Internal Linking Strategy for Better SEO Performance
Feb 11, 2022|Read time: 28 min.
- Internal links can be more important than backlinks in some cases.
- Backlinks are like the wires from a power plant to your house, and internal links like the wires from your circuit breaker to your outlets.
- Some types of internal links are more valuable than others, but they all work together to convey meaning, hierarchy, and authority to help search engines understand your website.
As SEOs, we all know how valuable backlinks are. But did you know that internal linking can be even more important?
Shocked? You’re not alone. In fact, most SEO practitioners over invest in backlinks when they already have tons of site authority instead of developing a clear internal linking strategy.
And that’s a huge mistake.
If your website already has massive authority, build internal links.
I’ve been developing SEO strategies for years. During that time, I’ve learned a lot about which levers to pull, how hard to pull them, and in which order to get the best results. And believe me, internal links are a very powerful lever — if you use them strategically.
In this comprehensive internal linking guide, I’ll reveal everything I know about the topic. Best of all, this strategy only takes about one hour per week to maintain!
What are internal links?
Internal links are hyperlinks between two pages on the same website. They pass authority, context, and relevance signals through anchor text as well as the surrounding content.
Most definitions of internal linking use the word domain instead of website. But, that gets a little dicey due to subdomains. If your website has several subdomains, then links between them should be considered internal because you own those sites. For instance, if I link to our careers subdomain, that’s an example of an internal link.
However, what about subdomains on WordPress and Blogspot that are owned by different people? Each of those subdomains are technically different websites with different owners. So, links between them should be considered external instead.
Simply put, if you have the ability to add links between web page A and web page B, and they live on the same root domain, those are internal links.
Internal links vs external links vs backlinks
Internal linking in html looks identical to a backlink because they’re both types of hyperlinks. They each contain an href attribute, anchor text, and sometimes an additional rel attribute. Here’s what they both look like:
However, each serves a different purpose, and they provide value in different ways.
Backlinks are hyperlinks between two pages on separate websites. They increase your website’s authority, and that helps you rank better in the Google SERP. People often compare them to votes for your website.
You might earn these links naturally, or you may need to acquire them through strategic outreach. Backlinks are vital to your SEO success because they’re one of the top 3 Google ranking factors.
Internal links, on the other hand, don’t boost your website’s authority because you can add them yourself. That would be like voting for yourself or blowing wind into your own sail.
Instead, they funnel existing authority and relevance from your backlinks throughout your website.
Finally, external links are simply hyperlinks that point from your website to a different domain. These are valuable if you want to cite a source, or link to a more in-depth piece of content about a topic you don’t cover.
Some folks in the SEO world claim that linking out to high authority sites helps your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts. There are plenty of studies out there if you want to read them. However, I’m not entirely convinced because it’s too gameable. On one hand, you should link out when citing facts and sources — especially for sensitive information. But, adding a random link to Time doesn’t benefit users or SEO.
But, if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what Google has to say.
Ultimately, my take is that external links aren’t a ranking signal, but they can build credibility when done right. If you mention a stat or you pull something from someone else’s article, you should definitely link out to it.
Linking to spammy websites can hurt your rankings by drawing you into bad link neighborhoods.
Why are internal links important for SEO?
Google search has come a long way since the early days of simple keyword matching. Google now uses natural language processing (NLP) to better understand one in 10 English search queries.
But, algorithms aren’t perfect. They need context to understand what a page is about, its relationship to other pages, and how important it is on your website.
That’s the true value of internal links. They power your site architecture, convey meaning, funnel authority, and much more.
Definitely check out the webinar below to dive even deeper on internal links. My colleague, Angela Skane, and I joined Clearscope to explain some best practices and answer common questions.
Internal linking webinar
Internal links are like wires
Imagine your home as an example.
Backlinks are like the wires from a power plant to your house, and internal links are the wires from your circuit breaker to your outlets. No matter how many wires you have in your home, your lights won’t work if you don’t connect your house to the grid.
