Whether you’ve just started studying SEO, or you’re a seasoned pro, you’ve most likely come to grips with the fact that quality backlinks play a prominent role in driving up website’s organic rankings. The subject of internal linking, however, is often pushed to the side in favour of the more growth focussed and glamorous external link building.
Though optimising your internal linking may not have the same kind of immediate effects as building quality dofollow backlinks, it’s still a vitally important part of ensuring sustainable, long term SEO success.
Whether your site has a handful of pages or hundreds, good internal linking is essential to help Google understand your site, and lay the groundwork for effective link building. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what internal linking is, why it’s important for SEO, and some internal linking best practices to apply to your site.
What is internal linking?
In the context of SEO, internal linking refers to the act of optimising the structure of your site by linking from one page on your site to another.
Internal links are any hyperlink that points from one page on a domain to another page within the same domain, as opposed to external links which point from one domain to another. These kinds of links are essential for both human users and search engine crawlers to navigate your site, and if a page is ‘orphaned’ (has no internal links pointing to it) it will greatly reduce the chances of that page being found by a user or indexed.
Most internal links can be divided into two categories; navigational links, which are typically placed in the navigation bar and guide visitors to the most essential pages under your domain, and contextual links, which are included as part of your site content and used to point users to related content.
Both kinds of links can be followed by Google’s crawlers, and can be instrumental in helping search engines map out an accurate picture of your site structure.
Why internal linking is important
The purpose of internal linking for SEO is rooted in the purpose of search engines themselves, that is, to identify the best, most relevant pages for a given word or query and rank them accordingly.
Whenever Google crawls a new internal link on your site, it takes this as a signal that the page it’s pointing to is important. Though they may not have the same impact as links from authoritative outside sources, both internal links and backlinks can help drive up the authority of a target page and improve its rankings.
Similar to the way inbound links are seen as a vote of confidence in a specific domain, internal links are taken as a vote of confidence for a specific page, framing it as something that your visitors will find useful.
Search engine algorithms give more credence to links that are outside of your control for obvious reasons. However, if these backlinks aren’t backed up by internal links to the same page, it’s less likely that Google will recognise it as a high value page, and in turn, assign a strong rank to it.
Aside from explicitly stating that their target page is important, internal links can also pass on equity from the links pointing to their referring pages.
A referring page’s link equity can have a tremendous impact on the way Google perceives a link hosted on that referring page, whether in the context of internal or external links. If, for example, you link from a page with ten high quality backlinks to another page on your site, this internal link will have a much higher impact on the target page’s ranking than if it was from a referring page with five backlinks of the same quality.
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Techniques to optimise your site’s internal linking
Now that you have an understanding of why internal linking is important for your rankings, here’s some essential SEO internal linking strategies to follow when optimising your site structure. Follow these steps, and you’ll quickly unlock the full potential of your previous SEO efforts, and set any future work up for success.
Identify your strongest pages as internal linking hubs
The first and most important step in a successful internal linking strategy is identifying a list of pages that will serve as internal linking hubs, and the cores of what are known as ‘topic clusters’ – a method of structuring content and pages that will help crawlers understand your site structure.
These pages are typically optimised for high-volume keywords with a broad definition, rather than more niche long tail keywords that tend to be relegated to deeper pages. They also tend to be the pages responsible for the most valuable traffic that comes into your site.
Let’s say, for example, that you run an audio eCommerce site. A headphones category page is likely to target the broad keyword “headphones”, which has a monthly search volume in the hundreds of thousands. It’s also likely to be near the top of your page navigation structure, with brands and subcategories listed beneath them. This page would serve as a good hub for a content cluster, linking pages further down the site hierarchy that target long-tail keywords, like:
- “audio engineering headphones”
- “noise cancelling headphones”
- “gaming headsets”
Getting familiar with what these strong pages are, their keyword rankings, and their link equity, is an essential first step to building an effective internal linking architecture.
Create your topic clusters
One of the most reliable ways to bolster your SEO through internal linking is to create clusters based around specific sets of both topics and keywords.
Each topic cluster should start with the main pages of a silo, as laid out in the previous point. These should link out to relevant supporting pages, which should in turn link back to their own core pages. Supporting pages can exist on several levels, with the content on them becoming progressively more granular the further away from the core page they get. Going back to the audio eCommerce example, you might create a cluster that looks something like:
Headphones > Audio Engineering Headphones > Headphones for Vocal Monitoring
As you build these clusters in each silo, remember that it’s also helpful to set up internal links between pages that share a level on different topic clusters, even if they’re superficially unrelated. For example, you might have some copy on your “Audio Engineering Headphones” page that outlines how these kinds of headphones are wired to avoid audio latency, much the same as Gaming Headsets, with a link pointing to your “Gaming Headsets” page.
Optimise your anchor text
Just like with backlinks, the anchor text used for internal links can have a big impact on how that link affects your rankings.
For the majority of internal links, using exact-match anchor text is the best way to make sure crawlers understand the context of the link and the page it’s pointing to.
Exact-match anchor text should be avoided as a rule when building external backlinks, however when it comes to internal linking, they’re often the most logical and user-friendly way to frame a link. As long as the anchor text is relevant to the page it’s linking to, and neither page is guilty of Webmaster Guidelines violations like keyword stuffing, using exact-match keywords is typically the way to go.
Having said that, if you optimise a particularly large site to a point where a certain page has countless internal links using the same anchor text, Google could see this as unnatural. When optimising your site’s linking structure, try to diversify anchor text while still staying relevant to the right keywords.
Link out from your most authoritative pages
Using your most authoritative content as referring pages is something of a sub-topic of topic clusters. Not all of your most valuable pages are going to be at the top of your site navigation, and if you’ve got disparate pieces of content that enjoy great link equity, these could have a lot of untapped potential for optimising your internal linking.
Use your SEO tool to sort pages on your site by their referring domain count to gauge their link equity, then manually analyse the internal links of your strongest, most authoritative pages. This should help you find some great new opportunities to link to related content on your site.
This process will not only help improve the targeted pages’ chances of ranking, but can also help you come up with some great ideas for creating fresh content that will plug internal linking gaps.
Make internal linking a part of your content creation process
As you may soon discover, periodically executing an internal link check and executing a project to fix any issues can be very taxing on your time, and may funnel precious resources away from working on other aspects of your site’s SEO.
To ensure you don’t have to do this too often, and to keep your organic rankings developing at a healthy rate, we strongly recommend using this advice to bake internal linking into your content creation strategy and process.
One good habit to adopt is to carry out searches for keywords that are relevant to a new piece of content using the “site:” Google command in the planning phase. With this post, for example, we started by searching “site:hive19.co.uk ecommerce” to find an opportunity for internal links that would fit naturally with the audio equipment store example given above.
Formalising this step in your content creation process and communicating it to any content writers in your team will contribute to steady ranking improvements and save yourself having to conduct an internal link audit every few weeks.
We hope this overview of internal linking and the strategies you can use to optimise your site architecture has helped, you can read more in our SEO hub. If you would like to learn more about internal link strategies, get in contact with our team.