The webinar (Internal) links make the world go round is a part of the SEO in Orbit series, and aired on May 23rd, 2019. For this episode, Dixon Jones and Julie Joyce pull apart a central topic in SEO: internal site links. Learn how to choose a site architecture that suits your website, how to develop or perfect an internal linking strategy, and how to use links to promote your key pages to Google.

SEO in Orbit is the first webinar series sending SEO into space. Throughout the series, we discussed the present and the future of technical SEO with some of the finest SEO specialists and sent their top tips into space on June 27th, 2019.

Watch the replay here:

Presenting Julie Joyce

Julie Joyce owns the link building company Link Fish Media and specializes in building links for highly competitive industries. She has written for Search Engine Land for ten years and now writes for Search Engine Journal. In addition, she conducts the longest-running SEMRush webinar series “Show Me The Links.”

This episode was hosted by Dixon Jones, Global Brand Ambassador at Majestic and an Internet Marketing strategist. He has built several successful start-ups, from Murder Mystery games to a world leading search engine specializing in web cartography and backlink analysis.
Dixon has talked about Internet Marketing (and Majestic) all over the world. Apart from the amazing technology, his approach to innovation in enterprise keeps getting him invited onto the podium to be a speaker at Internet Marketing conferences.

Difference between internal and external links

Internal links link within the same domain, such as a link from your home page to your “about us” page.

External links are links that come into your site from a different domain.

Julie would say that pages from one-site.blogspot.com to another-site.blogspot.com are often considered to be on the same domain. These used to be very hard to measure, because it’s hard to get the sub-domain metrics. They never seem to be all that powerful, compared to links between main domains.

What is PageRank?

PageRank is how pages on the web are viewed according to their importance, based on the links that point in to them. While there used to be a public measure of PageRank (Toolbar PageRank), which a lot of people focused on, there is no longer a publicly visible measure of PageRank.

While some people don’t believe PageRank exists any longer, that is not the case. Dixon checked that with Gary Illyes only a few months ago: it’s still part of Google’s system. It’s such a core metric for Google, and the PageRank is relatively easily available for each individual page, that Dixon believes it might permeate into more Google algorithms than we (or even the engineers) might be aware of.

PageRank applies to internal links, just as much as to external links. This is one of the reasons why PageRank is so important at a site level.

Importance of links in SEO

Links are still–and will always be–important to SEO. Some of the evidence that points to this includes:

  • Google’s algorithms are based on links
  • Links are how we move around the web
  • Links are how crawlers find new content

Internal links are important for SEO in part because they’re entirely under you control. You can set up an internal linking structure that allows your most critical pages to get more attention: more visibility, better ranking, better on-site UX, better bounce rate.

Authoritative links

The term “authoritative” is difficult to define. Different tools have tried to measure this differently. (It’s important not to mix up Domain Authority and link authoritativeness.)

What makes a link authoritative may also vary between types of subject matter.

Google has quantitative measures to pin authoritativeness down, but as individuals, most people have a good qualitative sense of what is authoritative and what isn’t.

Good linking strategies

The best internal linking strategies should be logical and take into account where a user will go and where you want to funnel them. For example, if the end goal is a purchase, you don’t want to give them endless opportunities to go somewhere else and end up on a page that allows them to easily leave the site.

In short, optimize for:

  • Crawlability
  • Coherence with a marketing funnel
  • Anchor text (less important with external than internal links)

Managing links to expired or redundant content

Common strategies include:

  • 301 expired content to the home page or a category page. It’s better to avoid this strategy because it doesn’t do much to retain users on the website.
  • 301 to a generic out-of-stock page.
  • 404 page that suggests other products and links to them.

Orphans

Orphan pages, or pages on your site that don’t have links to them, are a problem both for users and for SEO.

If no internal links point to a page, it won’t receive any of the website’s PageRank flow. If someone does happen to find it, that’s great. This might happen if there are external links pointing to these pages, for example. However, orphan pages aren’t promoted by the website structure.

Any page–and particularly critical pages–should be accessible in one way or another from the site navigation.

You can use various tools, including OnCrawl, to find orphans.

Safe strategies

Link-building is, on some level, inherently dangerous. Internal link building is probably safer. It’s been said that, in internal linking, the quantity of internal links pointing to a page can count for more than the quality of each of those links.

The safest strategy is not to overdo anything. Diversify strategies, and try to avoid creating a giant footprint that shows you’re attempting to manipulate Google.

There’s no strategy that can be completely safe, since we never know what will be added to Google’s link scheme. The knowledge that the algorithms (or your competitors) will constantly change and evolve is the one constant.

Internal links and nofollow

Julie doesn’t see the need for nofollow on internal links. As Dixon points out, this got a lot of a attention 4-5 years ago. This worked for a while, but as with many things in SEO, hacks will no longer work as Google’s algorithm evolves.

The difficulty with using nofollow on a website is that people often don’t really understand how PageRank flows around a website very well. Headers and footers push PageRank around the site much more than a single content link from page A to page B. It can be very hard to correctly influence internal PageRank transfer.

