As you can see from the original March 17, 2007 date on this post, I’ve been an advocate for relevant internal linking for 10 years (this note added December 2016). Today SearchMetrics came out with the 2016 Search Ranking Factors study and the following is an important quote on this topic:
The number of internal links, which can be seen as one of the most important ranking factors, has fallen dramatically. It is therefore not the sheer volume of internal links that is important, but the implementation of a concise and relevant internal link structure. Optimizing how accessible sub-pages within a domain are is the only way of guaranteeing that search engine bots can effec- tively crawl them. At the same time, a logical link structure can contribute strongly to a user-friendly experience across the whole domain.
SEO articles abound on social media linking strategies. SEO blog posts are legion on the topic of link and widget bait. SEO forums buzz endlessly about reciprocal versus one-way linking. There is no doubt that all of those various types of external, inbound links matter. But how often do we discuss internal linking strategies?
I had a long conversation with an apprentice level SEO this week. When she was questioned about her grasp of internal linking strategy, she gave that interesting “Did-I-hear-you-correctly?” type of puzzled stare that says very plainly “Are you pulling my leg, or was that a serious comment?”
This made me reflect on the less strenuously debated SEO strategies that are crucial to ranking well for specific keyword phrases. Since internal linking is so important to SEO, but rarely discussed, I often wonder how many SEO’s truly comprehend the importance of internal interlinking of pages and how critical outbound links are to ranking well in the search engines.
Let’s try to remedy that and raise the level of internal linking strategy discussions to at least a whisper, because the level of discussion on the topic now is barely audible.
How sites link to their own content internally tells the search engines more about what matters most on a site than almost any other cue (save title tags). I’m going to step further out on that limb and attempt to rank the importance of various internal links to SEO. So here’s the top 6 list:
- Navigation TEXT Links
- Breadcrumb Links (category – subcategory)
This type of link can vary by type of site. Ecommerce sites would use one type of structure, while informational sites would use a different hierarchy. These high level link structures define what you think is important and point visitors (and search engine robots) to an overall structure. Your opinion of what matters to your site informs the search engines. If your site is loosely organized by randomly linking internally, you may be randomly ranked.
- Subject & Topic Group Links (related pages)
This is where many lose focus and fail to map internal structure for either search engines or visitors. Newspapers and large informational sites that rank very well will always use “Related Stories” pages. There are at least a couple of good reasons for this. The first is usability and the second is topical relevance of the page.
Many sites lose focus and use “Most Popular” links to pages unrelated to those they are on. This dilutes the relevance and topicality of the page by looking at the site as do tag clouds on broad ranging topical sites with many areas of interest.
- Single Item Focus Page Links
This link probably ranks in importance at the top of the list here, but without those elements above them, single item links lack structure that search engines crave and don’t help as much as they do when that larger structure supports them.
So now is when I point to the site we all love to hate, WikiPedia. I’ll argue that this single factor, added to the supporting heirarchical structure of WikiPedia is what makes it rank so extremely well for nearly every topic you can think of.
WikiPedia links internally to every page, every time a word or phrase with it’s own page is mentioned. Every page, every time, site-wide. If any topic has a page, anywhere on WikiPedia, it links from ANY use of that word or phrase back to that page ABOUT that word or phrase. This is the magic bullet, but is only important within the overall structure.
- Sitemap Links
OK, this is the internal link we all agree on and rarely question. It’s accepted and necessary, again, from both a usability standpoint and relevance. The site index list of links to every page (or to subindexes of pages). Since nobody questions that sitemaps matter, I’ll stop there.
- Outbound Links
Now comes the controversy, the raised blood pressure, the nofollow tags and the standard “company policy” against outbound links. This is where I simply have to point at blogs. Search engines like them in many cases because they reference external sources, they quote multiple viewpoints and link out to them. In some cases bloggers are paid to link out to external sources.
I’ll baldly state my opinion here and leave it to your own experience and “company policy” to decide your own outbound linking strategy. Outbound links increase relevance of the pages they are on when they link to supporting information externally. I’ll put it differently for those with the puzzled look on their faces. Outbound links increase your search engine ranking.
So now I’ll hope that at least my fellow SEO’s will begin discussing this, offer case studies, offer anecdotal evidence, point to random examples, try to prove me wrong – but let’s TALK about internal linking and raise it’s importance. Talk enough that apprentice level SEO’s know that it matters how we link internally and how we link OUT. Do a little SEO self-reflection and reassess your internal linking strategy.
Mike Valentine is an SEO Specialist offering occassional commentary on Search Engine Developments through his Reality SEO Blog and developed WebSite101 Small Business Ecommerce Tutorial in 1999 to help educate the little guy to the intricacies of online business.