A Primer on Internal Linking and its Importance
The subject of internal linking with SEO best practices can become cumbersome when you don’t have a firm understanding of what a link’s place is or how it can make or break your optimization efforts. Internal linking is somewhat of a double-edged sword in that it’s both incredibly simple and immensely complicated. However, if one thing is for sure, internal linking is critical for SEO success.
When we talk about internal linking, we’re not just talking about hyperlinking two pages from the same website. We’re also talking about the strategic practice that makes up a critical component of your overall SEO blueprint. In other words, we’re referring to the theory, process, and best practices of implementing internal linking throughout your website’s content.
There are three primary purposes of internal linking:
- To create smoother website navigation
- To create a hierarchy of structure within the architecture of your website
- To distribute page authority and ranking power throughout the overall site
Of course, internal linking isn’t just about these three things, nor is it solely for SEO purposes. Internal linking also contributes to the user experience, which is of the utmost importance in today’s evolving digital landscape:
When you implement your internal links appropriately, you’ll also be:
- Giving your website’s overall structure a solid foundation
- You are setting your website up for more straightforward navigation.
- Spreading link equity, aka link juice, throughout your pages (link juice refers to the value, trustworthiness, topic relevance, and authoritativeness of a given page)
- Reducing your bounce rate by keeping visitors on your website longer
- Making it much easier for Google to crawl your website (which builds up your SEO)
- Supporting the relevancy of your high-ranking keywords
- Strategically sending traffic to your older posts and lesser viewed pages.
In a nutshell, internal linking provides clear paths for Google’s spiders to crawl. These paths connect throughout the intricate network of your website pages. The goal is to optimize your website’s overall value, extend the typical visitor session, and contribute further to your SEO efforts.
Throughout this playbook, we’ll be expanding on the above points and benefits. We’ll also cover internal linking best practices, maintenance, and other tips and need-to-know information to help you create the ultimate internal linking strategy.
Internal Links Vs. External Links
If you want to create a strong SEO strategy for your website, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of the different types of links, where they belong on your website, and how they can impact your search engine rankings.
An external link also referred to as an outbound link, is a hyperlink between a page on your website and a page on a different website. External links back up a specific point by offering your visitors your information source.
There tends to be a lot of debate on which linking —internal versus external— is better for your SEO efforts. External links show more value than internal links solely because search engines emphasize what other websites say about you. In other words, the website appears as a more credible source.
This is also known as backlinking, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
When someone else externally links (or backlinks) a piece of their content to one of your pages, Google sees this as an excellent thing to varying degrees. Of course, the source linking to you makes a difference as well, but that’s a separate topic altogether.
External links are more challenging to manipulate, making them one of the best avenues for search engines to determine a web page’s actual relevance and popularity.
Let’s take a look at how internal and external links compare in terms of purpose, action, advantages, and disadvantages:
|Internal Links||External Links|
|Direct visitors from one page of your website to another page of your website||Direct visitors from a page on one website to a page on a different website|
|Allow for easier site navigation for both your visitors and Google’s spiders||Allow Google to understand that your content serves as credible, authoritative and trustworthy|
|Web pages with multiple internal links rank higher on Google and other search engines||When someone else uses one of your pages as an external link (backlinking), it also increases your rankings|
|Pass link equity throughout your website while increasing session time per visitor||Pass link equity throughout other websites while also potentially leading your visitors away|
|*Links are limited to the total number of pages on your website. They’re also limiting as to how many you can place within one page||*Links are virtually unlimited, as you can link to as many other websites as you wish|
|Are an on-page SEO factor (meaning they’re an element of SEO that you control)||Are also an on-page SEO factor|
*While you can technically use as many internal or external links on a single web page as you want, it’s essential to limit the amount you decide to use. In general, Google views too many links on a single page as spam, which will hurt your rankings. If you use too many external links, you’ll lead visitors away from your page, potentially for good, which will affect your bounce rate and rankings.
(We’ll go into more detail regarding internal linking best practices later in the playbook.)
Internal linking isn’t necessarily better than external linking when boosting your SEO rankings. The two types of linking complement one another by offering search engines a map for crawling through and assessing your website while also demonstrating how much value your content brings to the table.
Do Internal Links Count as Backlinks?
Backlinking is a term that gets thrown around a lot when the topic of SEO comes up, and that’s because it makes such a significant impact on the search engine results pages (SERPs). If you’ll recall from the previous chapter, we briefly mentioned backlinking and how it’s tied to external linking.
