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Internal Linking for SEO: An introduction and a plea

When it comes to link strategies, most people immediately think of backlinks, i.e. external links that lead to your website from other, preferably relevant sources. But without devaluing backlinks, in this article we would like to focus on internal links, because those are quite often underestimated. We will show what the value of internal links is and why especially internal links are not only particularly useful for Google (and thus for your SEO strategy), but also offer great value for website users. As a UX factor, they support a great structuring of your website and help improve the user experience during a visit significantly. We’ll show you how! 

What are internal links?

Internal links are all links within your website or, strictly speaking, within a given domain. Starting with the links of your website navigation to the links stored in the footer up to all connections from one content piece to the other, e.g. within a text to another page, all of these are considered internal links.

What are internal links

What are external links?

An external link is any link that leads from one domain to another domain. Please note the explicit distinction between domains. I.e. even if you are the owner of the linking domain, this is considered by google as an external link.

What are external links

What is the function of internal links?

  1. Internal links create a hierarchical structure of your website architecture. What does that mean? Internal hyperlinks ensure that an unsorted sum of individual pages is turned into a (ideally) well-structured network. They put the content available on your domain in relation to each other, creating an order to the entire website. Whether by linking main topics of the same level from your homepage ( typically elements of your navigation), but also by linking main categories to subcategories, articles to related topics or even category pages to product pages, as is common in a webshop, for example.
  2. Internal links help users to better navigate on your website. It should go without saying that a logical structure of your website architecture isn’t an end in itself. First and foremost, users should of course be able to move through your site as smoothly as possible. Not only should all content be accessible in just a few clicks, but related information in particular must be linked together in a way that is easy for users to follow. In this way, you ensure the most seamless onsite experience possible. This naturally starts with the site navigation, which is used to link to your site’s most important elements. It continues, however, especially when we take a closer look at individual pages: it is important to ensure that a particular page X always links to the information (pages Y, Z) that offers the greatest added value for a user at exactly this point in the user journey, i.e. that could represent the most obvious next steps.

It is therefore these two factors that make internal links so valuable: for search engines and their crawlers, but also for your website visitors. The better you succeed in satisfying both, the greater the benefit to your SEO performance. 

Difference between internal and external links

Why internal links are so important for SEO?

As already indicated, the structure of your internal linking gives search engines and their crawlers an overall picture of the paths along which your site was built. The clearer this structure and the shorter the click paths required to get from the top (your homepage) to the content that branches out deepest down the page structure, the easier for search engine crawlers to pick up on your content. This makes internal links an important ranking factor.

1. All of your pages that you want to show your audience should be easily found by your visitors and must therefore also be easily accessible for crawlers.

A page that is very deeply integrated into the website structure and, for example, is only linked to via a detour through various subcategories, will possibly only be found with difficulty or not at all when your website is crawled. Anything that cannot be found by crawlers may not appear as a result in search engines. At worst, it means a page won’t be indexed at all. Therefore, when creating new content pieces/pages, always make sure that you embed and link it in a meaningful way into the existing structure on the website and that click paths do not go too deep.

Hint: Always aim to find a balance between a hierarchy that is as flat as possible (i.e. low click depth) and a sorting along central categories that makes sense in terms of your content. We would recommend trying to keep your clickdepth below 5. Meaning you can reach every page within your website within 5 clicks. A meaningful structure follows two logical steps in particular: on the one hand, it separates thematically different topics from each other on a horizontal level, and on the other hand, the path (on a vertical level of linking) leads from general to specific. This can be well illustrated by an example. 

Let’s assume you want to position yourself as an expert in setting up e-commerce store systems. You offer support for various types of store systems, say WooCommerce, Jimdo and Shopify. On your website, the three categories would be sorted equally on one level. For google this would result in the following picture:

Internal Links hierarchy 1

In a next step, further sub-topics should now be mapped logically according to those main categories. 

Internal Links hierarchy 2

Thus, in such a basic setup of the page already, a logical order of content is taken into account, which is accordingly reflected in the linking. All further content, be it specific services that you offer in one of those niches or related articles that you publish on one of those sub-topics: it can be sorted into the relevant category accordingly. Another example: Let’s assume you run a blog on your website. At the start of your content creation, you may have published two, three, or maybe even ten different articles. All of these articles are just stored in a folder you call “Blog” and which in turn is directly linked to your homepage (home/blog/). Now suppose you continue to work on that blog, and with each new article you may find more opportunities to link to already existing content. And it is quite possible that at one point you cover certain topics very comprehensively if you have created a great deal of content. The better these articles are interlinked, the more likely you will receive good rankings for this whole topic. Since each of these links represents a new “chapter” to you talking about a certain topic. So you should always keep in mind that it needs to be easy for users as well as for crawlers to find all of those chapters. It starts with just linking to relevant further articles and at some point, it can even make sense to establish a specific subfolder in your blog for the respective topic area. This way, not only do you develop the clean structuring of your website content, but you also build a link structure which makes it easy for Google crawlers to immediately recognize a topical network as such. And this leads to our next point.

