At its heart, a catalyst saves energy. That’s what internal linking does for your content promotion and distribution.
The only problem? Most content creators and editors treat promotion as a separate function that doesn’t fall under their responsibilities. Yet, they are the front line of promotion. When they put careful thought into internal linking processes, content can rank more quickly than it would without those links.
Not convinced? Straight Up Search implemented an internal linking structure for a client. Its average ranking positions catapulted from 17 to 7.23 – reaching the coveted first ranking page where the click-through rate is at its highest.
A new linking structure prompted a site’s average ranking position to catapult from 17 to 7.23 – the prized first page, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
Common linking terms
Before I detail how to come to grips with internal linking, here’s a refresher on some of the common terms:
- Internal link: A link that connects two pages on your website. In HTML form, it looks like [ <a href=”mywebsite.com/blog”>Read our blog</a> ]. Internal links act as a map of your site, helping visitors and search engine spiders navigate multiple relevant pages.
- External link: This link directs someone away from your website and onto another. For example, if you publish a guide to Slack on our domain, you include an external link to Slack’s features page.
- Backlink: A type of link pointing to your website from another domain. There are various ways to build backlinks, from submitting guest posts or being featured on podcasts.
- Click depth: The number of clicks it takes to reach a page on your website from the home page. The lower your click depth, the better. It signals to search engines that the page is important and should be ranked accordingly.
- SEO juice/link equity: A search engine ranking factor distributed through internal links. Pages pass “link juice” from one high-value page to another. The CheiRank algorithm plays a role here. It’s how Google determines the importance of a page based on the quality and quantity of its outgoing links.
- Anchor text: The visible words that link to the internal page.
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Types of internal links
PageRank is an algorithm created by Google. It helps the search engine determine the numerical value of an individual page, which is influenced by the quality and quantity of links pointing to it.
The higher your PageRank, the more chance it has at performing well in organic search. How do you improve it? Start by understanding how it flows within a domain using two types of internal links:
- Internal outgoing link: A link from the viewed page to another page on the same domain.
- Internal incoming link: A link from another page on the same domain to the viewed page.
By connecting relevant pages with internal links (outgoing and incoming), each PageRank improves.
Content links vs. module links
Content links, also known as contextual links, appear in the body of a page. Treated on a page-by-page basis, they’re highly contextual and not easily scalable.
Module links, on the other hand, appear across the site in templatized sections like headers, footers, and inline CTA modules. Since these usually repeat across an entire domain, they’re scalable.#Content links are placed contextually in the page’s body copy. Module links appear across the site in templatized sections like footers, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
It’s why some sites, including Ahrefs, insert internal links to its most popular tools and blog posts in the footer of their site:
How do you determine which pages should feature in a module? Look for those that make the most commercial sense depending on your content and SEO strategy. As a general guideline, these might be:
- High purchase-intent or high-traffic blog posts
- Resource pages that build credibility such as glossaries, e-books, and webinars
- Pages that differentiate your product/service from a competitor
- Tools or feature landing pages with a high conversion rate for sales-qualified leads (SQLs) or paying customers
Podia creates module internal links in its footer to show search engines that its competitor comparison pages are important:
Outgoing links to authoritative pages
“Relevance” and “restraint” get thrown around a lot when it comes to internal links.
Google’s Webmaster guidelines suggest you don’t link to more than a few thousand pages at a time. For content-driven websites, don’t go on an internal linking rampage unless it’s a hub page.
Generally, it’s always best to link only to quality pages that add context to the content being viewed. Simply linking to a page because its high domain authority does little to improve your page’s value.Linking to a page simply because it has a high domain authority does little to improve your page’s value, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
The topic cluster model (how’s that for an internal link example?) works by internally linking pages on your site that cover similar topics.
The hub acts as the main pillar page for that content topic, covering everything a user would want to know. Off that hub come clusters, such as articles covering smaller aspects of that topic in greater detail. Here’s how HubSpot illustrates this:
The topic cluster model is a classic SEO strategy because it provides opportunities to link from important, high-ranking pages to newer content. Not only does this help users find your recently published content, but it can also speed up the indexing process.
Search engines crawl existing pages frequently. Highlighting new internal links likely would escalate the new page’s rankings faster than a new URL would. Remember to keep click depth top of mind when internally linking to and from hub pages. Ideally, your most important pages should not be more than a few clicks away from your homepage.Remember to keep click depth top of mind when internally linking to and from hub pages, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
To avoid bloating your homepage, focus your energies on a clean site structure and user experience when you link from hub pages. Here’s an example of what that looks like on the site of Nextiva, my employer:
When it makes sense, you also can choose to add the new link to the most relevant, top internally linked pages according to your Google Search Console dashboard.
Finally, HTML site maps are the best way to organize your hubs and spokes to guide visitors. For both search engines and users, a well-thought HTML/XML site map goes a long way with discoverability and navigation.
Content updates and internal linking
Internal linking can use some adjustment over time. Keep an eye on content with declining performance – organic traffic, search rankings, or a combination of both.
Building new internal links between existing and newly published content can play a role in bringing that performance back up to where it was (or better). When refreshing old content, find internal linking opportunities:
- Do a site search to find content you recently published on that topic (i.e., site:contentmarketinginstitute.com “SEO strategy”).
