Nearly every article on internal linking starts with a discussion of how complicated yet how important the subject matter is. On the one hand, internal linking is such a simple concept, and everyone should be doing it. On the other hand, the theory, process, and best practices of internal linking get extraordinarily complex. It’s both advanced and simple. But regardless of how complex or basic you think it is, no one argues about this: It is important.
Strategic internal linking is an SEO power technique, especially for content marketing. In this article, I’ve chosen to focus on internal linking for content marketing, because it’s one of the most straightforward and simplest ways to experience SEO uptick. Plus, internal linking among blog articles and other content is something that you can do on an ongoing basis.
In this article, I want deliver a level of SEO knowledge that will benefit the experienced SEO, but that will also provide actionable data to help SEO newbies.
A Primer on Internal Linking
Whatever your SEO skill, it will help to brush up on some internal linking basics.
The Definition of Internal Linking
An internal link connects one page of a website to a different page on the same website. In an internal link, the source domain and target domain are the same.
The Purpose of Internal Linking
Internal linking has three main purposes:
- Aids in website navigation
- Defines the architecture and hierarchy of a website
- Distributes page authority and ranking power throughout the site
We’ll be spending our time discussing that third point — how internal linking can spread authority and rank throughout multiple pages of a website.
The Theory Behind Internal Linking
Most of the “solid information” and “powerful strategies” on internal linking are little more than sophisticated-sounding prognostication. Still, there’s some merit to theorizing about how Google ranks and values the internal network of linking.
The basic theory is this: Internal linking strengthens the overall search-optimized value of a website. Inner linking does so by providing clear paths for spiders, prolonged sessions for users, and a tight-knit network of pages and posts.
So, how do you do it? Here are the seven commandments.
The Seven Commandments of Internal Linking for Top-Notch SEO
1. Create lots of content.
In order to create lots of internal links, you have to have lots of internal pages. The first step to a killer internal linking strategy is to have a killer content marketing strategy. You can’t have one without the other.
When you create lots of content, you’ll have lots of linkable content. The more links to the more places, the better your internal linking strategy will be.
Some internal linking strategies propose extremely complex layers of pages, silos of content, and a mathematically-balanced formula for number of links to levels of pages. I say it doesn’t really matter. Internal linking doesn’t require organizational spreadsheets and trigonometric derivative charts.
An internal linking strategy with lots of content looks less like an org chart, and more like this:
There are no “cycles.” There are no “silos.” There are no “tiers.” There are no structured flow diagrams. There’s just plenty of happy links going to helpful places.
2. Use anchor text.
In keeping with the content theme of internal linking, your internal links should use anchor text as opposed to linked images. Image links are fine, provided that images are not the main source of links, and assuming the image is properly alt-tagged.
While we’re on the subject of alt tags, Sean Work says:
Write your alt tags like if you had to describe them to someone who is blind…
— Sean Work (@seanvwork) May 1, 2014
The proper use of anchor text, of course, opens a new can of worms. Obviously, you don’t want optimized anchors. Just use natural, unoptimized sentence fragments as anchor text, and you’ll do just fine. No cute tricks. No overthinking it. Just highlight, link it, and be done.
Check out this discussion of linkbuilding for a complete discussion on strategic anchors.
3. Link deep.
The deeper your links go, the better.
There are two types of links you should avoid using in your content:
- Homepage. Most sites have too many links to the homepage as it is. You would rather strengthen internal pages to boost the overall SEO of your site, rather than simply point more links at the homepage.
- Contact us. This is a common mistake of many who are starting out in content marketing. As part of their obligatory call to action at the end of a post, they may write something like, “Give us a call to find out more about our awesome services!” Then, they link to the “contact us” page using the anchor “give us a call.” Don’t link to the contact us page unless absolutely necessary.
In general, you want to avoid links to the top level pages on a site — pages to which the main navigation menu already has links.
The best links — and the most natural links in a content marketing strategy — are deep within the structure of a site.
4. Use links that are natural for the reader.
Internal linking requires a user-focused approach to adding value and information. The link value that gets distributed throughout the site is secondary to this key point — providing value to the reader.
