The definitive guide for internal linking
Internal links sometimes get left out of the conversation. They’re often not perceived as an integral part of new content generation, but they’re also not created by external link building efforts.
That means internal page links sometimes get missed. And that makes them worth a second look, as a way to give your SEO campaigns the edge over those of your rivals.
In this Definitive Guide to Internal Linking, we’ll look at what defines an internal link and why they are so important to the overall success of your SEO efforts, as well as some best practice, tips and tricks to optimise internal link structure for the best results.
What are internal links?
There’s no hidden meaning to internal links. If you link from one page on your website to another, that’s an internal link – a hyperlink whose destination is on the same domain as its own location.
Internal links serve some important practical purposes, and again some of these are quite obvious, for example:
- Navigation around your website.
- Linking your logo back to your homepage.
- ‘Add to basket’ and ‘Checkout’ links on eCommerce sites.
- ‘Archive’ links in blog/news sections.
- Links to related pages and downloadable resources.
The list goes on, and there are many reasons why you might link internally to another web page or a locally hosted multimedia resource purely for content-driven purposes.
However, it’s important to recognise that internal links add connectivity between different pages on your website. By placing links carefully, rather than in a haphazard and ad hoc way, you can direct search traffic and page authority value to the most profitable pages on your site.
As a result, internal links can help your SEO campaigns in several different ways:
- Make your page hierarchy obvious to the search robots for faster crawling and indexing.
- Pass page authority value to pages you want to elevate in the search result page rankings.
- Funnel human visitors towards pages where they can place an order, contact you, or achieve some other defined marketing goal.
Clearly, internal links can achieve much more than just navigation. So in the rest of this guide, we’ll look in more detail at how to use internal links effectively for SEO purposes, without damaging the usability of your website along the way.
Two audiences for internal links
As we’ve mentioned above, there are really two different audiences for your internal links, and you need to develop a linking strategy that caters to both at once.
The first audience consists of the search robots that crawl and index your pages for Google, Bing, and the other major search engines.
These discover new pages on your site by following hyperlinks from existing pages, which is why it’s so valuable to publish a sitemap that links to every publicly accessible page on your site.
The second audience comprises your human visitors. Arguably these are more important than the search robots are, but it’s not a competition – you need to cater to both at once.
Humans see the rendered version of your page, not the HTML code, so you need to highlight links in some way (e.g. underlined or a different font colour) if you want people to be likely to click on them.
Why internal links matter to Google
We know that search engine robots crawl the web by following hyperlinks from one page to the next. Therefore, more links pointing to a page make it more likely to be found – and these can be third-party external links or your own internal links.
But internal links give you close control over hyperlink characteristics such as the anchor phrase, alt text, and the rel=”nofollow” attribute.
All of these can determine how much the link influences the authority of the destination page in the eyes of the search engines, as well as the words and phrases that are associated with the target page.
Using internal links as part of an SEO strategy is a good option as it’s something others often neglect, it’s completely within your own control, and you can use ‘nofollow’ links to turn off the SEO value when linking to pages that aren’t part of your current campaign.
A bad internal linking strategy can leave pages with no inbound links pointing to them at all, which is known as ‘orphan’ pages, and can also leave your website littered with broken hyperlinks pointing to pages and other resources that have since been moved or deleted.
By the end of this guide, we’ll cover internal link optimisation as part of SEO efforts, along with the importance of regular internal link audits to spot any such broken links and orphan pages, and to bring them back into the hierarchy of your website.
How internal links transmit SEO value
Every page that is crawled and indexed by the search engines is given a score based on its perceived authority. This in turn is calculated based on how many other pages link to it, and how authoritative those pages are.
When you link from that page to another destination on the internet – whether internal or external – you pass some of that authority value to the destination page.
By linking from pages with a high authority score to other pages on your own website or domain, you keep that value within your own page hierarchy, instead of passing it on to third parties.
This is also where the rel=”nofollow” attribute has huge significance for hyperlinks. By including this attribute in your hyperlink code, you tell the search engines not to pass any authority value along that link path. You can therefore avoid boosting the authority of low-value pages or transmitting SEO value to external, third-party websites when you don’t want to.
How to set up an internal link strategy
Before you start an SEO campaign or website marketing effort, you should set up an internal link strategy. Even if you don’t plan to target internal links for SEO gain, it’s important to audit your site and see which pages have the most links already pointing to them.
A logical process to put an internal link hierarchy in place across your website might look something like this:
- List your sitemap with pages separated into nested ‘tiers’ according to their importance, from primary index pages, to category pages, to individual pages and posts.
- Prioritise your most valuable content. Link to it from multiple prominent positions on your site, such as your homepage and main navigation menu.
- Include ‘contextual links’ in your page content. These are hyperlinks that lead directly from phrases in the text to related pages and additional information elsewhere on your site.
- Add ‘breadcrumbs’ that link individual pages to their parent category or index page, or link across tiers to sibling pages of equal importance.
- Use category tags, ‘archives’ and ‘related posts’ widgets to improve internal linking between blog posts on the same subject.
You might not need all of these steps, for example, if you don’t regularly publish blog posts. But it’s good to be aware of them all, for a more complete understanding of how internal linking affects your site as a whole.
The perfect internal link structure?
Imagine your website hierarchy like a Christmas tree. Your most valuable, authoritative content is the star on the top of the tree – and this is probably already true, even without an internal linking strategy in place.
