Sure, backlinks are important, but columnist Kristopher Jones makes the case that internal linking is also a critical component of improving your website's search engine optimization and user experience.
At my startup, LSEO, we recently ran an internal link audit to help inform and refine our growth marketing strategy. With multiple freelancers and staff writers constantly contributing content, our site has more than tripled in size in the past two years.
Unfortunately, running a massive content marketing initiative with no central internal linking strategy in place had limited the spread of link authority throughout our website.
I highly recommend auditing your own internal linking structure to make sure you aren’t inhibiting a blog post from being crawled or receiving “link juice.” This is not only bad from an SEO perspective, but also from a business standpoint. Content that is not properly interlinked may not live up to its full organic ranking potential — or be found easily by users.
Let’s review some of the best practices of internal linking and show you why interlinking should still be a central concern of your SEO development.
The function and benefits of internal links
A sophisticated internal linking structure provides SEO and user experience (UX) value for your website. Here are some highlights of internal link functionality:
- Opens pathways to web pages previously less accessible to search engine spiders.
- Helps organize web pages categorically based on the keyword used in the link’s URL and anchor text.
- Improves user navigation by providing further ways to interact with your site.
- Uses anchor text keywords to aid user intent.
- Passes “link juice” between web pages (a purported ranking factor).
- Organizes site architecture and communicates to search engines your most important web pages.
- Helps promotional campaigns by visibly highlighting or featuring links on a home page or next to content.
Of course, there are instances of links that search engines can’t parse. It’s important to mention them so you don’t mistakenly use them:
- Links in web pages that are disallowed in your robots.txt file.
- Links in search bars or submission fields.
- Links in embedded plugins, such as Java or Flash.
- Links on web pages with more than 150 links.
User experience (UX)
Setting aside all of the SEO value of internal links, interlinking is valuable to your UX. A savvy interlinking structure should feature a functional drop-down menu and navigation bar with links to relevant topical content to satisfy user intent.
Providing clear labels for each link encourages further website interaction, which also has lots of SEO value. Not only does this increase user dwell time and session length, but the longer a user stays on your website, the more likely he/she is to complete a desired conversion.
Imagine landing on an awesome web page from a referral traffic source and a day later trying to find it. Unfortunately, without optimized anchor text in the URL or deep links to index the page properly, it may be impossible to find it through direct traffic methods, which is frustrating.
Unlike backlinks, internal links have no direct impact on Google’s algorithm. But they do increase the flow of backlink authority that circulates from one page to another.
New blog articles are born with virtually no authority or recognition. With a deep link from the home page or a cornerstone page, you instantly transfer previously earned authority to that web page. That piece will be indexed faster and rank higher as a result.
Interlinking structure best practices
Your internal linking structure should follow a pyramid formation. Your home page rests at the top. Directly beneath lie cornerstone pages or category pages that deep-link to relevant blog or product pages. All pages directly within one link of the home page will be perceived as the most important to search engines.
The goal is to reduce the total number of links that occur between a web page and the home page. Your home page is your most authoritative, in part because it is the page that will receive the most backlinks. Leverage your home page’s authority to spread link juice evenly throughout your site, and position each web page to rank highly.
This leads us to the importance of navigation bars and menu functionality. As your website grows with blog posts, content and resource pages, these sophisticated navigation features will ensure that all web pages are still within two to three links of the home page.
Let’s explore the anatomy of link placements and which ones serve our UX and SEO campaign more.
Content is not simply a clever place to insert internal links for indexation, but they also aid our site’s UX. Placing a link in a piece of content serves as a source material and communicates to readers that you can stop reading to gather more information “here.”
Bolding content links makes them visually stand out from the rest of the content and beckons users to click on them. Ideally, you’ll want to place links in blog posts to other relevant blog posts. Relevancy is key because irrelevant links will disrupt your UX and result in bounces.
You should ensure that your web page contains no broken links. If so, redirect those links to relevant web pages. It’s also important that your web pages load fast to ensure a positive user experience and to stave off bounces. Additionally, make sure that any linked web page is not more than one click away from a conversion page and always contains a call to action in reach.
Some experts speculate that content links are more valuable than other navigational links, which brings up an interesting topic with interlinking: Do links in different page spots affect my SEO, and what are the best practices?
Hyperlink page positions
According to John Mueller of Google, “position on a page for internal links is pretty much irrelevant from our point of view.”
This doesn’t mean the position of important internal links is irrelevant from a UX standpoint. Ideally, you’ll place your most important internal links on your home page, in the navigation bar, or on a drop-down menu.
Within lower authority pages, it’s unnecessary to link back to your home page or contact page within content. It does not pass “link juice,” nor does it promote a positive UX. It is best to link only to other relevant posts here.
Footer links and sidebar links should link to relevant content or product pages. While a link to a cornerstone page in your footer will not be less valuable than placing it in a navigation bar, it’s generally a bad practice from a UX standpoint to have an expansive footer bar.
Placing links at the end of articles or on a sidebar to relevant web pages will encourage users to keep interacting with your website. This provides positive user signals to Google, which may indirectly affect website and page rank.
A great way to help index your content is to place link tags or keyword tags on content that will communicate to search engines the topic of that landing page.
Breadcrumb links and an XML sitemap also contribute greatly toward user and site crawler navigation.
The essential component of Link-building 101 and Internal Linking 101 is relevancy. Optimize all anchor text to reflect the title or topic of the landing page being linked to. Placing irrelevant anchor text on a link will qualify your website as spam.
Be sure to create keyword variations for your anchor text structure. Constantly using the same anchor text for each link could qualify as spam and, if used for different landing pages, will result in keyword cannibalization.
Leverage your keyword research, and conduct a link audit to identify areas of content where relevant internal links can be placed. Ideally, you’ll want around three internal links for a piece of content, at least — perhaps more, depending on the word count.
I can’t fail to mention the importance of optimizing your call to action (CTA) to maximize your conversion rate. A CTA button should be big and bold and should be optimized for each device. Make sure your CTA is distinguishable from the background.
CTA positioning is important, and I recommend placing a CTA above the fold. QuickSprout often uses a slide-in CTA that gathers massive conversions.
Ultimately, you want your CTA to be present on each web page so that users are always one or two clicks away from creating a conversion.
If you don’t want a search engine to count the link juice flowing through a specific web page, then you can place a rel=”nofollow” attribute on your link tag. These are often used in links found in comments and user-generated content to protect against spam penalties.
Unfortunately, this tag can sometimes cause a ripple effect and limit the authority flowing through other pages directly linked to that page. Google specifically advises against what it refers to as “pagerank sculpting,” and the nofollow attribute generally shouldn’t be attached to internal links.
When we think of link building, we often ignore the UX and SEO value of building out our own internal link structure. While backlinks remain the crown jewels of SEO, their effects can be amplified through a sophisticated internal link structure that spreads the wealth evenly throughout your site.