Similarly, if you build an extra bedroom on your home, but you forget to wire it, that room won’t have any power even if the rest of the house does. In that way, broken links are a lot like wires too. If you cut a wire, or the circuit breaker gets tripped, power won’t flow to the outlets on the other end.
That metaphor illustrates the concept of internal linking in terms of PageRank or link equity. But, it doesn’t really address all the other benefits of internal links that make them a vital part of your SEO strategy.
Let’s get back to the initial point about why I think internal links can be more important than backlinks.
Internal links are a bit like an organizational chart for your website. They group related pages and sections together like departments in a company. This reinforces context and relevance as well as your depth of coverage on a topic.
Your html internal linking strategy works together with your website navigation and URL structure to support an SEO-friendly website architecture.
Internal links help Google to understand the most important pages on your website. Search engines consider pages with lots of internal links to be more important than those with fewer links. That’s especially true when you link to those pages from your navigation because it tells Google you want users to find them.
Imagine if you walked up to the reference desk at your local library and said, “kitchen counters.” The librarian would have no idea what you were looking for. As a result, she might offer you a list of local stores, books of countertop styles, or point you towards DIY Youtube videos to install a countertop.
Google also needs context to understand both search queries and web pages. On-page SEO elements like page titles, H1 tags, URLs, and subheadings all provide search engines with more context about a page.
But, so do internal links. And it’s not just the anchor text that offers context, either. The context of the link within the sentence, paragraph, and subheading of the referring page also provide invaluable clues about what’s on the other end of that link.
On-Page SEO Checklist
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The final piece of the puzzle is authority. Whether you call the metric PageRank, Page Authority or URL Rating, it’s all the same concept. Pages on your website that receive the most backlinks from trusted domains have the most value to pass along to other URLs on your site.
Simply put, if a page has tons of high quality inbound links, find opportunities to add relevant, internal links to distribute that authority to other pages on your website.
It’s important to note the concept of authority has changed a lot over the years. It used to mean “build a ton of links from anywhere.” Now Google ignores most of the backlinks it finds, so you must be strategic about the backlinks you build. The better your content, the more links you’ll naturally earn from authoritative brands.
Benefits of an internal linking strategy
In addition to the SEO signals we just discussed, there are several other key benefits to a strategic internal linking structure.
Internal links improve user experience and conversions
Internal link building is an excellent way to deliver a premium user experience while moving potential customers deeper into your conversion funnel. As users consume your content, they’ll have more questions. When you anticipate those questions, you can guide their thought process. Then, by strategically adding internal links to your content, you’ll prompt action.
When you serve users what they want, they’re more likely to remain on your website instead of returning to Google for answers. This builds brand awareness, builds trust, fosters brand loyalty and increases sales.
Search engines use links to crawl your site
Links are the most effective way Google discovers new content. If a URL doesn’t have any internal links or backlinks, it could take Google much longer to find it.
Googlebot and other web crawlers literally travel the web from one link to another. The more links a new page or new post has, the more likely Google will encounter it.
Internal pages without any links are called orphaned pages. It’s always worth checking your website to make sure every page you care about has at least one internal link.
Each type of internal link passes value differently
Just like backlinks, some types of internal links are more valuable than others. In fact, Google has filed patents that pass PageRank differently depending upon the likelihood of a user clicking a link. You can read more in Bill Slawski’s post the Reasonable Surfer Model.
I’ll break down the various types below in the order of MOST to LEAST valuable, including how each one helps your website.
Body content links (editorial links)
These are the most important types of internal links for SEO because they pass both context and authority to the destination page. Think of them like the fiber optic cables of links because they carry so much information.
Remember, Google continues to evolve its algorithm to better understand meaning and context. It doesn’t just look at anchor text anymore. Google also extracts information from the words that surround links. The more meaning, user intent and context you convey in the text around your link, the better Google will understand the page you link to.
Finally, we intentionally add body links to our content, whether to cite a source, entice a click, or just provide more information. Therefore, these types of internal links pass more page authority from the linking page to the destination page compared to navigation links that appear on every page of your website.
Not every website needs breadcrumbs. You’ll notice we don’t use them because our architecture is fairly simple. However, ecommerce sites with tens of thousands of product pages should definitely use them.
