[This post originally appeared in 2011 from Marianne Sweeney and was refreshed in 2017 by popular demand.]
If you were to map out your website’s internal links, would there be a logical order to it, or would it look like a steaming plate of spaghetti? Be careful before you answer. Strip away all the fancy design, the hours of brilliant copywriting, and the carefully considered page names. Instead, today we’ll think of your site as a simple series of dots (pages) and lines (links) to evaluate internal linking for SEO purposes. That’s one of the first steps we take at Portent when we’re doing a technical SEO audit or review with our in-house crawler, RainGage. This often helps to take ego or pride of authorship out of the equation, for a really important exercise.
Spoiler alert: once you’ve stripped the site down to this level, it becomes obvious that a lot of websites have tried to link too many of these pages to each other, especially in the top menus and sidebar navigation. Two big reasons for this are:
The Desire to be User Friendly
You want visitors to find what they’re looking for. That’s great, but, main navigations with a hundred links and overzealous internal linking can lead to both SEO and usability problems.
From a usability perspective, choice overload will lead to decision paralysis. Instead of taking the time to go through specific, logical, descriptive drop-down menus and nav elements to find what they want, your visitors will get overwhelmed, frustrated, and abandon your site. The reality is that people will click on links if they believe that they are on a clear and direct path toward their goal.
If nobody clicks on a link what does it accomplish? If a whale cries in the ocean, does it get saltier?
On the SEO side you’ve still got people trying to link everything to everything, presumably to get as many pages ranking for as many things as possible. But to spread all those nav links with the shotgun approach will ultimately just dilute the value of the links and pages that really matter, making them nearly worthless. If a page has 100 internal links, then each link can only pass 1/100th of that page’s available Link Authority. At a certain point, search engines will even stop following links on a page due to exhaustion. Meaning that some of those most ‘useful’ links, the ones that actually drive leads or revenue for you might not even be crawled.
If you are using a tool like Crazy Egg, take look at the links people are NOT clicking on. If nobody clicks on a link what does it accomplish? If a whale cries in the ocean, does it get saltier?
Internal Linking with a Purpose
One of the first fundamental concepts of SEO I learned is that every page of relevant content can strengthen your SEO. If you’ve studied long tail theory you understand the power of content to capture high quality visitors by optimizing for a bunch of different keyword concepts, especially specific searches that trade off low volume for less competition and high visitor relevance. Translated: write about stuff that a few good prospective customers care about deeply, and they’ll find you when you nail their question. Rinse, repeat.
In a typical scenario, you might publish a new blog post or page.
Next you choose to give it an SEO boost by cross linking other pages to it thereby sending your article extra “link juice” or PageRank. Again, the danger here is that if you overuse this tactic for every new post or page, you can cannibalize ranking authority from your important higher level pages, especially if you cross link to too many pages.
All things in moderation. All things done for a well-considered reason.
Overzealous cross linking results from the desire to increase key pages’ authority and rank, which is a good part of the reason that a lot of us have these sweet jobs in the first place. But, when you treat too many pages like they’re high value SEO targets you end up diluting the raw material you have to work with.
Important: I’m absolutely not telling you not to cross link.
A better strategy, especially for that long tail content, is to increase domain authority and flow PageRank through your site naturally using something like a hub page, for example.
Lead With Internal Link Discipline
The first step in “SEOing” a new website is to develop your content ideas and topics. Next is to organize all of those wonderful content ideas into categories or topic silos. At this point, you don’t need to think about keywords. Only after you’ve laid out the groundwork should you research, select and assign keyword groups to pages.
Here is a classic SEO website architecture for two categories.
Within the category, the topic is broad at the top, close to the home page, then becomes more specific as you go deeper into the silo. Looking closely at the internal linking structure:
This classic SEO internal linking architecture works especially well for brochure or sales pages. You can choose to be more disciplined with your internal linking too. Here is a strict internal linking scheme.
And if you want to be even more disciplined, do not link articles to each other.
Cross linking for SEO
After you’ve set-up the website’s internal linking structure you can begin to think about those cross links. Cross linking can boost the SEO value of a page by sending it PageRank from outside of its silo in the internal linking structure.
Three reasons that cross linking makes sense:
Give an SEO Boost to New Content
Playbook Recap: You can get search engines to naturally index new content more quickly by linking to it from high value pages like your home or category pages. Cross linking can also provide a PageRank or link juice boost to a page to help it rank better.
If you’ve worked on a blog, this will be quite familiar to you. Cross links can give new content the visibility to earn its own links and authority. As material becomes older and can stand well on its own, you can potentially remove those high authority cross links and aim them at newer and fresher content.
Blogs work like a conveyor belt, constantly giving the most internal link juice to the newest content and removing it from older articles.
If that doesn’t immediately make sense, play out this example. On a blog, links to new articles usually appear on the home page, the article’s category page, and in tag pages. Links may also appear throughout the blog in the sidebar, often under the heading Recent Articles or Recent Stories. As new content gets introduced to the blog, that link from the home page is pushed further down the page until it disappears. The same happens on category and tag pages. Eventually the only default way to click to the story is through the archive links on its category and tag pages.
Create Hub Pages
Playbook Recap: Hub pages are important SEO keyword targets and UX goldmines in your website, often for deeper content. The home page and the category pages are natural hub pages. Therefore, every page links to them in the internal linking structure. Before you create a hub page it is important to be ruthless in your evaluation. Does the page really deserve to become a hub? If successful in earning you visibility for the topic, what value will it bring? Remember, every time you cross link outside of the link architecture you steal PageRank from other pages that would otherwise receive that link juice. Each link also messes with your carefully crafted top-down flow of PageRank.
Once you decide that a web page is also a worthwhile hub page, begin by linking to it from within the body content of pages with similar or related topics. Link using anchor text that contains the hub page’s most important keyword target. If you must, add links from other pages, but do so gradually and thoughtfully.
If your ruthless evaluation convinced you that every page on your website ought to link to your incredibly important new hub page, perhaps it should become a new category page or sub-category page.
Pass PageRank from Pages with Lots of External Links to Key SEO Targets without External Links
What’s the use of creating great link bait if you cannot spread the wealth around? A well optimized website has lots of pages with external backlinks. These boost the domain authority of your site and help all pages to rank better. But PageRank is a renewable resource. Once a web page effectively uses PageRank for itself it can pass some of that authority along. If you’ve created a page that’s successfully garnered lots of external links it absolutely makes sense to pass some of that hard-earned PageRank to other SEO targets.
A final reminder: Be disciplined and deliberate with your internal linking. Only link to high value SEO targets and only link to a few pages. If you link to too many URLs you will exceed the amount of external link juice the page can transfer and siphon-off internal link juice.
Do not attempt to make every page a high-value SEO lander, just those that actually drive your business. If you can do this consistently, you’ll be well on your way to increasing the search engine optimization of your entire website.