2. Internal links are important signals for Google to assess the relevance of different content on your website.

A simple example: An e-commerce shop that sells apparel has about 50,000 different products. Every single product has an individual URL, which in turn is linked to a parent category (pants, shoes, tshirts, etc.). Now let’s assume that this webshop has more than 2000 pairs of different shoes, but only about 100 different t-shirts in stock. So when scanning the website, google registers 2000 links to a category called “shoes” versus only about 5% of links to a category that is “tshirts”. Which of the two categories is sending stronger ranking signals to the search engine? We will spare ourselves the answer at this point.

The example illustrates the value of internal links in two ways: On the one hand, it shows how simple and clear structures are created through internal links. And how these enable easier crawling for search engines. After all, an appropriate page structure already ensures that 2000 related products can be found when crawling the upper category. On the other hand, every single link from such a product to its parent category, i.e. every new pair of shoes that has its own page and is assigned accordingly, sends an additional signal to search engines. And that signal is: our store is well equipped in this area. In other words, it has established a certain authority when it comes to “shoes”. We stay in the picture to name another positive side effect that you should not overlook because its benefit is at least as important. That is, the top category “shoes” passes on part of its authority to each new page. Such a phenomenon is often referred to as “linkjuice”.

The importance of link equity

We prefer to use the term link equity in this context: the basic idea behind this is that pages that already have some authority themselves pass some of this on to those pages that they link to. Although this is only one of many ranking factors, it still is a very interesting one, because it might save you time and effort. In a way, it is like a reference, a letter of recommendation that comes with your new pair of shoes. And this testimonial positively affects your ranking immediately. It is more likely that you will be able to attract new clients more easily if you have already been recommended to them from many other sources. Your good reputation precedes you. In essence, the google algorithm works in a similar way. By adding a new article or a new product to a category (by linking to the related category) for which you have already built up authority, the new article will benefit from the already established reputation. The upside is that you will rank higher more quickly, i.e. you will position yourself within the top search results more quickly with it. And that, of course, means better chances of generating the traffic you want with your article. 

Last but not least, a sorting process following this pattern contributes directly to the above-mentioned dimension of a preferably flat hierarchy and a coherent organization of topics. And this procedure can of course be applied to other topical levels. Let’s assume you run a blog on your website. An article that repeatedly receives links from other articles, i.e. that repeatedly gets useful links from new articles that you create, will likewise be considered more relevant by google. The logic behind this is the same as how external links work: Every referral to your site (i.e. every link to an article) is an additional quality signal. And each new positive signal will help you to get a better ranking for it. For internal links, these same principles apply. What’s important: Again, it’s always a matter of balance. You should never aim to randomly send as many links as you can to an article. Luckily, Google’s algorithms are now smart enough to detect these kinds of strategies. The point here is instead to focus on the added value for users and to provide a link whenever it seems to make sense from a content perspective. Ask yourself: Might Users get additional value from that link directing them to another article/product or page of any sort? If the answer is yes, then put the link in place. If you can’t, then save yourself the effort and your readers the time. 

Optimize with your user in mind

Consequently, you should always try to shape your link strategy not only with search engines in mind, but also with your users in focus: because the right link at the right place when surfing a page ideally invites the user to click on additional relevant subjects on your site, and to dive in deeper. You certainly know it well from your own surfing on websites like Wikipedia. When you start looking for information on a specific topic and just want to look something up quickly, the information you find is filled with links to other pages and refers to several articles on a related topic. Here a terminology, whose meaning is not completely clear to you, an interesting subtopic there, which you would also like to look into in more detail, etc. etc. Links that are integrated into a piece of content in this way do not only fulfill a function for search engines. The main purpose is to create the best possible and most comprehensive user experience on the website. They ensure that users don’t bounce right back, that they spend more time on a website overall, that they read on, that they call up more pages. And this brings us back to search engine optimization: because all of the above are key metrics that have a huge impact on the website’s ranking. Useful integrated internal links offer an excellent opportunity to positively influence all of these metrics.  Naturally, it all depends on the content that is worth linking to. 

If you need support with your link strategy and you want to give your website the best possible content structuring, please contact us and we will find out how we can take your SEO-strategy to the next level. 

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