How to Optimise Internal Links to Improve Rankings

Post by Tom Baker
19 Sep 2018

Internal linking has traditionally been a low priority for many SEOs. Inbound links, on-page content optimisation and other aspects of technical SEO have taken precedence. In recent times there has been a shift towards giving internal links more credence. Take a look at SEO discussions in the blogosphere or on Twitter and you’ll see far more mentions of internal linking than ever before.

So why the change? The simple answer is Google. Google has given greater weighting to usability factors (bounce rate, time to return to SERPs) and the paradigm shift from understanding intent and website authority in terms of topics and not simply keywords.

For SEOs this means two things

  • The need to understand usability. Particularly how users want to navigate between pages. SEOs are optimising internal links for a better user experience and not purely based on link equity theories. Link equity is still hugely important as I’ll show later but it’s now not the only consideration. The path to success involves combining user experience and SEO. Not one at the expense of the other.
  • The need to build topical authority. Search engine users are using Google as a means to answer a question (You’ll see a lot of SEOs now talking about ‘Answer Engine Optimisation). In practice this means creating content that builds authority on a given topic. The topic tends to encompass many subjects which deserve their own page, therefore, linking between pages to show the relationship between subjects within the larger topic becomes imperative.

What gets Measured gets Optimised

An important secondary aspect of the greater focus on internal linking is the introduction of tools that allow SEOs to measure and optimise internal links plus some excellent case studies showing the relationship between optimising internal links and ranking success. I recommend reading this study from Hubspot for more on putting the theory into practice.

We’re told to focus on optimising the things we can measure and showing how our work has led to improvements. The problem with internal linking is that it doesn’t have a specific KPI that can be improved over time and was therefore often discounted as a valuable SEO practice.

In summary, it’s hard to know what the end goal is or what it looks like when you get there. Changing internal links and isolating the effect of those changes is nigh-on impossible especially for larger websites (check out nascent SEO A/B testing software coming on to the market if this is a challenge you face).

Visualising Internal Links to Comprehend Website Architecture

This is all changing thanks to the work Sitebulb (standing on the shoulders of Portent) has done to visualise internal linking and show what an ideal internal linking structure should look like.  Sitebulb crawls internal links to visualise the relationships between pages. This has opened the possibility to create before and after snapshots to see how close you are to the ideal internal structure.

The ideal is different depending on the type of website (news, e-commerce, forum etc.). I recommend reading through the case studies that Sitbulb are collecting to get a better understanding.

Suffice to say a poor internal linking structure will have random off-shoots and inconsistent relationships between pages e.g. not all category and product groups will have the same visual relationship.

A nice structure will be consistent with a clear relationship between pages that’s applied across the entire website.

10 Ways to Optimise Internal Links

So now we know why internal linking is more important than ever and how to visualise your progress to ensure you’re on track. That leaves us to delve into the dos and don’t of optimising internal links.

Follow the 3 Click Path Rule

This isn’t a hard and fast commandment but it’s generally considered a sensible approach to ensure that all pages are accessible within 3 clicks from the homepage.

It’s important to understand that this can get very messy and shouldn’t be done in isolation. As mentioned at the start of this article usability has to work hand-in-hand with optimising for a search engine. Tackle this one with your UX and development team to produce solutions that meet the needs of both the user and Google.

Prioritise Linking to the Most Important Content

The homepage is likely to have the most authority. Pass this authority (often called link equity) to pages you have identified as important. Follow the same principle as you go deeper into the website. For example, for an e-commerce category page consider

  1. The best selling products/brands/designers
  2. Where a small improvement in search rankings will have an outsized impact e.g. URLs that rank just outside of the top 3 or URLs that rank just outside of page 1
  3. Make Google aware of new products/brands/designers
  4. Products/services that are often purchased together (this should already be part of an upsell journey).

Ultimately you need to consider which pages are going to give you the biggest ‘return on linking’ by giving them preferential treatment in your website architecture.

Link to Pages within a Topic Cluster

This is hugely important. Google wants to quickly understand what the page is about and the search phrases that page might rank for. Create clusters of links around a specific topic.  For example, wallpaper is a topic for a homeware website. In this instance, the website should link from the wallpaper category to product pages within the category. This tells Google in no uncertain terms that the linked to pages are wallpaper products and the most important wallpaper products on the website.

This is an SEO strategy that Hubspot have used to achieve great results. In their example, they create a ‘hub’ page about email marketing and ‘spoke’ pages, usually blog posts, that link between each other and up to the hub page. This image perfectly demonstrates the theory.

Link to the Destination Page using Descriptive Text

The text you use to place the link is called the anchor text. It gives Google a strong signal as to the topic of the destination page and therefore what search phrases the page could rank for.  It’s very easy to get too clever with this tactic and over-optimise anchor text. 

Don’t stuff every link with keywords. As a general rule write the copy for the user and then find the most appropriate text within your copy for the anchor text. If you can’t identify good anchor text then make small edits to your copy. Don’t write copy with SEO as the first priority. The user always comes first.

Vary Anchor Text from Multiple Pages to Destination Page

Use a variety of anchor text when linking from multiple pages to the destination page. Vary the anchor text based on the different phrases people search for to discover the same product.  Use tools like answerthepublic and ryte to find what people search for and how other websites describe the topic.

This will expand the number of phrases that the page could rank for. It’s important to not only target the most popular terms but also the long tail of phrases that people use. This is a great tactic to help you rank for that long tail.

One Link per Page to the Destination Page

Be aware that Google is likely to ignore a second link on one URL to the same destination URL. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that linking to a page multiple times from the same URL but with different anchor text is going to make the page rank for multiple terms.

For example, I’ve linked to the same URL on twice in this blog post. Google will see this and give a much greater weighting to the anchor text of the first link ‘study from Hubspot’ than the second link ‘SEO strategy that Hubspot’.

It’s also worth considering that a second link to the same URL is a wasted opportunity to link to a different URL.

Link to the Canonical Version of the Page

Your CMS may create multiple instances of the same content, this is especially true of some e-commerce websites. Ensure you always link to the page that duplicates are canonicalised to.  It goes without saying that you should be working with your developers and using Google Search Console URL Parameters to combat duplicate content.

Fix Broken Links

Run a regular crawl of the website to find 404 errors. Delve into this to find out what is causing the 404. It’s often a typo in the URL or a genuinely expired page. Whilst 404s aren’t necessarily a negative (every website has 404s and often for good reasons) it does make sense to minimise 404s and not waste Google’s time (crawl budget) on dead-end paths.

Remove all Internal Redirects

Ensure that pages link directly to the destination page. Don’t put up with links that redirect through an intermediary URL. If you do then you’ll be hit with the double-whammy of decreased link equity passing through and slower page load times.  Google dislikes both of these, so should you.

Always use HTML to Link between Pages

Don’t use javascript. Google finds it more difficult to crawl javascript links. Don’t make it’s life hard. It’s as simple as that.

Comment below if you need further help with internal linking and I’ll be happy to help out. If you need SEO consultancy for short or long term projects then get in touch.

Tom Baker

The guy writing this stuff. Previously worked in-house doing all sorts of marketing for start-ups and large brands. Now helping business to sell on Amazon and growth their D2C revenue

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