Of course, it’s also common to wonder whether backlinks also involve internal links. It can be incredibly confusing since backlinks are called inbound links or incoming links, which sounds like internal links.
However, the short answer is no; internal links do not count as backlinks.
Backlinks are defined as links from any website, web page, or web directory to your site. So, if another website links to one of your web pages, it’s considered a backlink.
In the same respect, if you include an external link within your content that would lead visitors to another page as a source of information to demonstrate your point or back up your data, it’s considered a backlink to that page.
When you link one of your pages to another page on your website, search engines only see it as an internal link or an internal pathway through your website.
In Google’s eyes, backlinks are votes for each linked web page. Pages with a higher number of backlinks (garnered from another authoritative website) also have higher organic search engine rankings.
When you compare backlinks and internal links side by side, they show the same purpose, actions, advantages, and disadvantages as the comparison using external links. The primary difference between the two is that backlinks are not an on-page SEO factor since you have to put in the effort to garner them from authoritative websites.
Backlinks as a concept in SEO requires its own ultimate playbook to detail the complexity behind its high impact.
However, backlinks aren’t just important for your rankings. They also help support your internal links. This is accomplished in two ways: the first way is by leading more visitors to one of your linked web pages, and the second is by triggering Google’s algorithm.
When another website backlinks to one of your pages, Google uses its link analysis algorithm to establish the relative importance of that web page. The better the backlinking source, the more relevant and trustworthy your linked page will appear, and as such, the higher it will rank.
Google’s spiders will continue to crawl through your page and use your internal links as their navigational guide. They’ll pick up on the other links throughout your pages and establish a numerical weight per link as they do this. Ultimately, this becomes a determining factor in your website’s overall ranking among search engines.
So, to recap, while backlinks and external links hold more value in the SERPs, internal linking is equally vital to spreading equity among your website. Your linking strategy won’t be complete without appropriately using all three types of links.
The Relationship Between Keywords and Internal Links
By now, you should have a firm understanding of the importance of internal links to your SEO strategy. They create a clear website structure for search engines while also leading visitors to specific web pages. Now, it’s time to talk about the critical relationship between your keywords and internal links.
When internally linking certain pieces of content within a page, there are two variables to consider: Text and context. Essentially, the specific text of your internal link is what helps search engines make sense of the link’s purpose. In other words, the words, phrases, or terms you’re linking to should provide the context as to where a visitor or search engine will go when they click on it.
Linked text — as in the visible, clickable text in an HTML hyperlink — is anchor text.
When you have an SEO keyword or key phrase as your anchor text, Google will not determine which linked page is the most relevant for the topic. Therefore, it will rank for the keyword or key phrase used by default. It may seem confusing; however, it’s a good thing, as anchor text serves as a ranking factor for Google.
When you use a keyword or key phrase as your anchor text, you’re boosting your web page’s relevance for that particular word or phrase. So, when a user types your keyword or phrase into the search engine bar, your specific web page might just pop up higher on the first page of the SERPs.
However, keep in mind that your internal links still serve a more specific purpose, which is to add structure to your website. Internally linking anchor text that’s also a keyword or keyphrase is something you want to do sparingly and only when it’s natural. Otherwise, Google will have a difficult time crawling your website.
Most SEO experts advise against using primary keywords or exact-match keywords within your internally linked anchor text. However, they’re safe and beneficial when used correctly. Aside from using them sparingly and with mostly secondary keywords, it’s critical to ensure that your anchor text informs your visitors of what to expect from the linked content.
Again, it’s all about the context.
For example: Let’s say you’re trying to rank your web page for the keyword “designer sunglasses” or related terms. In this instance, you’ll want to avoid using designer sunglasses as your anchor text — UNLESS you want to lead your visitors to your eCommerce page where you sell designer sunglasses.
However, if you don’t have an eCommerce page where you sell designer sunglasses or a page within your website that’s directly relevant to designer sunglasses, you’ll want to avoid using the keyword as your anchor text.
When it comes to adding structure to your internal links, the key is to pay attention to how clickable your contextual links are and how intuitive your navigational links are to generate the most value for your overall website. After all, the entire point is to lead your visitors to specific pages on your website.
As stated earlier, a contextual link is a link that offers contextual evidence of where it leads. When your internal contextual links are obvious, using natural and clear anchor text, they’ll simultaneously show relevance between your web pages to PageRank — as long as your source page has the proper authority.
For example: Let’s say you’re selling a subscription cleaning service. So, you write a blog post about what to look for in a cleaning service. Throughout the content, you’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to create an internal link, such as talking about what you can expect to pay, specific types of cleaning and how to book the service, etc.
