There’s a simple yet MASSIVE thing that most marketers overlook when it comes to SEO.
It’s not backlinks.
It’s not content marketing.
It’s not even the mountain of Google algorithm updates that are rolled out every year.
It’s internal linking.
Internal linking is often cast aside by marketers in favour of external backlink — DESPITE the fact that building internal links helps Google index your website faster, improve positive user behaviour signals, and boost the page rankings for low and mid-volume pages.
So what are internal links? Why is this strategy important for SEO? And how can internal links help make your web pages more discoverable by Google AND your customers?
Keep reading — we answer all your questions and more.
What are internal links?
Internal links are hyperlinks that you use to link one page on a domain to another page on the same domain. These are different from external links, which are hyperlinks from one website to another website.
For example, if we’re writing a blog post about keyword research, we might have our links point to other blog posts about white hat SEO. That’s an internal link:
In the same blog, we might link to a tool that our visitors can use help with keyword research, like KWFinder. That’s an external link:
How does internal linking help SEO?
Internal linking strategies are essential for two reasons:
It helps set up your site architecture (also known as information architecture)
It spreads your link juice (also known as link value or link equity)
First, let’s look at site architecture or IA.
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. Your end goal is to create a website that’s relevant and valuable to your users.
A massive part of that is making your site structure easy to navigate.
Your IA is how you structure information. Another way to think of it is like your sitemap or navigation bar.
If you’re running a shoe company, your IA might look like this:
Image credit: Adobe
Internal links are critical here because they help Google (and your users) get around your website, and understand the hierarchy of information.
See, a search engine doesn’t instantly know all the content that’s on every website in the world. It uses these things called crawlers to scour the internet for content to add into their index:
Image credit: Moz
Think of your internal links like the different lines on a spider web. Without them, the crawler can’t get from one webpage to the next — and if the crawler can’t get to the page, then it doesn’t exist in Google’s eyes.
Image source: Backlinko
Your information architecture also plays a huge role in delivering a user-friendly experience for customers. It decreases bounce rate and improves engagement — all of which help you rank higher in search results.
The second thing internal linking does is spread link equity.
What is link equity?
To understand that, we need to go back to Google’s goal: to provide the most useful and relevant results for users. One of the key ways that Google ranks sites for usefulness is based on how credible that domain is in the search engine’s eyes. Part of the way they measure that is through links.
Think of every link back to your site like a vote from another site. As more quality websites link back to yours, Google starts to see your page as a valuable resource — and pushes you higher up in search rankings.
They look a bit like this:
Image source: WooRank
Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: link value can also be passed on via internal linking. This helps distribute the link equity throughout your website, so more pages benefit from this boost in authority:
Image source: Neil Patel
Without internal links pointing to these pages on your site, all of the work you did to earn your hard-earned link value would stop at one page.
How to set up the ideal internal link structure to boost pages and content?
We’ve covered what internal linking is and why it matters. Now it’s time to dive into the meaty part: setting up the best internal link strategy to increase your site's visibility on organic search results.
Get your website structure right from the start
If your site is just your homepage and a ton of other pages with no hierarchy of information, it makes it INCREDIBLY difficult for Google to understand your IA.
That’s why the number one best practice when it comes to internal linking is to have a clear structure.
So how can you achieve this?
Easy: structure your content into pillars, like so:
Once your user arrives on your home page, they can easily navigate to your most important pages (also known as your pillar pages). From there, they simply click on that link to find clusters of valuable pages and content related to that topic.
Another thing to keep in mind when building your website structure?
A shallow website (that is, one that requires three or fewer clicks to reach every page) is far more preferable than a deep website (which requires lengthy strings of clicks to see every page on your site). - Search Engine Journal
Add links to your most important pages
Image source: Backlinko
You can’t link to every word on your site to another page without being penalised by Google (we’ll cover this more in the next point).
This means you have to be strategic about which pages you add internal links from and which pages you link to.
As we touched on earlier, internal linking can help spread link equity, which in turn can help underperforming pages rank better on Google.
So how do you ensure you’re spreading link equity from high volume, high authority pages to lower pages?
Start by using a backlinks tool, such as Ahrefs, to find the pages on your site that have the most backlinks:
Image source: Backlinko
Once you’ve found these, focus on adding internal links from these pages to pages that have fewer or no links.
This little action requires little effort on your part, but when done consistently will help give these underperforming pages a little extra boost. It's also a great way to help boost the page authority of a new page on your domain.
Don’t go overboard with the number of links on a page
Sure, internal linking is important. But it’s also important NOT to go overboard with the number of internal links you have and link every second word to different pages on your site.
If you have too many internal links, this sends a red flag to Google that your site might be spammy or low quality — and you risk getting penalised as a result.
So how many links should you have per page? A general rule of thumb is three to four, but this could go upwards of 10 or 20 if you’re writing a lengthier blog post. Unfortunately, there is no magic number or ratio when it comes to internal linking.
At the end of the day, the key is to link strategically and always with your user in mind.
Make your links crawlable
Your web pages can only appear to users in search results if Google can crawl your website and follow your links. However, they can only do this if you have the right link formats in place.
Not sure if you’re using the right format for your links? Speak to your developer or SEO agency and ask them to check your link attributes, and update any that aren’t following the a href structure.
While we’re on the subject, this is also a good opportunity to make sure that all of your links aren't nofollow links with the “rel=nofollow” tag.
Take a look at your anchor text
Anchor text refers to the words that you use when you want to link from one web page to another.
Let’s take an example. In this article about content marketing, we link the anchor text “why link building matters” to a page about backlinks:
Your anchor text helps search engines (and your audience) understand what the page is that you’re linking to.
According to Google:
The better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you're linking to is about. With appropriate anchor text, users and search engines can easily understand what the linked pages contain.
So how do you write good link text for search engines and users?
Follow these best practices:
Use descriptive text that gives users an idea about what you’re linking to
Keep your link text to a few words or a short phrase (i.e. "thanks for sharing" or "this article")
Use keywords that you want to rank for, within reason
Make sure your links make sense contextually
Avoid creating unnecessary text that don’t help users navigate around your site
Check how your internal links are set up with Google Search Console
Wondering how your site’s internal links are currently set up? Google has a handy feature to help you do just that.
Just hop into Google Search Console and click on Links Report.
Once you get here, you can see exactly how your internal links are set up, including your top linked pages:
Image source: OnPage Champ
After doing this, you’ll quickly see which pages you’re linking to the most — and which need a little bit of TLC.
Repeat this process once or twice a year. It’s a quick and simple way to evaluate your current internal linking structure and bump up link equity to the pages you want to rank.
The final word
Internal linking is a powerful yet MASSIVELY overlooked part of on-site SEO strategy. If you want to create a solid user experience for your visitors, make it easier for Google to crawl your website, and pass on your hard-earned link equity, you need to use internal links.
Not sure if your internal linking strategy is up to scratch? Want to combine great on-site SEO with a smart link building strategy to win more organic traffic real revenue results? We’re here to help.
Claim your free audit today and learn how you can catapult your website to the top of search.