SEO Links: How to Build Them On-Page and Earn Them Off-Site
There are three types of links that are important to any SEO strategy: internal links, external links, and inbound links.
- Internal links are those you create in your content that point to other pages on your site. They help both users and Google navigate a website and access its content.
- External links are those you create in your content that point to other domains. They strengthen credibility with audiences and search engines.
- Inbound links are created by other publishers that point back to your site and boost search rankings/drive referral traffic.
When forming a strategy for SEO links, it’s easy to focus primarily on earning inbound links. But a solid SEO strategy considers how to use all three link types to cater to the needs and preferences of both users and Google. Marketers must adhere to the best practices of all three links types to get the most significant return on SEO efforts.
Best Practices for Internal and External Links
The easiest place to start with a linking strategy is on your own site. On-site internal and external linking practices are essential for SEO:
- Internal links help Google crawl and discover content. While submitting a sitemap to Google Search Console is considered an SEO best practice, there’s no guarantee that Google will crawl and index every sitemap entry. However, Google will follow links within content to crawl and index the linked-to content.
- Internal links help Google understand the importance of content to the overall website. The design of a website’s navigational structure is essential for SEO. A site’s homepage is considered most important. Level two pages—pages linked to from the homepage or main navigation—are also critical. Content buried four or five levels deep within the site hierarchy signal low importance.
- Internal links can improve engagement signals. RankBrain looks at metrics like bounce rate, time-on-page, and time-on-site to determine how well an individual piece of content—as well as the overall site—satisfies user needs. By linking content to other related, on-site resources, it’s possible to keep users on-site longer, improving engagement metrics and boosting SEO.
- External links tell Google that content is well-researched. Citing sources is vital to credibility for both users and Google. Linking out to high-quality, authoritative sites and content shows that you’ve researched the topic and are basing assertions on reputable sources of information.
While these are all considered best practices for linking, they’re also fraught with misinformation. Because external links pass some of a page’s authority to the external source, some argue that external links should always include a nofollow attribute. This is entirely unnecessary.
As long as you’re linking to credible sites and content, it’s natural to allow some authority to pass to other sites. Instead of using the nofollow tag, don’t link to disreputable or questionable sites or content.
There are, of course, a few good reasons to use nofollow tags when linking:
- The link was purchased (examples: display ads, PPC, or native advertising).
- The link points to an internal page that shouldn’t be indexed.
- The link appears in user-generated content (examples: forum posts, reviews, or comments).
When developing an on-site linking strategy, follow these best practices:
Design website navigation for users—not Google. What content is most important to visitors? That content should be easy to access from a site’s main pages.
Find opportunities to crosslink internally. When writing new content, look for opportunities to link to related content. Instead of explaining the same concept over and over again across multiple pieces, create a piece of content that explains the idea, and link to it when necessary. Revisit old content and add links to new, relevant content.
Avoid over-linking. Only link internally and externally when the link has a specific purpose and is relevant to the discussion. Too many links on one page may start to look like a link farm, triggering spam detectors.
Use natural anchor text. In the early days of SEO, the goal was to have as many links as possible with keyword-rich anchor text. An example would be 500 internal links on various pages that all use the anchor text “best marketing automation platform.” Today, this looks like link manipulation to Google.
Never sell links. Sell advertising—publishers need an income source—and add nofollow tags to links. But never sell links to boost another site’s SEO. Your website could be penalized by Google as a result.
Publish guest posts with caution. Publishing guest posts is a great way to increase site content without decreasing budget, but there are two types of guest posts: relevant content that’s applicable and helpful to your audience, and irrelevant content that’s designed solely to get links. Only allow guest posts when the content is high quality and relevant, and make sure guest posts follow linking best practices.
These best practices aren’t just applicable to on-page linking. Many also apply when earning inbound links.
Best Practices for Building Inbound Links
The concept of link building has a negative connotation, and rightfully so. In the early days of SEO, link building consisted of purchasing links, leaving link-filled blog comments that provided little-to-no value, and trading links with other bloggers or webmasters—even if the sites were completely unrelated.
While these practices still exist today, they are completely ineffective, and engaging in these practices is a quick way to earn a manual penalty from Google.
The prevalence of black-hat link building tactics led to the adoption of a new term: link earning. As opposed to link building, link earning is the process of earning inbound links by creating awesome content that people want to link to and nurturing relationships with other publishers and influencers relevant to your industry.
In general, certain types of content tend to earn more links:
Content that presents new insights garnered through the collection and analysis of data tends to earn more links. Other marketers, writers, and publishers can use those insights as proof of their own assertions, citing that proof with a link.
Be the first to report on a newsworthy topic, and other media outlets and publishers that create related articles will cite—and link to—the original source.
Moz refers to this type of content as ego-bait content. Examples include roundups (ex: 50 Influential SEO Experts Provide Advice on Earning Links), profiles (ex: How Reading Marketo’s Blog Helped Me Become an SEO Master), or interviews. The influencers are more likely to link to and share the posts because they’re mentioned (and praised) in it.
Controversial content isn’t for the faint of heart, and it must be considered very carefully before it’s published—don’t risk alienating your audience. But executed thoughtfully, controversial content that encourages debate is a good way to earn links from people in support, and from those who very strongly disagree.
Not all publishers and brands have the budget for awesome designers and developers. Distilling insights or data into an appealing infographic and allowing other publishers to share it—with a link citation, of course—is a good way to earn links from other, relevant sites.
“How To” guides for popular topics in your industry can continue to earn links over a long period of time if they are timeless and the absolute best. Look at a few of the top-ranking guides in organic search and develop a strategy to create the most comprehensive, useful guide on the topic.
Whichever approach you take, earning links requires in-depth, accurate, original, and quality content.
But quality content—even in a format that tends to earn links—isn’t enough. Earning links also includes an element of outreach and online PR. If no one knows an amazing piece of content exists, they can’t link to it.
Outreach is a crucial part of link earning and link building:
- Email editors, writers, publishers, and media outlets to inform them about breaking news content, data-driven insights, and infographics.
- Share content on social media and use hashtags to get the content in front of a broader audience. Use mentions to tag influencers in posts that point to ego-bait content.
- Request a link—if appropriate—when your brand, name, or product is mentioned on another site without a link. Additionally, use Google’s image search tool to look for sites that are using your original images without crediting the source with a link.
Guest posting is another great way to earn links. Just make sure to adhere to the same quality standards when pitching and writing guest posts or columns as enforced on your own site, and only guest post on sites that are directly related to your industry/vertical/subject matter.
Forming a Strategy for SEO Links
Without a high-quality inbound link profile, it’s unlikely that content will ever rank highly for competitive terms. If you never link to external sites in content, sites likely won’t want to link to you. And sites without a strategic cross-linking strategy will fail to keep users on site for longer than it takes to read a single piece of content.
A linking strategy requires additional time and effort, but there are some quick wins that make good starting points:
- For on-page links, review highly trafficked older posts and see if there are opportunities for internal links to newer content.
- For inbound links, set up a Google Alert for your brand name, and review the digest of mentions regularly. Reach out to any writers or brands that mention you, your brand, or one of your products without linking to it, and request a link.
As these strategies become second-nature, adopt more. Over time, you’ll find that incoming links and average time on site values are increasing—as well as organic rankings.