Internal links represent some of the lowest hanging fruit in your SEO arsenal.
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.
Google 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 the biggest opportunity for you to implement quickly!
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:
Sometimes, you’ll make reference to a statistic or piece of original research that’s explained somewhere else on your site. A quick link will point users in the direction of this information, and serve to back up your claims without completing reposting your research.
If users are interested in a topic on your site, they may also be interested in related topics. For example, our introduction in this article notes the differences between external links and internal links; this article is focused more on internal link building, so we included a link to a post on external link building for anyone who wants to learn more.
Sometimes, internal links exist simply to make it easier for people to jump from page to page on a site. This is especially important if you want users to spend as much time as possible on your site.
You can also use internal links to guide users to a specific page, or a specific action; for example, you might link users to a product on your store, or encourage them to contact you for more information, linking them to a contact page.
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:
Google bases its search rankings on a constantly-updated index that it maintains, keeping tabs on every public site on the web. You can think of it as a gigantic library of information. To find and update this information, it employs the use of bots known as “crawlers,” or “spiders,” which constantly browse new content, like seeking books to add to the library’s shelves. It’s vital to get your content indexed, and get it indexed as quickly as possible, if you want to maximize your chances of being featured in searches and hasten your SEO results. Bots will discover your content eventually, but if there’s a tight network of links that make it easy for automated bots to discover your content, you could get it indexed faster. Additionally, the types of pages you link and the anchor text you use for those links can help Google “understand” the context of your content.
Second, internal links may play a role in increasing your page rankings for specific keywords in search engines. It’s easy to get tunnel vision in SEO, thinking external links are the only factor that influences your authority and search engine rankings. However, there are literally hundreds of ranking factors to consider—and internal links are one of them. Google’s own John Mueller has stated, “The context we pick up from internal linking is really important to us… with that kind of anchor text, that text around the links. That’s really important to us.” Additionally, Google has stated: “The number of internal links pointing to a page is a signal to search engines about the relative importance of that page” (though this phrasing has since been updated). Choosing the right anchor text for your internal links, in combination with other strategies, can help you support a page’s rankings for that specific keyword phrase (and semantically related phrases).
Internal links have a variety of positive influencing effects on your visitor behavior. Internal links encourage people to spend more time on your site, reading complementary articles and discovering new pieces of content. Persuasive internal links can also increase your conversion rate, improving your bottom line. They can even improve your reputation, assuming they answer common user questions and/or support higher-quality content in other ways. These effects are consistently good, regardless of where your traffic is coming from. However, positive indications of quality content (like high time spent on page and low bounce rate) can also support higher search rankings. It’s a multi-pronged effect with virtually no downsides.
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:
First, your internal link needs to have contextual relevance. It should be at least somewhat related to the topic of the page in which it resides, and it should be clear to the user why this link exists. Simply embedding a link in an out-of-place collection of keywords is going to be bewildering for users—and will be seen as an obvious attempt at rank manipulation by search engine bots. Ideally, you’ll lead into your link with a brief explanation, or use your link for an obvious purpose; for example, if you’re referencing a statistic and you include a link, it will be clear your link serves as a citation. You can also state something like, “we’ve written a more in-depth guide on PPC marketing; be sure to read it if you’re interested in learning more,” calling out the content directly.
Anchor text is the term for the text in which the hyperlink is embedded. In the previous example, it’s “guide on PPC marketing.” Your internal links should have relevant anchor text, at minimum, and preferably anchor text that aligns with your keyword strategy. Choose a word or phrase for which you want the linked page to rank—as long as it also seems natural in the context of the rest of the content.
Assuming you want human beings to click and following this link, your anchor text (and the text in the remainder of the sentence) should be as compelling as possible. Use active words to encourage people to click, and convince them that clicking will be worth there time. The more persuasive your call-to-action is, the more effective it’s going to be.
There’s no hard rule for how many internal links to include on a given page, but try to keep it reasonable. If you have a 1,000-word article, and you have 100 internal links, you’ve probably overdone it. Something like 2-6 internal links per 1,000 words of content is a good ratio to shoot for, though these guidelines are dependent on context; if you have lots of statistics to cite, include as many internal links as are necessary. The main goal here is to provide both users and crawlers with an experience that isn’t overwhelming. If there are too many links, it will be obvious you’re forcing them in, instead of simply including them where it is natural to do so.
The quality of your content matters. If someone is reading your article, and they’re put off by the poor semantics, typographical errors, and half-hearted research present in the work, they’re not going to be interested in reading a second article—no matter how well you pitch it. As with most other SEO strategies, quality should be your top priority, and tactics should only be executed if you can maintain the quality of your work.
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.
For starters, you should think about which URLs you include in your internal link building, and how often you include them. If a page is good enough to be on your site, it’s good enough to warrant an internal link; if you have many pages that you feel aren’t important, it may be time to consider conducting a content audit (and consolidating those URLs). Internal link building is partially about maintaining an accurate index, so every page on your site should have some representation. That said, some pages are naturally more important than others, either because they’re more crucial to achieving your brand goals, or because they feature higher-quality content. Either way, building more links to these pages can be beneficial, since a higher number of links will end up referring more traffic to those pages (and could help you with search engine rankings). You’ll need to spend time determining exactly what kind of link mix you want to target.
Want to understand your existing link diversity? Use our SEO backlink checker tool now and find out how you stack up!
Choosing the right keywords for your internal link anchor text can help you support pages for ranking in specific search engine results pages (SERPs). If you plan carefully, you can optimize individual pages for the keywords and phrases most relevant to them. To do this effectively, you need to conduct keyword research, and identify primary, secondary, head, and long-tail keywords that will aid your strategy; be sure to examine search volume, competition, and semantically related phrases when making these determinations. Try to be consistent when you choose a specific phrase for one of your pages, using it exactly or using a semantic variant of it for nearly every link you build to it. Also, be sure not to cannibalize your rankings; try not to have multiple internal pages competing for the same keyword or phrase.
There are a number of tools designed to help you build internal links. For example, there’s a WordPress plugin called SEO Auto Linker, which will automatically detect words and phrases in your pages that could be linked to other internal pages. You could also use LinkWhisper, which makes automated suggestions for internal link building opportunities. If you’re looking for a no-stress, fast way to build up some internal links, these automated tools can help. However, they also have the tendency to make repetitive suggestions, and they may deviate from your goals. We recommend manual internal link building; even if it takes a bit longer, it will allow you to be more precise with your strategy.
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:
Your first job is generating a list of URLs on your current site—in other words, a list of internal pages you can use as internal links. You can use any sitemap generation tool for this purpose, or use whatever URL list you currently have. This will serve as your primary resource for strategizing how to build internal links; you can use it to keep track of your target keywords and phrases for each page, and establish a hierarchy of importance as well. Identify the most valuable internal pages on your site, and prioritize them in your strategy.
Next, you’ll need to conduct some keyword research. If you’ve already done this for your core SEO campaign, you can likely use the same information for your internal link building strategy. If not, you’ll need to start from scratch. Use a tool like Ahrefs Keyword Explorer or Moz’s Keyword Explorer to examine keywords you believe are relevant to your brand (and generate ideas based on your industry); you’ll be able to compare those keywords based on the number of people searching for the term and the number of companies currently competing for it. Try to choose a powerful primary keyword phrase for each page in your URL list (or at least each page that matters), and avoid overlap; if you have multiple pages competing for the same primary keyword, it will only work against you.
For lower-priority pages that don’t have a primary keyword, choose secondary keywords and/or long-tail phrases to target. Additionally, you may want to choose synonyms, semantically related phrases (aka latent semantic indexing or LSI keywords), and other phrases as secondary or tertiary targets for your most important pages. This will prevent you from using keywords too repetitively.
It’s also worth doing a rough competitor analysis and SEO audit, especially if you have lots of competitors ranking for a phrase that’s important for your brand. What kinds of pages are they targeting? Are there any weak points in their approach? What phrase variations could you use to get an edge on them? Make notes where appropriate in your list of internal URLs.
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:
When building or naturally attracting external links, you’re going to be dependent on the compliance and helpfulness of other domains. There’s rarely a guarantee that your intended strategies will play out the way you think. But your own website is entirely within your control; no one else can tell you how to link or what to link.
One of the benefits of internal link building is a better chance at ranking for your most important keywords. But internal link building is also about encouraging users to spend more time on your site, and getting them to convert more often—which will help you no matter how much organic traffic you’re getting.
Ever since Google Penguin, Google has cracked down on link schemes and other questionable external link building practices. But the standards for internal link quality are much laxer. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you can afford to slack off, but you’ll likely find internal link building less stressful and more straightforward.
Keyword research is the most technically complex part of internal link building, and it’s not something that’s especially hard to master. Anyone with the right time, resources, and dedication can learn how to develop an internal link building strategy from scratch.
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!
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