- Browse content categories to find cluster pages
You could even use plugins like Link Whisper to find and speed up internal linking as you’re editing content as it provides inbound link suggestions:
If the identified content is relevant, link to and from each page. It proves to Google that the content is still fresh (a known ranking factor) while guiding visitors toward content they’ll find interesting, keeping them on the page longer (another known ranking factor).
UX vs. internal links
While no best practice exists for the number of internal links on each page, you shouldn’t worry about going overboard.
Think like a reader or viewer as you sprinkle in links. Does it affect readability? Does it read naturally? Will the destination link add context? Is the amount of links distracting?
While internal links do help with SEO, the goal is to improve user experience. Search engines prioritize pages with excellent UX. If linking to the same page multiple times feels forced or unnatural, scrap it.
Wikipedia may get away with 14 internal links within about 150 words because it is an encyclopedia. That quantity in that same space is probably not the best experience for most sites:
As far as where to place the internal links, put them near the top to improve dwell time and decrease bounce rates. As Eric Carrel, founder of dofollow.io, explains: “By giving a visitor something to click on immediately, you maximize the time they spend on your site, which tells Google that your site is high quality and deserves to be ranked higher up in the SERPs.”
UX vs. broken links
Linking to broken or low-quality, slow pages is the virtual equivalent of a dead-end, stopping users (and crawlers) in their tracks. That’s bound to have a negative impact. “Error: this page was not found” is frustrating to see.
For that reason, always scope out your destination links before you add them to pages. Open the page in a new tab:
- Does it return a perfectly designed page?
- Does the layout make the content hard to read?
- Has the page disappeared?
Tools like Ahrefs can audit your internal and external links. Head to the Broken Links report and repair those that direct people or crawlers towards a missing URL:
Clear, non-repetitive anchors
Repeating your anchor text is not a breach of SEO rules, but it’s best to keep the text being viewed descriptive while matching your target keyword.
In its SEO Starter Guide, Google explains anchor text should provide at least a basic idea of what the page linked to is about:
You may usually think about linking in terms of pointing to outside websites but paying more attention to the anchor text used for internal links can help users and Google navigate your site better.
The beauty of internal links is that you control the anchor text. And yet, people still rely on hyperlinking phrases such as “click here,” “page,” and “article.” These words don’t tell the viewer or search engine what the linked page is about.
Use descriptive, contextual, crisp anchor text that vary between the following formats:
- Branded: Your brand name (e.g., Content Marketing Institute)
- Exact match: The keyword from the page we’re linking to (e.g., content marketing workflows)
- Partial match: A variation of the keyword the page we’re linking to (e.g., brainstorming techniques for marketers).
Varying the anchor text on a page makes it appear less spammy and increases the chances of the page ranking for secondary/related keywords included as anchor text.
Regardless of which format you’re using, linking from long phrases or sentences is a no-go. The sweet spot is anywhere between two and five words. Anything longer and you compromise user experience.
Internal nofollow links
Google recently announced new link categories that site owners can use to improve the search engine’s understanding of a page’s relationship to another. This includes:
- rel=”ugc” – pointing to content a user has created on your site
- rel=”sponsored” – pointing to sponsored content or paid links
- rel=”nofollow” – pointing to pages or sites you don’t want to be associated with
Nofollows indicate you don’t vouch for the page you’re linking to. It tells search engine crawlers not to associate your pages and pass PageRank between the two. Google doesn’t consider nofollow internal links as strong signals when ranking, crawling, or indexing.
In my opinion, internal nofollows make your content look bad. Why link to a subpar internal page when you can update or remove that destination page entirely?Internal nofollows make your #content look bad, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
Topic silos and related links
Topic silos link multiple pages in the same universe of topics with each other. This is the most practical way to make sure you pass PageRank from important pages without overburdening hub pages. When done right, topic silos are the keys to be seen as a subject-matter authority by Google.Topic silos are the keys to be seen as a subject-matter authority by @Google, says @alinacbenny via @CMIContent. #SEO Click To Tweet
Adding related content to your pages is another easy way to contextually add internal links. In this example, we internally linked to our advice for a call center strategy in a guide about proactive customer service guide:
What happens if you’re managing a large enterprise blog with several silos and thousands of URLs to choose from?
Stuart Bowlin of Empact Partners has a smart workaround: “A simple list of links in a Google Sheet isn’t super usable, so we use Google Data Studio.
“In this report, we simply connect the Google Sheet, and set up this pivot-table-like interface. All of the columns are interactive, so you can filter the data by cluster to, cluster from, slug to, or slug from, and quickly identify the places where internal links need to be filled.”
He continues, “For example, in this workflow, we’re looking at all the clusters that our ‘customer engagement’ article links to. We can do the same in reverse and look at all clusters and pages that link to a particular cluster.”
“We also show average cluster URLs on the Google Data Studio page, so we can see which clusters might need a little more PageRank love, and we can see which pages have high URL rating (UR), but low internal outbound links, which might be able to donate some authority.”
Stuart says they also can see the pages with high top keyword volume with low site ratings that could benefit from more internal links. “Using these tools and workflows, we’ve begun to balance our clusters and rank much quicker when we post a new blog,” he says.
Better internal linking, better rankings
All this advice on helpful internal linking practices comes down to this: Link naturally.
Help users and search engines navigate your website with internal links. Vary the anchor text, repair broken internal links, and ditch the nofollow attributes. But above all, make sure every internal link contributes to a positive experience for anyone visiting your site.
All tools are identified by the author. Have a tool to suggest? Please add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute