Internal linking is very important not only for SEO but for enhanced user experience. Best practices for internal linking dictate that any links pointing to pages within the website should provide value to users and also assist search engines to discover more pages from that website.
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What is internal linking?
A webpage can have 2 types of links. The first type is what we call external links and these are links pointing to pages outside the boundaries of the web site. For example, if you click this link, you will go to my Twitter profile.
The second type is internal links that come into 2 variations:
Links pointing within the same page – for example, if you click this link you will go to the conclusion section of this post.
Links pointing to other web pages but on the same domain – for example if you click this link you will go to our SEO packages page (a page within reliablesoft.net).
The formal definition of internal links is the following: Internal links are links that point to pages on the same domain.
Here is an example of how an internal link looks in HTML code:
<a title="This is an internal link" href="http://mydomain.com/somepage.html">Internal Link</a>
Internal links can be used to:
- Make website navigation easier
- Associate pages of the same site together
- Distribute the page rank (link juice) of a page around the website
- Help search engines discover the important pages of a website
Here is an example of good and poor internal linking practices as explained in my SEO Tutorial.
Why does internal linking matter?
As you can see in the diagram above (Good Internal Linking), the homepage links to the most important pages of the website, and then each page links to other pages creating a small web.
The way search engines work, is that during the crawling and indexing process they start crawling a website from the homepage and then follow any links to discover and index more pages from the same website.
Internal links help them a lot during this process by pin-pointing to crawlers which pages are important for the site.
If you look at the poor internal linking part of the diagram (on the right), once search engines reach the homepage, they will access Page A, and then leave.
Your job is an SEO is to create a friendly site structure and use internal links to guide both search engines and users to the most valuable pages of your website.
Internal linking distributes link juice to internal pages
Another reason why internal linking is important is the distribution of page rank and link juice from one page to another.
As you can see in the diagram below, link juice is distributed from the homepage to the internal pages of the site.
This improves the page rank of the internal pages and makes them more discoverable to search engines.
Internal links and SEO
Google and Bing have specific guidelines on how to take advantage of internal links but before that, it is important to understand four key concepts that are related to internal linking and SEO.
First, is that not all internal links are equal. In order for an internal link to have real value, it should be in the body of the page or post.
Internal links in the sidebar, footer, or outside the body of the page do not provide much value.
Yes, you can still use them to aid user navigation but in terms of link juice distribution, they are not very important.
Second, it is common practice to link from new pages to old pages but for best results, you should also do the opposite.
In other words, from time to time you should review your internal linking and add links from old pages to point to newer published pages.
Third, use internal links to pass page rank from your strong pages to other pages on your website.
For example, if a page on your website has a lot of backlinks, then edit that page and add internal links to other pages on your website.
Of course, links have to point to related pages and inserted naturally in the content.
Don’t add the links for the sake of adding the links, add them only if it makes sense to both users and search engines.
Fourth, you can safely use keywords in the anchor text for internal links. As we will see below, this is a common practice and it’s not against any guidelines.
Google Recommendations on Internal Links
Let’s see what are the Google guidelines for internal linking.
Matt Cutts (former head of the Google Quality team) in a video confirmed that internal links are treated differently from external links and provided that you are not doing any exaggerations (for example having more than 100 links per page), you don’t have to worry that you are violating Google webmaster guidelines.
In their webmaster guidelines, Google stresses the importance of writing good and descriptive anchor text for internal links too.
Besides Matt’s reply on Youtube and Webmaster guidelines, the best way to understand how to use internal links is to review how Google and other big trusted brands are using internal links on their websites.
How Google is using internal links?
The best way to understand how Google is using internal links is to take a closer look at any of the blog posts published in the Google webmaster central blog.
It is good to know because what they are doing in their blogs is not against their own guidelines so someone can say that it’s safe to use as well.
As you can see from the example below (which is only half the post), they are using a lot of internal links and they are heavily using keywords for the anchor text as well.
The page has 19 internal links within text alone + the links in the menu + the links in the comments.
What about Wikipedia?
I think the perfect example of internal link usage is Wikipedia. If you view any page on Wikipedia you will immediately notice that they are using tens of internal links (with keywords as the anchor text).
