Why Links Are Important for Search Engine Optimization
In the early days of SEO, web ranking was heavily based on keyword usage within the page’s content.Without sophisticated search engine algorithms, keyword usage was the easiest way to rank pages.
The logic was simple: the more a keyword phrase was used on a webpage, the more likely that was what the page was really about. Unfortunately, SEO practitioners of the time took advantage of this system and used keywords unnaturally by overusing the targeted keyword phrase in order to rank higher. This method is known nowadays as keyword stuffing.
This causes sites to rank for keyword phrases even when the site doesn’t have much to offer on a topic. A new way to look and evaluate sites on what ranks and what doesn’t was needed and should go beyond analyzing content alone.
The Emergence of Google & PageRank:
The search engine’s early ranking algorithm was based on the PageRank algorithm, the main idea was to use links between webpages as a ranking factor.
Google’s archived About page states that:
“PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”
Instead of reading through all of the details behind how Google analyzes and evaluates links, it may be more worthwhile to understand why this algorithm even looks at links in the first place.
Internal, Inbound, & Outbound Types of Links:
A link or hyperlink is a clickable object on a webpage that leads from one page to another. Internal links are links between the pages within your own website.Search engines determine this by looking at the domain name; if the links on a page link to other pages within the same domain, they are considered internal links.
Internal Link Focus: Distribute PageRank Well Across Your Site:
Inbound links are the most beneficial because PageRank gets passed on from other sites to your site. The more inbound links you get, the more PageRank you receive. As a chain of links hop from one page to another, the flow of PageRank gets weaker and weaker.
In almost any website, the page with the most inbound links is the homepage of the site. Therefore, if a page within your site is too far from the homepage, the PageRank will decrease significantly before reaching the page.
This causes pages that are linked really far from the home page to rank poorly. Since not all pages will get inbound links, your internal links should serve two purposes:
A) Help users navigate to the different pages of your site. B) Help search engines crawl your entire site with fewer hops as possible from page to page.
Here are the common areas where you will find internal links:
Normal Site Navigation: Links that are usually located in a top bar menu, sidebar menu, and in the footer that exist on all pages. This is usually built upon your site architecture, on how topics are categorized and sub-categorized to build out topics and subtopics from general to specific pages.
Related Pages: A section of a page that points out other pages that are related to the topic of the page. This is beneficial to users because it helps suggest pages that the user was probably looking for.
User Sitemaps: A sitemap is a single page that links out to all other pages of the site. Based on usability studies, there are three types of people that navigate a site: those who use the normal site navigation, those who immediately use the search box, and those who go straight to the sitemap. For very large sites, sitemaps
can be overwhelming and in cases like this, the sitemap may just contain the main category areas and not necessarily every page of the site.
In-Content Links: Within the content of a page, links can be added to the words within a paragraph. This is under-utilized by many websites, but in other cases, it can also be over optimized, which can have negative effects on SEO. Just link naturally, and have the user in mind when building links like these. Even if we’re emphasizing to use internal links in the distribution of Page Rank, always make sure the users are the highest priority. Always design sites,
and think of internal links for users first, then search engines second, and learn all best practices on internal site navigation.
Outbound links: Outbound links are those links on your website that link out to websites with a different domain name.
Over the years, SEO pros have evolved how they use outbound links. Some believed that outbound links took away Page-Rank, decreasing its potential to rank. For some number of years, this may have been correct. This is where terms like “PageRank hoarding” and “PageRank channeling” came from.
Any outbound link was the equivalent of a leak. But if an outbound link was necessary for users, you could add the nofollow link attribute. The nofollow was like telling search engines, “don’t follow this link and give my PageRank to that page.” However many SEO practitioners abused this until Google came up with an update in 2009 on PageRank evaporation.
In a nutshell, PageRank hoarding just didn’t work like it used to. Multiple theories and best practices have sprung out of this, such as:
Don’t have too many outbound links: In theory, the whole reasoning of PageRank leaking still holds up to today. However, every once in a while you may find sites with tons of outbound links and yet the page still ranks high. Thus the rule here is just doing what seems to make sense.
Don’t always nofollow all outbound links: Adding a rel=nofollow attribute to links on the <a> tag tells search engines to not credit that link for ranking purposes. It makes sense to always add the nofollow to avoid PageRank leaking to other sites. However, overdoing or over-optimizing it just doesn’t appear natural and the
intent appears to really be hoarding PageRank.
Good quality sites tend to link to good quality sites: Giving links is just as important as getting links. Good quality sites are maintaining a level of quality that made them who they are, thus if these sites are going to link out to other sites, they’d choose a good quality destination, too. Since this is a common behavior on good quality sites, might as well replicate that behavior to help show signals to search engines that you are a good quality site too.
Adding a nofollow should help preserve PageRank, however, if links are all nofollow, they look more unnatural.
Conventional wisdom taught us that outbound links leak out PageRank and that is still true today, but it is recommended to link to good quality sites.
The rules here don’t seem to be set in stone and is somewhat flexible, but the main rule that is valid and applies to all rules above is to appear natural. Link out to other sites if it is the natural thing to do.