One critical element to achieving your website objectives, including both findability and excellent user experience (or UX), is your link strategy. Both the scope and your execution of that strategy help achieve those goals. Your digital link-building strategy should cover three types of links:
- Inbound: links from other domains that lead to a page of content or resource on your domain
- Outbound: links you place in your domain’s content that lead to content on other domains
- Internal: links contained in your own content that lead to another page of content on that same domain (i.e., yours)
Most resources on link building focus on building incoming links to your domain, which makes sense since those are the kind of links that most directly impact SEO and search rankings. This guide is intended to show why and to what extent search engines consider the other two kinds of links — outgoing and internal — important parts of your digital presence strategy and to offer best practices for building and placing those links.
Why Outgoing and Internal Links Matter
You might have read somewhere that linking out is bad, somehow — that it takes users off your site and they won’t return, or that too many outgoing links somehow “bleeds” PageRank and search rankings from your site in favor of the linked-to site. The truth is that both internal and outgoing links matter and bring a number of valuable benefits to both your site and your brand.
Improve user experience
The quality of your site’s UX is core to your site’s performance and longevity. That includes technical issues such as page load speed and cumulative layout shift, but it also includes “softer” features of the UX. External and internal links help improve your site’s UX by making it as simple as possible for users to get around your site and evaluate the information they find there. Internal links help visitors navigate through your website with greater ease. External links to authoritative, relevant content help build your brand’s trustworthiness and credibility with users.
Add credibility and authority
When you connect your users to other authoritative content, you’re demonstrating your own credibility. The outbound link indicates you can be trusted to cite your sources and support your arguments, even if the best proof of your ideas comes from someone else.
That credibility extends to your content and your brand as well. This is especially true for outbound links. By boosting the SEO signal of a truly well-written, authoritative, and in-depth piece of content on another domain, you’re helping both the search engines and their users find the best possible content in response to search queries. Think of it as performing a digital civic duty, one that reflects well on you as well as on the linked-to resource.
Build trust and loyalty
Every interaction between a content page and a user is something of a transaction. The content represents your brand’s desire to win over the user; the user must decide whether to agree to that deal, and the currency is the user’s trust. Without that trust, users do not convert into customers or clients. They simply move on, whether to your competitor, a different solution, or another issue altogether.
In one sense, your outgoing and internal links are a series of opportunities to earn that user’s trust and loyalty. The link proposes a bargain: “Click on me and I’ll provide additional valuable information. Trust me.” Keep your end of that bargain for each of those links by linking to great content that’s highly targeted to respond to the user’s questions. In turn, the user’s trust in your brand increases, often translating into a completed transaction down the road.
Improve your conversion rate
When the link in question is a call to action, it’s even more crucial to perfect the anchor text, the placement of the link, and the surrounding content that gives it context. But that’s not the only way outgoing and internal links can help you improve your conversion rates. Internal links help prime your user to respond to your request to take an action.
This phenomenon is known as the “foot-in-the-door” technique, after a 1966 study by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser. In that study, the researchers proved out of four well-known persuasion techniques, the most successful was incredibly simple: Get the person to say “yes” to a much smaller request first. Over 50% of the time, they’ll also agree to the second, larger request. So getting your user to click one internal link effectively primes them to click the next, more important link: your call to action.
Improve search rankings
SEO experts have debated whether outgoing links boost your own search rankings. Undoubtedly, incoming links from other reputable domains boost your SEO. But is the same true of the links you place in your own content that lead to other domains?
The answer is a confusing “yes” and “no.” Google has repeatedly denied that it uses external links as an SEO ranking factor. However, there are three caveats to this general rule. First and foremost, outgoing links to quality, relevant content on other domains do help inform the search engine’s assessment of your content. In much the same way, internal linking also helps search engines crawl and analyze your site more effectively. Second, linking out to great content that answers your user’s questions, whether that content is on your site or someone else’s, helps improve your page’s performance and UX. Google absolutely pays attention to UX-related factors when it calculates its search rankings. Finally, pages citing their sources and references are indicative of that page’s quality. Linking to authoritative sources that help support the page’s content creates more support for the page’s relevance as well. In that sense, it helps improve your user’s trust in your content and thus may indirectly help boost SEO.