For anyone scratching their head, breadcrumbs are a simple navigational feature on websites near the top of a page that illustrates where you are in the website hierarchy. Here’s an example of what they might look like:
Breadcrumbs are an excellent way to improve UX, because users can easily jump back to any point in the content hierarchy. They also provide a clear roadmap that tells search engines how your content is organized and helps them discover important sections of your website.
Finally, breadcrumbs pass along valuable backlink power. The best part of all? Once you build them into your website, they’re automated! That means you don’t have to add them every time you publish a new page like you do with body links.
Main navigation links
Sticking with the wire analogy, navigation links are more like broadband wires. They communicate tons of information about hierarchy and site structure, but they don’t pass PageRank or context the way body links do.
Furthermore, navigation links are the primary way users discover your most important content. So, even though they’re less valuable from an authority perspective, they’re still a vital part of your internal link structure.
CTAs and sidebar links
Sidebar links are usually more navigational like a list of categories or related content, and CTA modules tend to be more commercially-focused, so they pass very little PageRank.
However, you can strategically leverage them to improve both UX and site crawlability.
Create a sidebar module with related links to similar content. You could choose the top 5 pages with the same tag or category, or URLs you manually select from a topic cluster (more on that later). You can also link to deep pages that might not fit naturally into your body content or navigation in sidebar modules.
This would be like an old telephone wire (remember those?)
It’s fitting that footer links are at the bottom of the list. In terms of authority, these don’t really do anything for you. Fat footers that are jammed with too many links just appear spammy. Instead, link to your Contact page, Privacy page, Disclaimers, and About Us page.
Footer links are more like two tin cans connected by a string than a wire that transfers data. They’re mostly there for navigation.
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The Fortune 500 CMO’s guide to content strategy.
Internal linking best practices
Now that we’ve covered the why behind internal linking, we can move on to the how. The following best practices underpin the SEO strategy for this website. If you like acronyms, then we can boil this strategy down to the I CARE model:
- Anchor text
- Existing page authority
I’ll cover each of the above points within the best practices below.
Integrate SEO into your content strategy
When you keep SEO top of mind as you develop your content strategy, you naturally create content that’s ideal for internal linking. Think about your personas, their pain points, and the journey they take along the path to conversion.
How do your customers think about their problems and possible solutions? Which terms do they search in Google? What’s the intent behind those keywords, and what format should your content be presented in?
Publish content that aligns with your audience’s immediate needs, and anticipate their evolving questions as they progress through the funnel. Then, add internal links strategically to capture their interest at the precise moment they’re thinking of the next question.
Use topic clusters and pillar pages
We can take the above concept one step further by using topic clusters. Not familiar with how they work? I explain what topic clusters are here, and they’re fundamental to our internal linking strategy.
In short, topic clusters are related buckets of content that collectively cover broad concepts. Each group has one pillar page and many supporting cluster pages. If you’re imagining something like a Ferris wheel, you’re exactly right.
The reason topic clusters are so effective in an internal linking strategy is because they form hubs of relevant content.
Each pillar page overviews a high-level topic and it introduces various subtopics. Then, pillar pages link out to more detailed blog posts about those subtopics from appropriate subheadings. These blog posts are called cluster pages, and they link back to the main pillar page in return. Cluster pages also link to each other where appropriate, and even link to other pillar pages.
Topic cluster example
- Benefits of Content Marketing
- Amazing Content Marketing Examples
- Content Marketing for Insurance Companies
Topic clusters help to demonstrate expertise and breadth of coverage to Google. More importantly, they organize your content into bitesize subtopics and passages which is precisely what Google is investing in right now.
Google recently announced that they made a breakthrough in ranking which allows them to better understand the relevancy of individual passages from your pages, and even index them separately.
Topic Cluster Template
Organize topic clusters to maximize reach and optimize content strategy.
Link out from authoritative pages
Some people make this harder than it needs to be. As long as you have access to a tool like Moz or Ahrefs, you can assess the relative authority of the pages on your website based on the strength of their backlink profile.