Note: In line with the observations discussed by Julie and Dixon, several months after this discussion, Google announced in September 2019 that nofollow would be considered a suggestion rather than a directive for crawling and indexing. This will go into effect on March 1, 2020. Consequently, using nofollow internally to manage crawl budget is no longer a reliable strategy for SEO.

Spotting a need for improved internal linking

Julie provides a few red flags that should let you know you have a problem with the internal linking on your site.

– Critical pages not ranking

If you have a critical page that isn’t ranking, or isn’t ranking well, you’ll definitely want to look at internal linking to this page.

– Weak performance despite backlinks

If you have some great backlinks to a page, but the page isn’t ranking, you might discover that the number of internal links to the page is very low.

– OnCrawl’s Inrank

Julie finds OnCrawl’s Inrank to be a really cool tool. It’s a sort of internal PageRank. She was able to use this in for a client to discover that a page that otherwise looked like it had been optimized had almost none of the website’s Inrank flow, compared to pages that were not nearly as critical.

– Internal site search

If you do an internal site search, and the pages you want to rank don’t show up internally, you should take another look at your internal linking.

Measuring effectiveness of a linking strategy

Many of Julie’s clients don’t ask her to measure the effectiveness of an internal linking strategy. They use global performance (rankings, traffic) and sales metrics to determine whether or not they are satisfied.

Improvement can be hard to tie to a specific link when link-building.

Internal PageRank sculpting

“PageRank sculpting” is an attempt to funnel PageRank to specific pages. There’s often a very simplistic view of how PageRank flows within a site. It’s not a simple distribution of a given number of points, divided equally among the page’s outgoing links that aren’t nofollowed.

Julie’s not a great believer in trying to push PageRank. She’s more oriented towards improving pages that are underperforming by reinforcing the number and quality of links pointing to them.

This is a good strategy because you can measure positive changes. The downside is that it’s much harder to measure any drops in popularity. You’ll need to be especially careful with this strategy if you remove links to other, less-critical pages.

Another element to consider is the page’s influence. Anything an influential page links to should also benefit.

Internal linking and freshness

The question of whether it’s better to get links from new, or fresh, content, or whether it’s better to make a change to older evergreen content is something Julie considers carefully when building external links.

Google likes fresh content. Linking to your fresh content and making sure it’s in your sitemap can signal to Google that your site is more relevant, authoritative and kept up to date.

Internal linking and seasonality

There is merit in adapting your internal link structure seasonally, if your site or your business experiences seasonal trends.

This can be implemented through broad seasonal category pages. Use key linking areas, such as the top nav, to promote the seasonally-relevant category pages, and switch the links out as required.

There’s logic for the user here, too. The homepage can be used to great effect with this sort of strategy, in order to push big offers and seasonal offers immediately to new visitors.

Robots.txt and allowing crawls by bots

Julie’s favorite technical trick is to always check the robots.txt file. It’s unbelievable, but many people still block search engine robots from visiting their sites by disallowing everything in the robots.txt file. She shared the anecdote of how in a recent series of link audits, three of the first five sites she looked at blocked all bots.

This can often happen if developers forget to remove protections from a development or staging site when it goes live.

Google also needs to be able to see and read the robots.txt file itself.

Dixon finds it extremely useful to look at your site through a bot’s eyes. There also may be other instructions to bots, such as the htaccess file, that block the bot’s ability to explore the site. To do this, you can use anything from an online HTTP header tool to an SEO crawler that allows you to choose your User-Agent.

Q&A

– Using keywords to add internal links to new articles

A legacy media site with 50 thousand articles uses a list of keywords that generate new articles. Part of the publishing strategy is to add internal links to new articles. To find these old articles, the website uses a Google “site:” search for the keyword in order to create a list of 3-5 articles to link to the new article.

This is the type of strategy that Julie would recommend to promote new posts.

– Linking and JavaScript

Julie’s never had much of a problem with JavaScript linking. At least in her experience, external links are generally straight text links.

Dixon has seen many sites where the menus links are powered by JavaScript. That’s becoming increasingly popular with modern websites and personal web apps. This can cause problems for Google when different content [that should be indexed] is served on the same URL.

Google has gotten much better with JavaScript in general. Google’s ability to pick up JavaScript links used to be much more of a problem. JavaScript links aren’t, however, analyzed at the same time as the original crawl: Google does JavaScript analysis the page at a later date, and will only become aware of the link at this later time. There may be up to a week or two between the two waves of processing.

The best practice is to avoid JavaScript for links that you want search engines–and not just Google–to see.

[Note: Since this episode aired, in a Webmasters Hangout, Martin Splitt and John Mueller discussed how the two stages of crawling play less of a role as Google works on drawing closer together.]

– Internal links for news sites without topic pages

News sites use topic pages to structure the site and promote articles within that topic. If you don’t have topics, you could perhaps use content subject tags to create “topics” on the fly, which would then link back to all of the articles with that tag.

– What to avoid when asking for backlinks

When asking for backlinks, avoid showing that you haven’t even looked at the website. For example, Julie often receives requests that say she has a great blog, or that they love her writing–despite the fact that she doesn’t have a blog or even any space for that type of written content on her site.

Top tip

“You should be able to get to critical pages via the top navigation.”

SEO in Orbit went to space

If you missed our voyage to space on June 27th, catch it here and discover all of the tips we sent into space.