One of the corollary benefits of internal linking is that it improves user engagement on your site. When a user sees an informative link that truly matches the context of the content, they are likely to click on that link. It can be an external link, as long as it’s something that the reader will be interested in. If that link is an internal one, the site visitor stays longer and becomes more involved in your website experience.
Dave Davies, in his Search Engine Watch article, made a good point when he wrote the following:
When you link in your content you’re telling the engine that the target of your link is so relevant and important that you want your visitor to simply be able to click a link and go straight there. Basically, that what you’re linking to is potentially so relevant that the visitor may want to stop what they’re reading and go to the next page.
Content links are a strong signal to both the search engine and the user that the content you’re linking to is really good. Readers want that. Thus, internal linking is helping the reader. But you’re also helping your SEO.
5. Use relevant links.
Internal linking, as I’ve made clear, is less rigorous and scientific than some might think. But you still have to be intentional. Don’t merely link for the sake of linking. Instead, link to content that is relevant to the source context.
In other words, let’s say I have a page on my site about dog food. And, I have a page on my site about the nesting habits of parakeets. (I have neither.)
Should I link the two pages?
There is not a strong connection between dog food and parakeet nests, especially on a superficial level. These two pages probably won’t provide mutual enhancement from internal crosslinking.
But, if I have a page on parakeet food, then it might make a great internal link for my parakeet nest article. Chances are, information about “parakeets” is going to be on both of the pages. Because of this content overlap, the link is relevant.
As much as possible, link to relevant content in your internal linking.
6. Use follow links.
Follow links are the best way to build out the internal link architecture of your content marketing.
One theoretical internal linking strategy of the past was to nofollow most of the links on a page, in order to increase the link juice to a single page. This type of pagerank sculpting doesn’t work as an SEO strategy.
Back in 2005, the search engines came up with the nofollow, known by the attribute rel=nofollow. The idea behind nofollow was that the link “should not influence the link target’s ranking in the search engine’s index.” As Wikipedia stated, such links would “reduce the effectiveness of certain types of internet advertising because their search algorithm depends heavily on the number of links to a website.”
Despite the uproar and confusion in the wake of the nofollow link, most people now agree that it’s a good idea. As Danny Sullivan explained, nofollow links can help sites “avoid problems with search engines believing they are selling influence or are somehow involved in schemes deemed as unacceptable SEO practices.”
In spite of its value, however, using nofollow links is not a strategy you should be using as part of your internal content links. The link value needs to flow freely to and from internal pages, rather than get stopped up by a nofollow. Keep things free and fluid.
7. Use a reasonable number of internal links.
You don’t need tons of links in your internal content. Google’s instructions are simple: “Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.”
Question: What the heck is a reasonable number?
Answer: Nobody knows.
Smart people have tried to answer the question, but not even Matt Cutts has provided a definitive statement. He wrote, “It seemed about right to recommend 100 links or so,” and “in some cases, it might make sense to have more than a hundred links.”
So, should you go for 100 links? Maybe, but that 100-total links includes all the links on a page — footers, headers, nav bars, ads, everything. 100 links isn’t as hard as it sounds, once you calculate the total number of HREFs on an entire page.
When it comes to internal linking, I suggest around three to four, depending on the length of your post. I usually write articles that exceed 1,500 words, and I don’t have a link-heavy navigation bar. So, I wouldn’t feel bad about throwing in ten or twenty internal links if I needed to.
There’s no magic number. There is however, the all-important user. Add as many links as would be helpful for the user.
Do not create massive blocks of site-wide footer links!
This was a really common practice on travel and real estate websites a couple of years ago. These websites would include their most prized keyword rich internal links near the footer. It wasn’t uncommon to see upwards of 50 of these types of links near the footer. The problem is when you have a website with thousands of webpages; this quickly multiplies into tens of thousands of “spamtastic” links that the search engines will quickly penalize your site for. In 2013, many of these sites were hit with an algorithmic penalty for such practices.
Internal linking when undertaken with these seven commandments in mind, is a cinch. It’s not overwhelming, complicated, or difficult. The great thing is, you’ll experience a stronger link profile and better SEO by consistent internal linking. It’s even worth it to go back and audit your old content to make sure it has sufficient internal linking.