Best Practices for Outgoing and Internal Links
Make the most of the links in your content by following a few simple guidelines.
1. Focus solely on organic links
Just as you would when building incoming links from high-quality sites, it’s important to focus solely on organically occurring links that make sense in the context of the surrounding content. In other words, never force an outgoing or internal link where it wouldn’t naturally occur. Avoid placing outgoing links in your navigational menus, where they can confuse users and indicate a business relationship where one may or may not exist. Additionally, keep them off of landing pages where you’re attempting to drive users to respond to a single call to action (sign-ups, purchases, trial periods, etc.).
2. Link to quality, unique content
Remember your outgoing and internal links should reflect well on you and your brand. Whether it’s a link to your own content or to someone else’s, make sure the content is accurate, current, and trustworthy. Only link internally to your very best pages. Never link out to anyone else’s content unless you’ve vetted it yourself carefully. Avoid content that’s spammy or sensationalistic. Consider carefully before you link to other sites that provide a poor UX through excessive pop-ups and other advertisements.
Likewise, avoid linking out to content that’s too shallow — although you don’t need to be too concerned about specific word counts since word count trends vary across industries and niches. Finally, avoid linking to pages that are behind a paywall or are gated away from non-members. That can turn off your users and make them think less of your site.
3. Capitalize on popular content
What are your top-performing, most visited pages? Use that content to link to other pages on your site that could use a bit of a traffic or credibility boost. Don’t forget you can always update your popular pages to add new content in which to place those new internal links. Conversely, if you’ve got a newer piece of content that’s performing well, review older pieces of content that might be a logical spot for a crosslink. The idea is to use pages with good traffic to help keep users on your site, by directing them to other, related pieces of content.
4. Place links near the top of content
Links seem to perform more effectively when they’re placed near the top of your content, as opposed to the bottom. That might be because users typically scan web content and may not scroll all the way down, or it could simply be that they’re more apt to take action at the start of the piece.
5. Use relevant anchor text
Anchor text is that textual part of your content that comprises the clickable link. It’s easy to overthink anchor text, but the main rule for both outgoing and internal links alike is to keep it relevant to the linked-to content. Avoid phrases such as “click here.” Simply give your users a clear idea of what they’re going to find at the other end of that link. Use relevant keywords where possible.
You may want to consider adding a note to a link, or shortly after it if you’re linking to something other than a page of content. Placing a parenthetical that tells users they’re about to visit a (PDF) or a (video) is a thoughtful gesture that helps improve your site’s UX.
6. Don’t overdo it
Make sure your finished content page is readable. Including too many links can cause confusion, visual fatigue, and resistance to both the linked-to pages and to yours, as well. Try to aim for no more than one link per sentence and a few links per paragraph. Avoid a sea of blue underlining.
7. Prioritize outgoing links but don’t neglect internal ones
It makes sense to focus more on outgoing links. They tend to serve your site more directly by attracting the attention of industry leaders and influencers, and perhaps even making them more inclined to reciprocate with a valuable link back to your content in return. However, internal links can have a bigger impact on your UX. They help users navigate your site more effectively while also building a framework of authority around your content and your brand. Providing links to in-depth, quality content on your own domain presents a rich picture of your brand’s expertise and experience in your niche.
The links you craft in your own content may not be as important for your search rankings as the quality of your content or its value to your users. However, in the calculus of optimization, those links will improve your site’s UX, enhance navigability, and help users trust your site as an authority in your field. Put these practices to work to develop and implement your link-building strategy. Track your results as you implement these tactics, and then optimize your strategy based on those results for even better search performance as you continue to build your brand’s audience.