Ideally, you’ll have a call to action at the end, leading visitors to make a purchase decision. Therefore, you’ll want to use relevant context for your links that will help sway them toward that decision. It could be as simple as an anchor text that says, “check out the company’s reviews,” which you could create using an internal link that would bring your visitors to your customer testimonials or review page.
Of course, you’ll want to avoid linking to text that lacks relevance. You wouldn’t like to connect “company reviews” to a page that talks about pricing. Otherwise, Google will penalize you, and your visitors will end up confused and leave your page.
When it comes to internal links and keywords, remember this:
- Context is the most important thing when creating an internal link
- Use keywords and key phrases as anchor text only when there is direct relevance
- Prioritize internal linking for navigational purposes over SEO keyword ranking
The Art of Content Siloing
When it comes to using internal links to create a solid structure for your website, it’s necessary to plan and organize the structure to make sense. Think of your website as a pyramid. The most important content should be at the top and the least important at the bottom.
For example, most websites will have the same page at the top of their pyramid — the homepage. Filling out the rest of the pyramid, just underneath the homepage will be the second-most important pages, such as the about us/me page, services, products, blog, and so on. Then, beneath those would be the third-most important pages, such as individual products, blog posts and services pages, etc.
Of course, when it comes to linking these pages, a particular hierarchy must come into play — which we’ll get into more in the next chapter.
The point is, you’ll need to keep relevance in mind when it comes to your pyramid and internal links, hence the art of content siloing. Content siloing can be defined as grouping your topically related web pages by using internal links.
For example: Let’s say you have a travel website that includes both countries and cities within its pages. Using England as our reference, you may have content that talks about Birmingham, Manchester, and London.
In terms of structure, you would place the pages for England and France closer to the top of your pyramid, each on their own, acting as a hub for your subpages (their designated cities) to link back to and vice-versa. So, if someone were reading a blog post or web page about Manchester, there would be internal links that guide the visitor back to the main web page about England — and on the main page, there would be an internal link that could drive the visitor to the specific city.
Essentially, this creates a group of interlinked pages on closely related topics or a content hub. This content hub of categories and subcategories groups your content together based on relevant keywords and topics, which are used as the stepping stones for search engines as they crawl your website.
Keep in mind that content silos rely on a solid linking structure that can help guide your visitors to related content. They also help search engines better understand your website’s content, which is the purpose of crawling it in the first place. It’s essential to ensure that your internal linking sets up your website for success in the SERPs.
Understanding Hierarchical Linking and the User Experience
When we talk about hierarchical linking, we’re primarily referring to the science behind your internal linking, which gives way to creating your pyramid and content silos. It all starts with the user experience (UX) and a little something called information architecture (IA).
There’s more to it than providing a simple, well-perceived design when it comes to UX. It all comes down to how visitors experience your website, which includes the following:
- Getting to the site
- Browsing through the content
- Satisfying a need, i.e., answering a question, making a purchase decision, etc.
In the world of organic searches, the user experience typically begins with a visitor typing something into a search engine. From there, they move forward with viewing the SERPs for their inquiry, clicking on one of those pages, and then clicking through the internal links to find related content.
This experience is commonly known as the user’s interactions. How a visitor interacts with your site directly reflects how well you’ve structured the hierarchy of your internal links.
IA is the very foundation of a website. It provides the framework, or home, for each piece of content that currently exists on it and will live on it in the future. It’s also the first reference point of how the pages of a website are structured, as in how they’re grouped. In other words, it’s the basis for how you form your linking hierarchy to create a tailor-made user experience.
Put simply, linking hierarchy is the physical connection, or the link, between the pages of the assigned website framework. It serves as the path a visitor will navigate your website. Therefore, your linking hierarchy must support your intended IA structure to ensure all pieces of content are connected appropriately.
If you’ll recall the concept of content siloing from the previous chapter, the organizational part of hierarchical linking should be relatively easy to apply.
Pro Tip: If you’re using WordPress, you can place certain pages or posts in a hierarchical order by selecting a parent page. This is quickly done by entering the block editor, going to the settings sidebar, and scrolling to Page Attributes. There will be a drop-down menu that says Parent Page, under which you can select the page you want to put at the top of your pyramid.
The parent page covers an overarching theme, grouping various child pages that are topically related together. A child page can only have one parent page; however, you can select as many child pages per parent page as you’d like.
For example, when you set your About Page as a parent page, its child pages will likely include the subpages Our Team and Our Mission — which would be recognized as page siblings, or subpages, on the same hierarchical level.