As you move down the tree, each tier broadens out to encompass more pages, of slightly lesser importance than the tier above. Major category pages and navigation come quite high up, your most successful landing pages are also up there, and towards the bottom are individual product pages and routine blog posts etc.
Within this triangular structure, imagine pages about the same category or subject grouped together on the same branch as one another. Linking across between these pages can help to reinforce the search engines’ awareness of their content, even without passing authority value up and down the hierarchy.
When to use nofollow links
A present-day internal link strategy is incomplete without an understanding of the rel=”nofollow” attribute. We’ve mentioned this already above, but it’s absolutely crucial to understand what it does.
When you add rel=”nofollow” to the HTML code for a hyperlink, it tells the search engines not to assign any authority value via that link. This can be useful in a few different ways:
- You can use it on sponsored links to avoid being penalised for unnatural links.
- You can use it on external links to avoid passing authority value away from your site.
- You can use it on internal links to avoid passing authority to low-value pages.
Even if you only use nofollow links for these three specific use cases, you’ll impose much greater control over how authority score flows between your pages, leaving more authority to pass on to the pages you want to rise up the search rankings.
How to optimise hyperlink anchor text
The HTML page element for a hyperlink is <a> for ‘anchor’ and the word(s) between the opening and closing tags are the anchor text.
In visible terms, this is the text that appears underlined or highlighted on the page and, when clicked, follows the link to its destination page in the user’s browser.
You can include SEO keywords and phrases in the anchor text to help signpost what the destination content is about. This is obviously beneficial to human visitors, who want to know what they are clicking on, but it also helps to associate the destination page with that key phrase when it is crawled and indexed by the search engines.
Anchor text should be as natural-looking as possible. Make sure it is grammatically correct in its wider context on the page. If you’re desperate to use an anchor phrase that’s difficult to work into a sentence, consider placing it in a bullet point or image caption, where you can get away with a sentence fragment more easily.
Hyperlinks can also use the ‘alt’ attribute and, less commonly, the ‘title’ attribute to include descriptive text to explain the purpose of the link. These again both offer places to add keywords and phrases for further SEO benefit.
How to audit for internal linking issues
A relatively quick fix is to run an audit for internal linking issues and repair any broken links or orphan pages. These can occur when you move or delete an old page and you don’t have links to its ‘children’ from anywhere else on your website.
Tools such as Screaming Frog or Sitebulb are great for crawling a website, identifying URLs and finding pages without any inbound links, or that include links to missing pages and moved or deleted resources.
You can even use crawl stats from Google Seach Console to find broken links
Broken links risk your visitors landing on a 404 error page. Worse still, they are a dead-end for search robots and could lead to the robot terminating its crawl of your site and missing recently published pages that have not yet been indexed.
Options to repair broken links include:
- Republish content with the same destination URL so that the link works again.
- Redirect the target URL to a relevant page that exists at a different URL.
- Delete the hyperlink or change its ‘href’ target attribute to an existing URL.
This last option is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, by changing a broken hyperlink’s destination to point to an orphan page and therefore bring it back within the contiguous hierarchy of your website.
If you’ve moved a page and want to automatically redirect internal links to its new URL, a 301 redirect code can achieve this while still passing the full amount of authority to the new destination page.
However, it’s good to audit your redirects every so often too, so you don’t end up with a ‘daisy chain’ of one redirected page pointing to another, which redirects to another, and so on. Eliminate the intermediate steps so that each moved or deleted page redirects to an existing one in a single step.
Best practice for internal links
Remember the Christmas tree analogy we used earlier? There’s another piece of best practice for internal links that you can remember using the same concept.
It goes like this: No important page should be more than three links away from your homepage.
Your definition of ‘important’ can be quite personal, but should include pages that contain your most valuable SEO keywords, that achieve high conversion rates, or that bring in substantial revenues.
If you see one of these pages buried four or more links from your homepage, consider whether you can link to it more prominently – you might find you drive even higher revenues and traffic as a result.
Failing to link to a significant page from a top-tier page elsewhere on your site misses out on three major benefits:
- Ability to be crawled and indexed by the search engines.
- Authority value passed via a prominent homepage link.
- Potential levels of human visitor traffic via search and page-to-page browsing.
Orphan pages can be another quick win here. If you have orphan pages that are still attracting traffic, this is a sure sign that the content is high-value and people are finding their way to it manually.
Create a prominently placed link to these pages and you’re likely to see traffic increase significantly, compared with linking to orphan pages that have little to no visitors.
Internal linking tips and tricks
Let’s end with a few more tips and tricks for internal linking strategy that really works.
- Do make sure every link has a valid destination and every page has at least one inbound link.
- Do add alt text (and title text, where appropriate) to hyperlinks for accessibility and improved SEO.
- Do use relevant and varied anchor text to associate the destination page with all the main keywords and phrases.
- Don’t use an excessive number of links. Authority is divided by the number of links, so a few good links are worth just as much as a large number of weak links.
- Don’t try to hide links by formatting them the same as the body text – Google have considered this a major no-no for many years already.
- Don’t link between unrelated pages. You should only pass authority value to a page that contains genuinely relevant related content, for maximum benefit.
Finally, don’t worry about internal links too much. This is one area of SEO that can be optimised relatively easily, starting with a website internal linking audit to identify areas for improvement.
Instead of seeing internal linking strategy as an obstacle to overcome when planning a search marketing campaign, view it as a tool and make sure you publish and link to good-quality content that supports the other efforts in your SEO campaign, for turbo-charged results that drive maximum revenues.