There’s no need to sculpt PageRank, or use algorithms. Just make sure you add internal links to relevant pages with lots of great backlinks. The more backlinks it has, the more links you can add without diluting their value too much.
Internal linking isn’t hard. You don’t need to use formulas or algorithms. Don’t overthink it.
PRO TIP: What’s the highest authority page on your website? Your homepage! Link out to a handful of your top URLs from your homepage, if possible. If those are blog posts, add a section near the bottom of the page for your top blog content. If they’re service pages, be sure to link to them from a services section on your homepage.
Use keywords in internal link anchor text
Are you wearing a lifejacket? This is where the boat gets rocky. Some SEO experts recommend that you go easy on the exact match anchor text or you might get penalized by Google. I absolutely disagree.
It’s inconceivable that Google would ever penalize a great website because they linked to their own content from their own domain using appropriate, keyword-driven anchor text.
It’s your website. You’re allowed to do whatever you want. Just don’t pack keywords in unnaturally, and don’t overuse them if you’re building backlinks from other websites. As long as your internal links and anchor text make sense contextually and they’re intended to help users, don’t worry about it.
Here’s what Google says about anchor text:
So, why is there confusion? Because, in addition to the above recommendations, Google adds, “Avoid using excessively keyword-filled or lengthy anchor text just for search engines.” Some folks interpret that statement as a shot across the bow to avoid using exact match keywords.
However, I believe it means that you should use anchor like this:
- SEO strategy
- Build an effective SEO strategy
- How to create an SEO strategy
- develop an SEO strategy
- Search engine optimization strategy
And avoid using anchor like this: search engine optimization SEO strategy plan.
See the difference? It would be pretty hard to follow Google’s recommendations and use short, descriptive anchor text without using exact match keywords regularly. If you mention SEO strategy, and you have a page about it, link to it. Don’t try to shoehorn in other words to avoid exact match anchor. You’ll wind up degrading the user experience.
Mix up your anchor text
Anchor text matters — a lot. Google uses it to understand what’s on the other end of a link. Anchor text influences your rankings, so why not use that to your advantage?
I’d be willing to bet that when you publish content, you probably want it to rank for more than the main head term, right? You’d expect the page to rank for hundreds, or even thousands of long-tail keywords that collectively drive massive amounts of traffic.
A great way to influence your rankings for those lower volume terms is to use them in your internal links.
If a page has a lot of internal links with exact match anchor text, mix it up. Consider using broad match variations as well, especially if they help convey the context or search intent of your target keyword. For example, here’s a snapshot of the anchor I use to link back to this post:
Prioritize relevance over location
Have you read that internal links above the fold, high up on the page, or in the first paragraph are more valuable?
These statements are controversial because they contradict Google’s stance on relevance and user experience. Unnaturally packing links into your content as high up as you can get them harms usability and diminishes trust. Would Google implement a ranking signal that’s bad for users? It’s unlikely.
Yet, there is some anecdotal evidence that link placement could be a weak ranking signal if all other things are equal.
- Google decries content and links crammed at the bottom of product pages solely for SEO purposes.
- Content near the top of a page tends to be more valuable for SEO.
Of course, that signal could be very weak if it exists at all. And it may vary by website type or industry. So, what should you do?
Think about your users. Add links to the most relevant, useful place on your page. If you want a clear example, skim through this post. You’ll notice that several subheadings contain a keyword, like “topic clusters” or “content strategy.” Then, I linked to the corresponding pages within those sections using broad match anchor text.
Those subheadings are packed with highly relevant context about the topics that surround the links. Remember, context is king. If you have a section all about the value of search engine optimization, that’s the best place to link to a blog post about SEO ROI.
But if you don’t, you can still squeeze something in like I just did as long as the sentence is relevant to the link.
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Add internal links from old content
This is something that everyone talks about and few people are disciplined enough to do. I’ll be honest, the more content we publish, the longer it takes to go back and add internal links.
When I just start to build a topic cluster, there aren’t many opportunities to add relevant links. But, in the case of our massive 5,000+ word digital marketing guide? I had to add links from just about every blog post on our site.
