Even if you are brand new to SEO optimizing your website/blog, I am sure you have already read a lot of materials on internal linking. Most major digital marketing websites/blogs have published numerous articles about this topic and many SEO specialists have expressed their opinion about it in vlogs, conferences, articles etc.
However, as I was holding a presentation the other day in front of a young and enthusiastic audience, I realized that there are still many preconceptions around link building and many details about internal linking strategies are not yet fully understood. This is why I decided to clarify all these things in a comprehensive article.
Internal links versus external links
I am sure everyone knows an external (outbound) link points to an external domain or website, while an internal (inbound) link points to another page within the same website.
A lot of SEO experts believe that external links pass a lot more authority and ranking ability than internal links. It’s actually believed that getting quality external links – which are seen as a vote of trust from third-party sites – is the most important objective for getting high rankings.
This is why most SEOs focus on getting a high number of external links pointing to their websites and give less importance to internal linking, which actually has a lot of potential for increasing rankings and making a site user-friendly.
Actually, both external and internal linking serve different purposes for content strategy and SEO, therefore none of them should be ignored.
The Importance of internal linking
Internal links are considered a very important on-page signal over which you have total control. You can choose the appropriate anchor text and the right landing pages. The internal links you create will tell search engines what content you see as relevant to that anchor text, and it will help visitors navigate your website.
Ignoring the use of internal links can prevent a page’s ability to get crawled and ranked by Google. For example, an orphan page that isn’t linked much or at all from the rest of the website will probably not be ranked well.
Apart from the SEO value of internal links, interlinking is also valuable to your user experience. An efficient interlinking structure improves user navigation by providing further ways to interact with your site.
Website architecture and internal page rank
In an interesting article published in 2016, columnist Paul Shapiro shared his method for determining what he calls “internal PageRank.” The author stresses the fact that a website’s architecture plays a major role in the way both users and search engines can navigate your website, which ultimately impacts your website’s rankings.
We are dealing with two types of internal links: the links from the website’s navigational structure and the secondary internal links that appear in context throughout your website. The first thing to do when building a website is to make sure you organize the navigational links in a logical, easy to understand structure. The total number of links that occur between a web page and the home page should be reduced. As it is the most important page of the website, your home page’s authority should be leveraged to spread link juice evenly throughout the website, enhancing the ranking of each web page.
From the UX point of view, to make the information, products and services on your website as easy as possible for users and search engines, your information architecture’s internal linking structure should link both vertically and horizontally:
A vertical link would be a link within your navigation bar and a horizontal link would be a link on a deep page that links to another page on the same level. Breadcrumbs can be used to implement a horizontal linking structure across your website. Here’s an example of an ideal website structure (also called Bruce Clay’s silo architecture):
Secondary internal links and Internal Page Rank
The internal links that appear in context also impact how the search engines crawl and rank your pages.
We’ve all heard about the Page Rank (named after Google co-founder Larry Page), which defines the “importance” given to each page on the web and the rank which determines how useful that is, based on the quantity and quality of the links received from other pages.
But, according to Paul Shapiro, this idea can also be applied to the pages within a single website and the PageRank-like metric can be used to detect the issues in a website’s architecture.
To calculate the Internal PageRank of a website, we need to crawl our website and analyse the list of all the internal links obtained with a tool like Screaming Frog, for example. You also need R, a free software for statistical computing and graphics that runs on many platforms.
Once the library is installed, you can use the following code in conjunction with the Screaming Frog crawl for your site:
For example, this is what I got after examining the Internal PageRank of a clients’ website:
Looking at this list, we can see that our top page is the contact page, which is not OK. Normally, the home page should have been at the top, and this happens due to the way the way internal linking has been structured. Now that I realized we have a problem, I can work on it and find an effective solution to improve our website.
Investigate competitors’ internal linking
If you want to be able to compete with the other websites in your niche, it would also be a good idea to study your competitors’ internal linking structure and take notes regarding:
- The presence of the Keywords in their URLs, title tags, H1s and anchor texts
- The presence of the links in the first 100 words of the page
- The date the articles/posts were published and if they have been updated
- The length of their articles.
If you are preparing to build a new website, you can use this information to understand the strength of your competitor’s content and determine if you can outrank them and how much time this could take. Studying your competition in terms of internal linking structure can also be useful for generating new content ideas.
If you already have a website with plenty of content around the strategic keywords you are targeting, decide upon your cornerstone content and make sure you use your main keyword in it.
As Rand Fishkin explained in one of his Whiteboard Friday articles, anchor texts of internal links generally have less influence than those of external links. It is not recommendable to use the most important keyword in the anchor text, because it won’t look credible and useful to the users, who may stop to click around the site or bounce more. Of course, not abusing the use of exact match anchor texts doesn’t mean you should stop using internal links at all.
But, since the Google Penguin update in 2012, the rules of anchor text optimisation have changed a lot. Anchor text over-optimisation methods became outdated and should be avoided at all costs. According to Google’s general guidelines, linking should be kept natural and versatile. Google does not like spammy, overly-rich anchor texts, but appreciates simple, natural anchors, relevant to the content (creating keyword variations for your anchor text structure seems like a good idea).
A good internal linking structure provides UX value
Inserting internal links in content for indexation may not seem smart, but links may also help your site’s UX. A link placed in a piece of content communicates to readers the place where they can gather more information, the pages with similar content, the way they can make a purchase or get in contact with you, which functions as a guide towards your marketing goal accomplishment.
Ideally, you should place links in blog posts towards other relevant posts. These relevant links will enhance your UX and result in increased traffic and leads. It is also very important that the web pages should not contain any broken links. If they do, redirect the links to other relevant pages. Web pages should also load fast to ensure a positive user experience and to prevent off bounces.
When we say link building, we often think about backlinks, which remain high on our priority list of SEO efforts. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the UX and overall SEO value of creating a proper internal link structure.
While backlinks from diverse and authoritative domains play a big role in your website’s rank, their effects can be amplified by a clear, logical internal linking structure that spreads the link juice evenly throughout your site.
To simplify things, I have also summarized the most important details about internal linking structure in the infographic below: