Internal linking is a factor of enormous relevance in any website, because it benefits SEO, user experiences (it makes navigation more fluid) and also conversions (with powerful and well-located call-to-actions).
If we talk about SEO, internal links help search engines to better understand our website. Internal linking also helps to obtain a better page indexing and, in addition, allows search engines to determine the authority of each of the pages.
Google Emphasizes the Importance of Internal Linking
As in all areas, in SEO there are sometimes misinterpretations or misrepresentations (that may or may not be biased) of the content published by Google, in relation to improving the visibility of a website. It is also true that Google is calculatingly ambiguous at times. However, with internal linking Google's discourse is clear. It has published information on numerous occasions that demonstrates the importance of internal linking. We can see this, for example, in its Webmaster Guidelines and in its SEO Starter Guide, where it recommends:
Create a naturally flowing hierarchy. “Make sure all of the pages on your site are reachable through links, [...] Link to related pages, where appropriate, to allow users to discover similar content.”
Use text for navigation. “Controlling most of the navigation from page to page on your site through text links makes it easier for search engines to crawl and understand your site.”
Use links wisely to help users and search engines. “With appropriate anchor text, users and search engines can easily understand what the linked pages contain. [...] The anchor text you use for a link should provide at least a basic idea of what the page linked to is about.”
Use the "alt" attribute. In the case of using an image as a link, Google treats the alternative text in a similar way as it does with an anchor text.
One of Google's search-related specialists that SEO professionals follow the most, John Mueller, specifies that to crawl and to understand pages, Google uses not only the text of the link, but also the text around the link and the content of the page from which it is linked. In other words, linking pages that are thematically related is a good practice, because it helps the search engine to better define the topic of the linked page.
Correlation between Internal Linking and Rankings
Many website owners have tested the internal linking of their websites and have seen improvements. They attribute these improvements to internal linking because they have not carried out any other upgrade on their website that explains the increase in rankings.
When it comes to analyzing different studies, there is one that stands out. It was carried out by two SEO specialists who examined a total of 1 million internal links. (They even worked with an important dataset: 10K URLs that are ranking on the first page of search results).
In their study, they found a correlation between pages with more internal links and pages with better rankings. They also verified that the pages with the best rankings of the analyzed websites not only have more internal links than the rest of the pages of the site, but that those internal links come from pages that have many external links.
Therefore, thanks to external links, the strong pages of a website transfer part of their authority to the internal pages to which they are linked.
Thus, internal links have demonstrated their importance to improve the positioning of a website.
Best Practices for Optimal Internal Linking
As we already understand the importance of proper internal linking, we can now analyze the necessary actions that will allow us to carry it out successfully. Focusing on internal linking is exceptional for SEO professionals, because it gives them the ability to establish a winning strategy without relying on third parties.
There is no dependence on other websites, because (by definition) links are internal, and necessary changes that must be implemented will not affect the user at all. In fact, if the strategy is correct, the user experience will improve.
These are the tasks that we must perform to ensure a correct internal linking strategy:
Full crawling of the website that is going to be optimized
Content, structure and link analysis
Measurement and iteration
1. Full Crawling of the Website that Is Going to Be Optimized
Before implementing new links, it is convenient to analyze the ones we already have. The web that we are going to analyze already has thousands of internal links, and we must understand what guidelines are followed to create them. Thus, we will see if they are the most effective. In addition, auditing the internal links will allow us to find multiple and frequent errors:
404 page appearances due to broken links. Detection of links that lead to 404 error pages due to being incorrectly specified or because the destination page has disappeared and the necessary redirection has not been conducted.
Forwarding links to redirects. When we execute a redirect, it is easy to forget that all the internal links that lead to that URL must change. A link that leads to a redirect means slower access to the final content for the user and less link juice for the final URL.
“Nofollow” attribute on internal links. This attribute was used years ago for page sculpting, and today it should no longer be used for this purpose. It should be removed from links where it is not necessary or where it has been implemented to redirect more link juice to other internal links on the same page. Link sculpting is no longer practical because for years the link juice is transferred even if the "nofollow" attribute is used and it gets leaked.
Orphan pages (without any links to it, or with just one internal link). They are great weak points, and we will need to have a list of them to analyze if we should strengthen them and how to do it.
Identification of opportunities to improve in search rankings. Finding out which pages appear in the last positions on the first page of Google search results or in the first positions on the second page and boosting them with internal links is a good idea to gain traffic volume. A small improvement in search rankings greatly increases visits to the web.
2. Content, Structure and Link Analysis
Google crawls the web through links. Once it reaches our website, it uses our internal links to crawl it, understand it and index it. Thanks to our links it discovers all our pages. Therefore, a good structure facilitates its task. One of the most effective structures, which also helps to promote smooth navigation for users, is a pyramidal structure. The home page would be the tip of the pyramid from which categories and subcategories are developed (if necessary). And then, specific articles are subordinated to these subcategories.
If we really think about it, it is the structure most used by e-commerce businesses; for example, Amazon. But it is recommended for any type of organization. A pyramidal structure has several advantages: it ensures that contents are not far from the home page, and it facilitates clustering pages by categories and subcategories, which are generally grouped by subject. This scheme is essential because it will make it easier for the search engine to understand the content of each page. It also allows the search engine to determine for which searches those contents are relevant. Thus, it is advisable to analyze the contents and establish a simple hierarchy that helps users to find them and the search engine to interpret them.
3. Content Management
Once we have the structure we want, it is necessary to identify the content that responds correctly to it. We will have to analyse our content taking into account the user intent. It is easy for us to find duplicate content or content that covers the same need for our users.
In that case, we must assess the possibility of introducing canonicals that unify those contents for the search engine, or the possibility of creating redirects from a certain content to the most important content that best supplies that need.
Our ultimate goal is to optimise the crawling of our website. We need to ensure that each page of our site has unique content in relation to the explanation of the value contribution of our products or services.
For this reason, while trying to match the contents of our site with the user needs, it is possible that we discover that there is a certain user intent related to our products or services that is not good enough and does not have valuable content to drive traffic to our site. This is a perfect opportunity to create that content and adjust it to the new structure.
4. Link Insertion
Once the site has been analyzed, the structure has been improved and the content has been identified and prepared, it is time to create the internal links that we need to enhance the pages that we want to stand out through the pages that are more likely to do so.
It is relevant to decide how we are going to proceed: manually or with an automated solution. For a medium or large size website, it is advisable to opt for an automated and intelligent solution. Otherwise, the process will not be scalable at all.
At this point, it is important to remember the words of John Mueller. He emphasizes that not only the anchor text matters, but also the surrounding text and the subject of the page from which it is linked.
If we create links that make sense and are useful for the user, we will also be building organic improvement potential for the linked pages.
5. Measurement and Interation
As we have seen, the importance of internal linking goes beyond SEO improvement, which is already very relevant in itself. It allows us to attack the entire funnel. It will bring more traffic, make users spend more time on the site and increase conversions.
To achieve this, we cannot limit everything to a one-shot action. Once we implement the improvements in our internal linking to get more SEO traffic, we must measure the results:
Increase in SEO traffic on the pages we wanted to boost.
Improvement in our keyword rankings. (Always observing the evolution of the keywords that we have identified as a priority on those pages.)
Behaviour of the users who access our web through those pages.
Increase in conversions and evolution of the conversion rate.
In addition, as today's world is rapidly changing, it is important to iterate and continually identify and implement potential internal linking improvements.
Our goal will always be to maximize the visibility of valuable content in search engines in response to specific user needs.