The bottom line: when you invest in creating 10x content, you owe it to yourself to spend about an hour or two per week to add valuable internal links.
Fix broken internal links
Let’s face it. Broken links are a part of life in SEO. The bigger your site, the more you’ll have. I’ll include redirects in this section as well, because sometimes legacy sites have multiple redirect chains or loops that aren’t much better than broken links.
You already know that you need to fix broken links because they sap PageRank, disrupt UX and waste crawl budget. But, what about redirects?
If you said no, think back to how important anchor text is. If you redirect pages into a new URL but don’t update the original anchor text, those links could be sending mixed signals to Google about what the new destination page is about.
This may send chills down your spine if you have hundreds of thousands of pages on your site. But don’t panic. You probably only have a few dozen custom built internal links pointing to those pages from blog content. Any other links are most likely navigational so you won’t need to worry about them.
Use dofollow links
If you’ve been in the business for a while, you’re probably familiar with PageRank sculpting. Back in the day, webmasters would nofollow some internal links to stop PageRank from flowing to unwanted URLs. They did this to concentrate the flow of link juice to money pages while still allowing links to function for users.
Well, that’s no longer the case. PageRank now “evaporates” through nofollow links. It doesn’t pass through to the destination page, and it doesn’t get redistributed to other links on the page. It just goes away.
In short, use dofollow internal links — unless you have millions of low-value pages you don’t want Google to discover.
Internal linking strategies to avoid
Regardless of how long you’ve been doing SEO, there’s a good chance your website is plagued by the following common internal linking mistakes. Maybe you inherited somebody else’s mess. Or, like me, you learned a ton since you first started doing SEO.
Don’t overdo it
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of this one. It’s a very easy trap to fall into. We all want to lower our bounce rates, boost conversions and pass as much link value around as we can. And the more content you have, the more opportunities you’ll find to add links.
But, it’s important to restrain yourself. If you have too many internal links, you’ll dilute your PageRank and your content will look spammy. Moreover, users will have too many choices to click, and probably won’t click on anything.
Unfortunately, there is no magic number when it comes to how many links to add in a post. Again, some experts point to a very old video of Matt Cutts who said 100 is a good number to aim for.
But I don’t agree with hard numbers.
Instead of counting, just add links where you think they’re most relevant and will provide some value for users.
It’s also important to revisit older posts where you may have been overzealous. I know I can certainly fix some of my old bad habits.
Don’t use silo techniques
Again, there are some well-respected folks in the SEO world who swear by siloing, or only linking within a defined category or topic group. The idea is that this technique concentrates topical relevance within a group of URLs.
The problem? That’s just not how topics work. Think of the six degrees of separation (AKA Bacon’s Law). One thing is related to another, which is related to another and so on.
Content marketing is not directly related to the Google SERP. However, you might still mention it in certain articles. And if you do, you should link to a relevant page about the topic.
For example, in our post about the benefits of content marketing we discuss how a search-focused content marketing strategy is more aligned with user behavior and therefore more likely to earn backlinks. In turn, this improves rankings in the Google SERP. This was a great place to add a link to our post about search engine results pages, so I included it.
The point is, don’t force links that are out of context, but don’t limit yourself by thinking in terms of silos, either. Where siloing does make sense, though is with navigation links and website architecture.
Don’t pack links into your navigation and footer
This is more about improving user experience than rankings, but UX goes hand in hand with SEO these days. If you squeeze hundreds of subcategories into your navigation, none of your customers will be able to find what they came for. Additionally, Google will struggle to identify your website’s purpose.
Instead, keep your main navigation clean and limit internal links to the most important pages on your website. If you manage a large ecommerce brand, for instance, link to your top category pages and maybe a handful of your most valuable subcategories or product pages.
Don’t use complex internal linking formulas
I’ve seen some wildly complex algorithms designed to sculpt PageRank. Those are old models based on out-of-date concepts of how Google ranks websites. If someone says they tested their theory and they can prove that it works, I’d question their methodology.
What I can tell you is that those models don’t account for context, relevance or, user experience. They’re out of step with Google’s recommendations, and that means they’re unsustainable.
