Links are a big part of search engine optimization (SEO). They’re tracked and followed by the search engine crawlers responsible for creating and maintaining Google’s web index, and are also used as an indicator of trustworthiness.
PageRank, the name for Google’s ranking algorithm, determines the credibility of a website in part based on the quality and quantity of links pointing to it. For this reason, building links on external domains has understandably become the most popular and most effective SEO strategy.
But these external links aren’t the only links that matter in the SEO world. You should also be considering internal links—the hyperlinks in your own web pages—as part of your strategy.
Internal links remain one of the most neglected elements of SEO, but with this guide, you should be able to better understand how internal links work, and incorporate them into your existing SEO approach.
We’ll start with a briefer on internal links, and how they differ from external links.
All hyperlinks are designed to take users from one webpage to another, usually with a single click. The link itself includes a URL, which will direct a user to the new destination.
If the link points to an entirely different domain, it can be considered an external link for that domain. External links generally pass “authority” to the destination domain, based on the authority of the referring domain (and several other factors), unless otherwise specified with a “nofollow” tag. The higher your site’s domain authority, and the higher your page’s page-level authority, the more likely you’ll be to rank for searches relevant to the content topic at hand.
If the link points to a different page within the same domain, it’s considered an internal link. For example, this article is a page at SEO.co. If we link to another page on SEO.co, it’s considered an internal link. If we link to Wikipedia, it’s considered an external link; we’d be passing authority to Wikipedia (not that it needs it), but not passing authority to our own domain.
Internal links serve a handful of practical purposes for users:
As we’ll see, internal links have additional benefits because of how they’re interpreted by search engine crawlers.
Internal link building is all about creating better links between the pages of your domain. This practice, when executed correctly, comes with three main benefits:
Don’t just take our word for it. After incorporating a new internal link building strategy, most brands see an impressive boost in their results.
For example, Ninja Outreach reported a 40 percent increase in organic traffic after launching an internal link building campaign. Their approach was to create silos (or topical themes) for the content on their site, then divide those silos into subtopics. From there, they separated pages into hierarchies based on value, and assigned keywords to pages based on those hierarchies, prioritizing the most valuable pages.
Another study from Orbit Media Studios illustrated how internal link building (and a handful of other onsite tweaks) could take a page from rank 33 to rank 5 for the phrase “IT hiring trends 2013.”
Yet another case study from Dave Davies (published on SearchEngineLand) shows how an internal link overhaul can completely change your search rankings high-level. There were 381 monitored search terms, and by the end of the campaign, the site in question had 56 more top-100 terms, and 2 additional top-3 terms. That’s not bad for a relatively simple SEO strategy.
The benefits recounted above are dependent on an important assumption: that your internal link building is effective. So what makes an internal link building strategy “effective?”
There are a variety of goals to consider here, including optimizing for indexation, optimizing for specific keywords, and optimizing for user behavior (like increasing your conversion rate). Whatever combination of priorities you’re targeting, it’s important to think about internal links on both a high level and an individual basis.
We’ll touch on high-level internal link building strategies in the next section. For now, let’s look at what makes a single internal link effective:
Building strong internal links that feature all the qualities listed in the preceding section is a good start, but you’ll also need to think about your high-level objectives, and plan your internal link building accordingly.
If you haven’t spent much time with internal link building, and you’re prepared to make it a primary focus of your SEO strategy, there are a few things you’ll need to research:
At this point, you should have a document detailing your targeted internal pages as well as the ideal anchor text (and variants) for each. From there, you can edit each blog post or core page on your site, looking for contextually relevant opportunities to include new internal links. You can keep track of these on your own, or generate an internal link report. There are several tools online that can help you generate a list of internal links, but I recommend Google Search Console’s Links report; it’s free, and you can also use it to generate information on external links pointing to your site.
The above approach is great if you want to overhaul your internal link building strategy, or if you’re ready to take a deep dive into the potential merits of internal link building. However, you don’t need to be so in-depth to see some of the benefits.
If you’re interested in only making a minimal effort, you can generate a list of URLs on your site and start making a conscious effort to incorporate them naturally in your existing and future content. Edit your existing articles to include contextually relevant links to various pages of your site. Then, whenever you’re ready to publish a new onsite post, be sure to include a handful of links to other pages of your site. Rather than worrying about exact match anchor text, simply use anchor text that makes sense in context.
This approach won’t be as effective as the keyword research-dependent, objectively researched version; however, it’s still better than neglecting internal links altogether.
SEO is a complex and multifaceted strategy (which is one of the reasons SEO can be pricey), and internal link building is just one small part of it. So how important is internal link building when compared to other tactics?
As you’ve seen, internal link building can make a major difference in any campaign, but as you might suspect, it still doesn’t have as much power as, say, external link building or technical onsite optimization. If your site is a mess and you don’t have any external links feeding authority to your domain, even the best internal link building strategy isn’t going to save you. But in coordination with other strong SEO pillars, internal link building can be the icing on your cake.
Internal link building also has a handful of advantages over other SEO tactics:
Internal link building isn’t the most important element of your SEO campaign, but it still has the power to improve your results—both in terms of search engine rankings and in terms of influencing onsite user behavior. If you want to earn more organic traffic and more conversions, it’s a practical necessity.
That said, planning and executing an internal link building strategy can be difficult, especially if you have limited SEO or web architecture experience. If you need help taking inventory of your current onsite pages, or if you’re ready to integrate new tactics into your SEO strategy, contact SEO.co for a free consultation today!