.website.com/how-to-write-a-book.html.”

Suppose you have written and named this article, and you have linked to it from your blog. Then you learn more about article SEO (search engine optimization), and you decide that “How to Write a Good Book” is a title that will draw more traffic to your article. So you change the title of the article.

Guess what? Your blog now links to a non-existent URL, so that anyone clicking that link in the future will get a 404 “Page not found” message, or will be redirected to other articles, and the search engines will no longer give your article credit for that link. Your article’s rank will plummet, and it will now be competing against its “old self,” which has already aged and earned a nice place on page one of Google search results.

Okay, so the only backlink is on your blog, and you can change the link. Great–if that was your only backlink. But what if someone had added your article to Digg or StumbleUpon? Uh-oh. You just lost those links.

Last week a friend of mine experienced this dilemma. She had not changed much about her article’s title, but it only takes one space, dash, or spelling correction in the headline or title to break every backlink your article has ever earned. My friend had more than 80 backlinks to her article, and when she checked her backlinks after editing her article, she was surprised to find that it had none.

At first, it was not easy to see the difference in the article titles. So we checked Google’s cached version of the article, and realized that where there had originally been a single hyphen before the final word in the title, there was now an underscore before the final word and one after, as well. Fortunately, she was able to edit the title to match the original URL, which restored all of her backlinks, but not all sites allow this.

So this is what you should keep in mind before you edit a title or headline: If you only have backlinks that you can control (i.e. your own blog, website, or other articles), you only need to decide whether it’s worth your while to edit those links to refer to the new URL. Is it that important to change your headline? Could you write another, similar article with enough new information that it will not be considered duplicate content or a “clone” of your original article?

If you have any valuable backlinks that you cannot control, such as links from people you do not know well enough to write to and ask them to change the URL on your anchor text, do not change your article title / headline. Write another article elsewhere with your new and improved keywords and be done with it.

And remember, you can edit your content without “breaking” your links. Expect to see results in page views from your newly optimized content changes in two to four weeks.

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