The goal of hierarchical linking is to create a funnel that aligns with the visitor’s journey, also referred to as the buyer’s journey. In other words, you want your visitors to be able to intuitively navigate your website to the point where they get the information they need, put their trust in you and take a specific type of action.
When it comes to the actual linking you’ll need to do to form your content silos within the hierarchy of your pages and website structure, you’ll need to keep the following in mind:
- Keywords. You’ll need to use the right keywords in the proper context to inform your visitors of related content that will be relevant to them.
- Visitor Intent. You’ll need to keep your visitors’ intent in mind to ensure you’re making the correct linking decisions and your overall IA makes sense to what they’re searching for.
- Dead-Ends. You want to avoid dead-ends at all costs by ensuring your visitors’ next steps are made evident. For example, use your internal links to support a call to action or lead them to another informative piece of content that will answer their next question. Essentially, you want to keep the funnel running smoothly.
Just remember, it’s all about the user experience. You want your website to make sense and be easy to navigate to encourage your visitors to stay — and, hopefully, take action.
Strategically Placing Your Internal Links
The next step in your internal linking strategy is to take action. However, it’s not as simple as linking whichever related content throughout your website seems right — there’s a way to do it that appeases both your visitors and search engines.
Here are some of the top actionable insights for strategically placing your internal links for optimization success:
Pay Attention to Your Anchor Text
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — your anchor text should be contextual to inform Google and other search engines of what the link is about.
Google’s algorithm is brilliant when reading and indexing web pages and analyzing keywords and internal links. Therefore, you want to avoid expressions like “click here” and only link words relevant to the topic at hand and the topic the link will lead to.
Link to Deeper Content
This is where many website owners go wrong. They continuously link to their level-one pages, such as the home, about us, contact pages, etc. This should be done sparingly, as visitors already know where your homepage is and how a navigational bar works.
This includes ditching the common practice of having an internal link to your contact page as your call to action (CTA). You don’t need to do it every time — especially in your blog posts.
Instead, start linking to deeper content. That means internally relating to the lesser trafficked content throughout your site. This will boost your link equity and earning potential of internal pages by creating clear paths toward them.
Ultimately, providing deeper links increases your website’s crawl potential, while over-linking to your main pages offers little to no value for your SEO. This is known as over-optimizing, and it will hurt your rankings.
Acknowledge Your Link Hierarchy
As we’ve pointed out in detail, link hierarchy is critical to your internal link distribution and the user experience. Take the time to establish and organize a hierarchy of your internal links, so you’ll have an outline of which content needs to be linked more often and to which pages.
This includes using fixed navigational menus, in addition to choosing links that bring your visitors and Google deeper into your website.
Balance the Link Distribution on Each Page
Simply put, it’s all about quality, not quantity.
You want to include enough internal links throughout a singular page to guide your visitors and the search engines. However, the amount you choose is directly related to the links’ value.
Therefore, it’s better to have just a few internal links throughout a post or web page that provide relevant context, compared to 50+ links that don’t lead to anything related to the topic at hand.
Let’s say you’ve written a 1,000-word blog post. Within this word count, it’s best to include three to five internal links, as well as external links. However, you want to space them out appropriately on the page while also ensuring that you’re only linking to valuable pages.
For example, you’ll want to avoid linking to the same page twice and linking to your homepage, about us page, etc. Make sure to include an appropriate mix of internal pages and dominant pages that offer pertinent information, such as a specific service page or pricing page.
Link Your Most Important Pages Using Navigation
When we talk about navigational links, we’re talking about the navigation bar that appears on each page of a website, usually in the header and often in the footer, as well. Google and other search engines perceive these navigational sections as the most crucial part of your website, directly affecting how high your website ranks in the SERPs.
This is where your hierarchical linking structure comes into play, so ensure your navigational menu and links are organized to perfection and that each link works properly. It’s a high exposure area, so make it as intuitive as possible.
Capitalize on Your Most Relevant Content
While you want to avoid over-optimization, specific web pages should be more prominent than others. This includes pages that provide a higher financial return and the most relevant content. Essentially, you want pages with rich materials, such as event updates, subscription options, requests for advice or product information, and so on, to have as much traffic as possible.
Whenever contextually appropriate and natural, link to your most relevant content to ensure visitors make it to that page.
Consider the above actionable insights as an internal linking best practices 101. You’ll have your work cut out for you by following them, minus a few things — which we’ll cover in the following two chapters.
How Many Internal Links Is Too Many?
