Why an internal link strategy is crucial to SEO success

Matthew Finch | 21st May 2020 | Organic

Interested in the product we’re talking about? You can buy it here. Like this blog post? Here’s another one. Whether your website is packed with internal links at every opportunity or there’s only one or two on each page, you probably think of them primarily as a way to keep users browsing for as long as possible. 

It’s true that internal links are your website’s convenient transport system and a key element of UX. Ferrying users effortlessly from one stop to the next, they connect every page in a natural way which makes it easy for visitors to keep exploring, keep getting to know your brand and – crucially – keep moving along the conversion funnel. 

However, they do much more than keep the casual visitor interested. Just like external links, internal links have a direct impact on how your website ranks in SERPs and – by extension – the rate of organic traffic finding its way to your business. This means that an SEO strategy and an internal linking strategy shouldn’t be considered two separate entities; it’s not a case of using one to bring users in and the other to keep them there. The two should be closely intertwined, and internal linking should be carried out as a key element of your SEO activity. 

How do internal links impact SEO performance?

In order for your page to rank in SERPs, Google needs to know that it exists. This is a driving force behind SEO at the most fundamental level, but when creating a new page it’s easy to overlook the important role that internal linking plays in this process.

  1. Google’s web crawler is constantly on the lookout for new pages, but it needs open pathways in order to find them. These include external links, internal links and an up-to-date sitemap – but given that it takes time to establish external links for a new page this responsibility often falls to internal links.
  2. Following internal links helps Google not only to identify pages but to understand how they relate to one another, which pages cover similar ground and what kind of an experience your website provides for the user. This information is all reflected in how your page ranks in the search result – and while it is supplemented by backlinks which demonstrate trustworthiness and authority, these are not influential enough by themselves.
  3. Relevant anchor text helps Google to understand the context of an internal link. This means that it may deem a page worthy of a high ranking if it is linked to the right keyword, but doesn’t mean that you should link as many keywords as possible per page – as ever with SEO, quality is more important than quantity.

How to structure your internal links strategically

An effective internal linking structure is about understanding what pages are relevant to others, rather than simply peppering a website with a certain number of links per page. There are a number of ways to put this into practice:

1. Create hubs for each topic

Ensuring that closely related pages are clustered around a hub page does more than just make your site easier to navigate for users and Google alike. Creating a tightly-knit network of directly relevant links, rather than a trail meandering across the entire site, helps transfer authority to the pages that matter most. 

2. Link strong pages to weaker ones

Creating these types of links isn’t just about identifying a few important pages and linking them to everything else.

  • First, identify the keyphrase you are looking to rank for. Then, search it in Google like this: site:yourdomain.com “keyphrase”
  • This will show you which pages are ranking most highly for your chosen phrase. Where the keyphrase is mentioned on these pages, you should anchor internal links to your new page.

    3. Let existing backlinks guide you

There’s another way of finding out which are your most powerful pages, using a tool like Ahrefs Site Explorer’s best by links function.

Ranking your site pages by the highest number of backlinks allows you to see which ones Google views as particularly high-quality and authoritative. But again, don’t stuff them with links – find relevant keywords to use as anchors.

4. Use additional on-page elements

In addition to carefully placed anchor texts, there are a number of other features that you can take advantage of. 

  • Related posts should be created manually instead of using a plugin that generates them automatically. This ensures not only that they are genuinely related, but that they are as relevant and high-quality as possible. 
  • Recent and popular posts can be featured on pages around your site in much the same way, but make sure that they are used sparingly so as not to oversaturate.
  • Taxonomies, such as categories and tags, often seem like optional extras when publishing a post – something to be filled in if you have time. Don’t underestimate how much they can help users, and Google, to understand the structure of your site.

How to carry out an internal link audit

It’s all very well making sure that new pages are supported by a solid internal linking structure – but it may well be that your website needs a full strategic overhaul when it comes to links. 

A website that has been running for some years can easily become cluttered with broken and irrelevant links that can harm its standing with Google, but cleaning them up is a simpler process than you might expect. Using a site audit tool such as Ahrefs Site Audit will reveal the following:

Broken links

These not only have a negative impact on UX but they waste link equity (authority that can be passed from one link to another). To minimise this effect, the pages should be reinstated or redirects put in place.

Links to redirected pages

While these do not have any significant impact on UX, taking a few minutes to update these removes the unnecessary ‘link hop’ and improves the overall structure of your internal links.

Deep-linked pages

These are important pages which feature key products or target keyphrases, but currently sit too many clicks away from the homepage. The structure should be reconfigured to make these more accessible if they need to attract traffic.

Links on unimportant pages

Some pages on your website remain relevant for its entire lifetime, while others (such as news pages or blog posts) may only attract traffic for a short time. Revisiting these to ensure they are not overly populated with links ensures that link equity does not go to waste – however, you should leave a few links in to avoid the pages being orphaned completely.

Orphaned pages

These are pages which have no internal links whatsoever – meaning that they are only visible to Google via crawled backlinks or an updated sitemap. Ideally your site should not have any – but if you have a large website the priority is to make sure no important pages appear on this list.

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