An internal link connects one web page to another page in the same domain. This strategy is important for SEO because internal links help Google crawlers identify pages in a domain and gauge their relative ranking value. Well-executed internal linking will lift your SEO target website pages in the rankings, whereas poorly executed linking will have a neutral or even negative effect on those pages.
What Is Internal Linking — Overall SEO Strategy
To understand what is internal linking, it’s first important to understand how Google interprets internal links. Generally speaking, Google gives the most ranking weight to pages that are linked to from the most important pages within that domain.
For most websites, the most important site page is the home page — thus, links from the home page to interior pages signal to Google those linked-to pages are themselves very important. However, the more pages linked to from the home page, the more diluted the importance of those linked-to pages becomes.
This makes sense. If the home page linked to every page on the domain, then there’s no reason to consider any of those pages to be more important than another. On the other hand, if the home page links to only one interior page, then that page must be very, very important.
Thus, from an SEO point of view, internal links from the home page should go to pages with the most importance to the SEO campaign, usually product- and service-related pages. From a user experience (UX) point of view, however, internal linking must look beyond SEO. For instance, visitors to the home page of a website need prominent links to the contact page and about page — pages that may have little SEO value but are crucial for UX and conversions.
Internal linking must always balance SEO needs with the needs of visitors.
Site Structure and Internal Linking
A good internal linking structure is built on a good website content structure. Many websites lay out content in a hierarchy — with, for instance, the home page followed by a product category page, followed by product subcategory pages, followed by individual product pages. Links from the home page go to product category pages, and then subnavigation menus appear on the pages lower in the hierarchy with links to pages within the subcategories or related to them. The linking structure helps Google understand that the product category pages are more important than the subcategory pages, etc.
The navigational links that support the hierarchical site structure become the foundation of the internal linking system. In addition to navigational links, internal links can be added in various other ways to improve the ranking of target SEO pages — pages within the domain that have the greatest number of links tend to be viewed by Google crawlers as being more important. Other types of internal links include:
- Footer links — Links that appear at the bottom of the page, often but not necessarily globally across the domain.
- Visible sitemap links — A list of links to every page of the website, ideally formatted to follow the hierarchical layout of the site’s content.
- Contextual links — Links within a page’s text that take readers to relevant pages.
With all of these internal link approaches, it’s important not to go overboard in an attempt to maximize rankings. At one time, SEOs liked to have a massive number of footer links across the domain, all with keyword-dense anchor text. Eventually Google saw this as a ploy to manipulate rankings, and began to devalue such links. Similarly, overdoing internal links by having too many or too many that are not relevant will not likely fool Google into ranking those linked-to pages any higher than they deserve.
On the other hand, a practical, common-sense approach to internal linking helps SEO as well as supporting a good user experience and conversions. Visitors greatly prefer websites that make it easy for them to find the information they need, and to bring their attention to the most valuable pages. When internal linking accomplishes that with simple, targeted navigation and appropriately placed contextual links, visitors are drawn into the conversion funnel and are more likely to make contact or place an online order.
What Is Internal Linking — A Word About Anchor Text
No discussion of internal linking would be complete without a look at anchor text, the words used in the link. After Google’s Penguin update, which targeted certain abuses of link building, people began avoiding the use of keywords in anchor text. This was an overreaction. Penguin was designed to combat manipulative abuse of the Google search algorithm, not to arbitrarily punish legitimate websites doing their level best to provide relevant, intuitive links.
In almost all cases, a web page’s most descriptive and relevant description involves the SEO keywords associated with that page. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to use keywords in the anchor text of internal links — the art of SEO is to not overdo it and to vary the anchor text pointing to a particular page. If Google crawlers see too many links, especially with identical keywords in the anchor text, they might interpret what they see as an attempt at manipulation.