Internal Links for SEO: Best Practices 2020

Internal Links for SEO: Best Practices 2020
By: Yauhen Khutarniuk

Internal links are a powerful ranking factor. Not quite as powerful as backlinks, but very much worth your effort. Same as backlinks, internal links can pass link juice and tell Google which pages are more important. As an added benefit, internal links contribute to better user experience, a higher conversion rate, and a more efficient website crawling. When implemented correctly, internal linking is a legitimate way to improve your rankings and the performance of your website in general.

What are internal links?

An internal link leads to a page on the same website, as opposed to an external link, which leads to a page on a different website. Most commonly, internal links are used for navigation, but there are also some ways to use internal links for search optimization purposes.

What is the role of internal links in SEO?

The most valuable property of internal links is that they can pass link juice — they can tell Google which pages of your website are more important. Now, internal links do not pass nearly as much link juice as backlinks and they don't exactly increase your website's authority, but they can help you bring some of your pages forward in search.

For example, let's say you have a website that sells bicycles. And since bicycle fit is very important, each of your product pages links to a guide on how to properly fit a bike. With that many links pointing to the guide, Google may consider this page more important than others. At this point, you can use the guide to link to some of your newer pages, passing some importance onto them and perhaps even improving their rankings.

Other than that, internal linking is mostly used for website navigation and maintaining an easy-to-follow website structure. While this is primarily a user experience benefit, logical website structure is also easier on the crawl budget, allowing search engines to index more pages per visit.

To tackle internal link building, you'll need some quality SEO tools to save time and get better results. Make sure you have them ready:

Internal linking best practices

We'll discuss some of the more advanced internal linking strategies in a minute, but, before that, let's make sure you've got the basics right. Here are the seven things that must be present in your site's internal linking structure.

1. Keep a shallow website structure.

It is considered a good practice when each page can be reached within three clicks of the homepage. Nowadays, users are very demanding when it comes to the speed of websites, including page load time and the time required to complete certain actions. Why should one bother to get through tens of unnecessary links if there are plenty of similar websites out there with well-organized and efficient internal pages? Thus, it is crucial to reduce the number of clicks it takes to get to important landing pages and to maintain a shallow website structure:

First time PC build

To check your internal pages' click depth, launch WebSite Auditor, jump to Site Structure > Pages, and sort the URLs by Click depth. The analysis tool will show you how many clicks it takes to reach any given URL and whether any of them need to be moved closer to the surface.

Analyzing click depth of individual pages

2. Make sure all the important pages are linked.

These days, search engines rely on both sitemaps and links to discover web pages. It means that even unlinked — or the so-called 'orphan' — pages can be found by the search engines as these pages are listed in the sitemap. But it's impossible to find 'orphan' pages through the website's navigation. Such pages virtually don't exist for the users. It's a good idea to get rid of orphan pages — either delete them or link to them from other pages.

NOTE: Landing pages that are created for pay-per-click campaigns are an exception. They often act as independent website areas that are not linked from the main website's content and are normally blocked from indexing.

You can use WebSite Auditor to find orphan pages on your website. To do this, go to the Pages dashboard, click Rebuild Project, and check the Show expert options box. In the dialog box, select Look for orphan pages, and proceed with the next steps as usual.

Customizing crawler settings

Once the crawl is complete, you'll be able to find orphan pages in the Pages dashboard, marked with the Orphan page tag.

Pro Tip: You can carry out an internal link analysis of your site's structure with just one click. In your project, go to Site Structure > Visualization and immediately see whether you have orphan pages, long chains of pages, or any other weak spots in your structure:

Checking out the keyword map module

3. Keep the number of links per page reasonable.

The more links, internal or external, are found on a page, the less link juice each link sends to the page it points to. Moreover, unless the content is well-structured, it may be boring for your visitors to scroll down an endless list of resources. To top it up, an excessive number of links can send a spam signal to search engines, severely impacting your page's authority.

Thus, if you want to send more 'ranking power' to pages you link to, reduce the number of outgoing links. WebSite Auditor will help you detect all pages on your website that have over 100 links, both internal and external. To get a list of pages with too many links, go to the Site Audit dashboard in your WebSite Auditor project and click on Pages with excessive number of links.

Pages with excessive number of links

4. Use keywords in the anchor text.

Using keywords in the links' anchor text is yet another measure you can implement to improve keyword rankings. In a sense, internal links act like backlinks, so using relevant terms in their anchors is a free and simple way to boost topical relevance.

It's worth noting that in the post-Penguin world, most SEOs wouldn't advocate the use of exact match keywords in internal links' anchor text. You would often hear SEOs say, "use natural anchors or you'll get penalized". Personally, I've never heard of a website getting penalized for the anchors of its internal links though. If you want my opinion, I believe that the anchor text should be descriptive of the linked content. Matt Cutts agrees.

To audit internal anchors, launch WebSite Auditor once more. Under the Pages dashboard, click on any one of the pages. Below, click on Links from page to see every link on the page along with its anchor text, HTTP response code, and robots directives.

Auditing internal anchors in Website Auditor

5. Make sure image links have alt attributes.

The alt attribute of image links acts like anchor text for text links — so it's another opportunity to send a ranking signal to search engines, increasing authority while you're at it.

In order to find all image links with empty alt text, jump to the Site Audit dashboard in WebSite Auditor. Click on Empty alt text for a full list of pages that contain images with no alt text specified.

Finding pages with empty alt text

6. Place links within the pages' main content.

The links placed within the page's content have a higher SEO value than the ones in the header, footer, or sidebar. The latter has more to do with navigation, and it looks like Google treats those as non-editorial links. Link in the main content, on the other hand, adds new information and value to the text. Furthermore, the text and keywords surrounding a link also matter for the ranking of the target page.