Bing recommendations on internal linking?
Bing also supports the use of internal links in their webmaster guidelines. In particular, they include a reference to internal links under the SEO section stating that:
“Internal links are useful for creating a view of how your website pages are related and also help users find related content”.
Should you “nofollow” internal links?
A link, whether this is an external or internal link, is a signal that you trust that page and it is said that it passes PageRank from your page to the linking page.
It was recognized over the years that sometimes you need to link to a particular page but:
- You are not sure if it’s trusted or not
- The links are beyond your control (i.e. links in comments etc)
- You want to place a text link ad on your website without this to be considered as selling links
To cover this gap, some search engines (Google is one of them) introduced the nofollow attribute. When you add the ‘nofollow’ in a link is like telling search engines not to take into account the particular link as a ‘vote of trust’ to the linking website.
You can read more about the usage of the nofollow and some best practices here but this is more applicable for external links.
You should nofollow an internal link when:
- It points to a page that is not accessible by search engines (for example pages behind a login page)
- The link goes to a page that is not important (for example if you have a page for a bibliography or something similar and you reference this page from your posts, you can nofollow the link since it is not something you want to be made available in the search results)
- Tag pages – I usually nofollow all my tag pages since I need to give more value to the actual pages and don’t want to rank my tag pages (it’s too difficult anyway to rank a tag page than a normal page).
Note: If you are not using the nofollow attribute for your internal links is perfectly fine. You don’t need to change it since there are no real gains from doing so, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference.
Internal Linking Best Practices (Checklist)
Although I have described most of the best practices above, for those that like to work with lists, here is your checklist:
- Add internal links when it is useful for the user experience
- You can add keywords in the anchor text without any problems but it is always best practice to avoid exaggerations. In other words, although it is not forbidden, that does not mean that you should not use non-keyword anchor text for internal links as well. Variation in both internal and external links is always recommended.
- Try not to use more than 6-7 internal links per page (within the body text). This is not a rule or a guideline but it’s just my own recommendation.
- Use the nofollow tag wisely (see the section above)
- Make sure that you don’t have any broken internal links as this is bad for SEO.
- Link related pages together, not pages that have no related content for the sake of internal linking
- If you cannot use keywords within a sentence for the internal links you can always add them as additional reading. For example, to find out more about SEO you can read my 5 Simple SEO tips for better rankings article.
- As a general SEO guideline, make sure that the pages you want to rank higher in search engines have a greater number of internal links.
- You can use the ‘Internal links’ report under the section ‘Search Traffic’ in Google webmaster tools to find out the status of your internal link building (which pages have the most links, anchor text used, and many more info).
- Use text content for your internal links. Adding internal links to images is not useful for search engines or users.
- Make sure that the total number of links per page (internal and external) is no more than a 100
What is an External link?
Now that is clear what are internal links and why they are very important for SEO, let’s see how they are different from external links.
What is an external link? A link pointing to a page outside your website i.e. on a different domain.
As SEO’s we ‘grew up’ with the motto ‘a link is a link’ and this makes a lot of people believe that external links and internal links should be treated the same way but this is another SEO misconception.
The role of external links is different from that of internal links and if you don’t use external links wisely, you may get into trouble. You can read more about external links in the off-page SEO article but some best practices for the usage of external links are:
- Link out when it is absolutely necessary
- Try not to have more than a couple of external links per page
- Link only when it provides value to the reader
- Link only to websites you trust
- Link only to websites that have unique and original content
- Link to related websites only
- If you want to minimize the risk of getting a link penalty, use the ‘nofollow’ tag for external links (at least for some, not necessarily for all)
Internal linking is important for SEO but still, this is one area that many webmasters get wrong. They either don’t use any internal links or they treat them the same way as external links which is a wrong approach.
If you follow the best practices outlined above, internal links can only benefit a website and make the user experience better and more enjoyable.
Happy users will stay on the page for longer (and thus reducing bounce rate) and they will also visit more pages within the same site before they leave.
Consider internal links as a way to build your own web and don’t forget that you can always go back and update an existing page of your site to add a couple of internal links if this will help the users find more related content from your website.