Several years ago, Google initiated a 100-link restriction that’s been echoed by every SEO content strategist since Matt Cutts’ March 2009 article entitled How Many Links Per Page? In this article, Cutts references Google’s rule, which states that a single web page should include fewer than 100 links.
According to Google, “More than 100 links on a single page are excessive.” Google also made it clear that the search engine would purposely opt not to crawl those links, and a high number of connections would ultimately be splitting the PageRank.
If you’re thinking, wow, 100 links is way too many, then you’re in the majority. Due to bandwidth constraints, early search engine crawlers limited the amount of data they would analyze per website, limiting the number of links per page even further.
Interestingly enough, we agree that using 100 links (or close to 100 links) is excessive. However, most SEO specialists can’t agree on how many links are too many.
Ultimately, the number of internal links to be included on a given web page should come down to two things:
- The word count
- The content
Look at it this way — there are web pages containing web copy, such as landing pages, services sections, etc., and web pages containing blog content.
Each content type calls for a different word count, which proportionately calls for contextual (quality) internal links to guide visitors and search engines. The higher the word count, the more internal (and external) links you can include as a general rule of thumb.
You’ll also need to ensure you’re distributing those links appropriately throughout the page. For example, you want to avoid linking every other word in your content.
Quite frankly, it’s annoying to both your visitors and search engines. Google will also punish you for doing it by dropping your rankings in the SERPs.
So, how many internal links are too many?
Let’s just say that you want to prioritize quality over quantity. You also want to ensure that you’re alternating between internal and external links every 300 words, except for additional links that provide pertinent information.
This works out to roughly three to five links — for both internal and external links — per every 1,000 words. If the content calls for more contextual links, then feel free to provide a few more. Just don’t overdo it!
Don’t Forget About Semantic SEO Best Practices.
Semantic SEO primarily refers to optimizing your website’s underlying data. In terms of semantic searches, it’s all about understanding the meaning or intention behind a user’s query, instead of lexical searches where the desire is to find a direct and literal match to the words used.
In other words, it has to do with understanding user intent within a specific context. When your website is optimized with a direct association between user intent and context —like a particular blog topic in a post — it’s much easier for search engines to sort through hundreds of billions of pages to find your web page that could answer the user’s query in the most appropriate way possible.
Semantic search results are generally an aggregated list of information from several websites to answer the user’s query with as much detail as possible. While there’s a lot that factors into your semantic SEO, when it comes to internal links, you need to ensure that the ones you’re using can help search engines connect the specific concepts and topics within a user’s search query to improve your overall SEO.
It all comes down to a well-organized internal link structure that’ll allow your website’s content to show up at the right place at the right time — i.e., during a user’s search query.
An organized internal link structure has three main elements:
- A menu link structure
- A breadcrumb link structure (which refers to a page’s position within the website’s hierarchy)
- An internal link structure throughout the body of each blog article or web page
As mentioned throughout the previous chapters, when you link your pages together, you’re helping your visitors, and Google navigates your website more accessible to discover new pages. It’s also worth reiterating that your internal links should create a path that’s both topically and logically relevant among each piece of subject matter.
For example, A company that sells women’s shoes can end up having a general “shoes” page that appears higher in the SERPs compared to a “girl’s shoes” page for the search query: “shoes for girls.”
This would happen when the internal linking is slightly out of context. However, if the main page of your website links to a “girl’s shoes” page, structured as parent and child pages, it would help search engines prioritize the subcategory for the page, resulting in more relevant search results.
In other words, when you link your content together with a more intelligent strategy, the better effect it’ll have on Google’s algorithm and the users.
Auditing Your Internal Links
Conducting link audits is integral to your SEO best practices and internal linking strategy. This is because whenever a user experiences issues on your site, the problem always comes down to the page itself or the connections between those pages, i.e., your internal links.
So, how do you conduct an internal link audit? You would typically want to start with a tool, such as a Site Audit by SEMRush, that allows you to generate a link report and more by analyzing your pages and gathering data.
However, you can also conduct your audits manually by taking the following steps:
- Revisiting your website’s IA structure for inconsistencies
- Checking your link hierarchy, aka link pyramid, for organization inconsistencies
- Ensuring your links are optimized for click depth or connected to deeper pages
- Eliminating orphan pages, which are the pages that were left out of your website’s structure
- Fixing content duplication, link redirects, and broken links
- Assessing your PageRank flow
- Revising your anchor text
- Cleaning up your image text links
As you can see, quite a bit goes into conducting an internal link audit. That’s why it’s best to invest in SEO tools or seek out SEO specialists who can get your internal links up to speed.