For additional info, see this guide on how the placement of links influences their SEO value.

7. Open non-navigational links in a new tab.

Imagine that you are reading an article that has a bunch of links to other articles. Because you are curious, you click on some of these links. You read through another article, and another one, and click on even more links. Finally, you end up on YouTube watching a puppy compilation instead of reading the initial article on the critical importance of the nofollow attribute.

Meanwhile, if you force links with additional information to open in a new tab, it's easier to go back to the original piece of content.

In order to force browser to open a link in a new tab, add a 'target' attribute to the link in HTML:

<a href="" target="_blank">Anchor Text</a>

Five internal linking strategies for better SEO

Here are the five strategies you can use to improve your internal linking. Out of the numerous strategies out there, I've seen these five have the biggest effect on SEO and rankings. You can pick just one of them for your site, or use several in combination for even better results.

1. Point links from traffic pages to conversion pages.

Many companies run a blog to create "engaging and useful content". Some of them achieve the goal, and their posts attract significant traffic. The problem is that a blog post can rarely boast a high conversion rate. Why not channel users from high-traffic blog posts to landing pages that are specifically optimized for conversion?

Step 1. Find landing pages with high traffic and low conversion. To achieve this goal, open Google Analytics, go to Behavior > Landing Pages, and sort the URLs by the number of sessions. Hit the Comparison icon and choose the relevant metric from the drop-down menu (e.g., the overall conversion rate). You can further filter the URLs to meet certain criteria, such as show only blog URLs. Pick the URLs that enjoy high traffic but have a low conversion rate.

Conversion rate research with Google analytics

Step 2. Identify pages with a high conversion rate — your top converting landing pages. Use a similar approach to the one described in the previous step.

Step 3. Use links to the high-conversion pages on the high-traffic pages. Image links or banners are likely to attract more clicks than text links. You can further experiment with link placement or banner variations within the page.

2. Point high-authority pages to low-hanging-fruit pages.

Let's assume you have a blog with tons of useful content. And as we all know, useful content attracts external backlinks. We can use the accumulated link juice your blog posts enjoy to promote pages that are stuck somewhere on page 2 in the SERPs. These are the so-called low-hanging fruit pages.

To estimate link juice or PageRank, SEO PowerSuite's InLink Rank is a huge help. It's based on the same formula as Google's original PageRank, and it does the same thing — evaluates the ranking power of a page based on the quantity and quality of its backlinks.

Step 1. Find pages with high InLink Rank. In Website Auditor, open your project and go to Site Structure > Pages. Click on the header of the InLink Rank column to sort the URLs by their InLink Rank. If you don't have an InLink Rank column in your workspace, right-click the header of any column to add it. You can also apply a custom filter to find pages that meet certain criteria, e.g. the blog pages. Use the filter icon to do that.

InLink rank research

Step 2. Find pages that rank at the top of page 2 for your target keywords. We are going to use Rank Tracker for this task. I'll assume you already track rankings in Rank Tracker (otherwise, you'll need to import your target keywords into the tool and run a ranking check for them).

Navigate to Target Keywords > Rank Tracking. Then click on the filter icon and apply the following filters:

Customizing columns

This will show you the keywords for which you rank on the top of page 2. Sort the results by Google Rank and discover the URLs that you'll link to from your high-authority pages. Don't forget about the keywords — you'll use them in the links' anchors.

Rank tracking

Step 3. Add links to the pages you chose in Step 1. Mind that it's vital that the newly added links are relevant to the content of the source page.

3. Rank your main pages for high-volume keywords.

NOTE: This and the following two strategies are based on the competition level and search volume of your keywords. The implementation workflow is very similar. That's why I am going to describe it only once.

In this scenario, your website is optimized for a few high-search-volume, high-competition keywords. Such keywords often have very generic meaning, e.g., "buy cheap shoes".

Typically, you'll have the content of the homepage optimized to rank high for these keywords, with other pages serving an auxiliary purpose. These auxiliary pages still provide useful information to users, but they are not supposed to rank high for any keywords. In such a linking structure, the homepage has a lot more links pointing to it than any category or bottom level pages:

WebSite Auditor is an ideal tool to help you analyze your internal linking structure or build it from scratch. First, jump to the Pages dashboard and click the + button next to the tabs to create a custom workspace. Make sure you add the following columns:

  • Page (Page URL)
  • Title
  • Click depth
  • Links to page
  • Links from page
  • InLink Rank

Amount of links to individual pages

In WebSite Auditor's lower screen, click on Links to page. Here, you can tell how many internal links each URL has. At a glance, you can tell if the homepage has the right amount of internal links pointing to it and, if not, add more.

4. Use internal links to support mid-volume keywords.

In this scenario, you are primarily focused on mid-search-volume keywords. Typically, these are three-word keywords with a more specific meaning than the terms discussed in the previous point, e.g., "buy Gucci shoes" or "best Gucci shoes". They often belong to a product category within an e-commerce website or to a subject category in a blog-like website. In this approach, category pages have the highest priority; that's why they should get the most contextual internal links pointing to them.

5. Target low-volume keywords with internal links.

Instead of targeting a few high-search-volume keywords, you may prefer to hunt for many long-tail, low-search-volume keywords. In most cases, they belong to the bottom level of a website, e.g., individual blog posts or product listings.

In this case, most contextual internal links should point to the bottom-level pages, and these pages should be interlinked properly.

Final thoughts

To sum it up, you've learned what internal links are and why it's important to have a solid internal linking structure. You got through internal linking must-haves that should be used universally by any webmaster. And finally, you read about five internal linking strategies that can have a major impact on your rankings if you implement them right. I'm sure there are more tricks and strategies out there. If you have any suggestions or ideas to share, please let me know in the comments below!

By: Yauhen Khutarniuk