Don’t base your SEO internal linking strategy on formulas. Do what’s best for your users.
Don’t link to different pages with the same anchor text
This issue is more common than you’d think. Sometimes it happens because people are afraid to use exact match keywords in their anchor text. As a result, they default to words like “click here” or “in this post” instead.
In other situations, it’s a symptom of a bloated content strategy that produced dozens of similar blog posts that all target the same keyword. The consequence is that none of your pages end up ranking for the target keyword.
Don’t waste backlink signals
Do you know which URLs on your website have the highest PA or UR? Even if you’re actively building links to specific target pages, you may be surprised to discover that other pages have naturally earned a lot of great links.
It’s worth checking your top linked pages at least quarterly. I like using Ahrefs Top Pages by Links Report. Not only can you spot content that’s naturally attracting great links to replicate their success, but you’ll also be able to capture that value and funnel it throughout your domain more efficiently.
Internal linking tools and plugins
There are dozens of great tools out there to help you build internal links. I prefer to stay away from automated link insertion tools, because those would break all of the rules we just covered.
Here’s a list of my favorites that I use just about every day.
Google Search Console
One of the easiest ways to see which of your landing pages has the most internal links is to use Google Search Console. Just click over to the Links report, and view the Top Linked Pages section. You can even export the data easily into a Google Sheet.
Yoast SEO Premium
Our blog runs on WordPress, and I love the Yoast plugin. It’s great in general, but it’s especially useful for internal linking. The tool suggests pages to link to based on their importance to your domain as well as how relevant their content is to the content on the page.
The Yoast internal linking tool doesn’t just look for keyword matches on the page. In fact, it often suggests adding links to pages even when the target keyword isn’t mentioned on the page. That’s because it analyzes the content overlap and not just matching target keywords.
That said, the tool isn’t perfect. If you commonly use certain CTA phrases, you may get some noise. So, use your best judgement.
The tool also has a handy internal link counter so you know how many relations a page has. Unfortunately you can’t click the number to view the actual linking URLs, which would really be nice.
I’m constantly amazed by the power of this tool. ContentKing is a complete website diagnostic tool that works in real time. In other words, you never have to schedule crawls because it’s always crawling your website.
The data is intense, and you have tons of freedom to filter and view issues. For example, the dashboard shows you every URL on your site along with the number of internal links. Dive into a URL report, and you can see exactly how many links a given URL has, including internal, external, inbound and outbound.
ContentKing also flags broken links and redirected links, and will alert you in case of broken links that have a high-impact (such as site-wide links). The internal link structure of a site has a big impact on a page’s Importance score. Since the software tracks all changes including the Importance score, you can use that data to quickly identify shifts in your internal link structure.
Unlike the limitations with Yoast, ContentKing’s software shows you every single URL, not just the number of links.
Ahrefs has become my favorite SEO tool for doing keyword research and checking backlinks. But, it’s also amazing for internal link analysis. I use it to check not just my own top pages for adding links, but also competitor pages and link building targets.
Open the Top Pages by Links report, and sort the list by highest UR (URL Rating). You can even search for specific terms if you want to find a page that mentions a keyword.
Your sitemap is one more way to ensure Google crawls your content. This is a list of all the pages and files on your site as well as the relationships between them. Although, it’s not required for indexing, make sure every URL you want Google to know about appears in your sitemap.
So, do internal links help SEO? Absolutely.
SEO is much more than optimizing title tags, adding keywords and building some links. It’s about creating the best experience for your users, being present throughout the funnel, and making sure search engines see your value as much as users do.
A strategic approach to internal linking can help you accomplish those goals while amplifying efficiencies to boost your results.
Like they say on YouTube, if you found this useful, hit us back with a link and share this post with your friends.
An internal link is a hyperlink between two pages on the same website. They pass PageRank (or SEO value) as well as context through anchor text and surrounding content.
Internal links help Google to understand the most important pages on your website. Search engines consider pages with lots of internal links to be more important than those with fewer links. They also help Google learn more about the relationships between the pages on your website. And internal links improve user experience by helping visitors find your content more easily.