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A type of external link, Backlinks are one of the top 2 factors for the Google search algorithm when it ranks a page (part of the all-important PageRank algorithm).
In fact, top results on Google’s first page have 3.8 times more backlinks than those below them.
But there’s more to external links than just backlinks. External links can strengthen your content and improve the user experience of your website. Even the type that sends users from your page to a different website.
Here’s why external links are so important for search engine optimization (SEO).
What is an external link?
There are several different types of external links, and they should all be a part of your SEO strategy. Before getting into what they are, it’s important to understand how links work on a website.
How links work
Links, also known as hyperlinks, link one page to another page, either between pages on a website or between one website and another website.
Links are created with HTML and use the attribute href and an anchor tag to tell a web browser where to send the user when they click on a link:
Another important HTML attribute for links is the rel attribute. Rel can be used to tell a website whether to pass something known as link equity or “link juice” from one page on your website to a page on another website.
Link juice is the authority of a page. All the link juice of all the pages on your website is known as your domain authority.
This is important because pages with higher authority as determined by the Google search algorithm pass more link juice, which means Google will be more likely to list the page higher in search engine rankings.
Here’s why you might want to use the rel attribute.
Rel itself has several options, but the most important is nofollow. Nofollow links tell Google that it should not pass authority from the source page to the linked-to page.
There’s no such thing as a dofollow link —links without the rel attribute automatically tell Google that it’s okay to pass authority from the linking page to the web page being linked to.
Essentially, you’re telling Google about the trustworthiness of the page that you’re linking to. If you believe that the page isn’t trustworthy enough to pass link juice to, you will use the nofollow tag.
It’s important to remember that, first, Google doesn’t have to respect the nofollow attribute. It’s more of a suggestion.
Second, it’s rarely the case that you’ll want to use the nofollow tag. If you intend to use it for a link, you need to ask yourself why you’re linking to the content in the first place. If it’s so low-quality that you need to tell Google not to follow it, then you might want not to link to it at all.
Other types of rel attributes include “sponsored,” which you would use for an advertisement or paid link, and “ugc,” which marks content as user-generated content, like comments or forum posts.
Different types of links
There are several different types of links that are important for webmasters to understand to optimize a web page for search properly:
- External links are links from one website to an external website (a different website).
- Backlinks (links from another website to your website) are one type of external link—they are created through a process called link building and are also known as inbound links.
- Outbound links (outgoing links) are links from your website to another website.
- Internal links are links from one page on your website to another page on your website.
Why are external links important for SEO?
External linking is important for SEO for several reasons. Here are a few of them.
Backlinks are a major Google ranking factor
Backlinks are external links from someone else’s site to yours. They’re a major ranking factor for Google and Bing, and tell these search engines that the website linking to you gives your website a vote of confidence.
The same can be said when you link to another website. You’re telling search engines that you believe the website’s content is high-quality.
The importance of backlinks to search engine optimization cannot be overstated. They are the 2nd ranking factor for Google after content, and other search engines, including Bing, use backlinks as a ranking factor.
The way each search engine evaluates links differs (Bing focuses more on quality links than the number of links a page gets, and it favors certain types of links more than Google), but if you have high-quality content, then getting backlinks should be your next focus.
There are many strategies to get backlinks, including:
- Guest blogging
- Transcribing videos
- Broken link building
- Press releases
- Earning a spot in a link roundup
- Content marketing
Learn more about all these backlinking strategies.
External links can improve the user experience
Outbound links to other information can improve the user experience by giving people more information.
Think about how a user uses your content. They type a query into Google. They are looking for information of some sort. They come across your content.
When they’re reading your content and come across a link to a source you used to create your content, they might want to check out the source to ensure you know what you’re talking about.
In this case, an external link gives you authority.
Or, they may want to learn more about a topic. If you haven’t written more about a topic, an external link can give them that additional info.
There’s another reason that many SEO experts believe you should include outbound links —they may improve your SEO.
In fact, one study found that they do have a positive impact if used correctly, so not only are they good for the user experience, but they might also help you improve your search rankings.
The importance of internal linking
While external links are a critical component of SEO, especially backlinks, internal links are also an important component of on-page SEO (the actions you take on the page to improve the chance of your page ranking).
Internal links help users to learn more about the content on your website.
One of the best examples of this is the use of internal links on your homepage. When users click on a search engine results page (SERP) and end up on your homepage, they rarely want to stay there.
Usually, the user’s goal is to learn the answer to a question that they believe your content will help them with.
That might be as simple as finding out what services you offer.
Internal links from the homepage to other pages on your website help the user to navigate your website. While a menu is also a navigation tool, many users want to navigate the information they’re looking for from the page itself.
Internal links help them do that.
Internal links also play a role in crawling. When Google crawls your website, internal links tell Google crawlers how pages are connected, which pages you think are most important on your website, and even helps them to discover new pages.
External links: Best practices
External linking should be done with a strategy in mind. Here are some best practices to follow when using external links on your website or building backlinks to your website.
Build relevant, high-quality backlinks
It’s one thing to get a backlink—it’s another to get a backlink from a relevant page.
When Google is trying to determine how much link equity to pass to your website, it considers a factor known as relevancy. Relevancy is just how relevant the content is that is linking to your content.
Relevant content is important because Google wants to know that you’re not just building links randomly.
It wants to make sure that you’re focusing on quality links to some degree (though, compared to Bing, Google is known to factor the number of links to a website a little higher than quality).
If you’re trying to get an external link from someone else’s site, ensure the web page is relevant to your content and high quality.
For example, if your web page is about the top 10 zoos in America, and you get a link from a web page about manufacturing, that link isn’t going to be very relevant, and it won’t make a lot of sense as to why you’re being linked to.
Therefore, that backlink will have little value compared to a link from an actual zoo.
Use external links to improve the user experience
When you’re linking to another website, you always want to have the user in mind. What kind of information does your page provide? Why would you want to send them to another page?
This is important to consider because sending users to another page could mean that you’re losing that user and keeping them from digging deeper into your website and possibly converting.
You would likely rarely want to link to another page from a product page, but there are times when it might make sense.
For example, if you sell a product with a manufacturer’s spec sheet, and that spec sheet would give your potential buyers the information needed to make a purchase, then linking to that spec sheet on the manufacturer’s website might make sense.
In other cases, you might want to link to relevant sources, as stated above, or to pages where users can learn more about a topic.
Write relevant anchor text
Anchor text is the text that appears on the page for a link:
As in the example, the anchor text needs to be relevant, which means that it needs to tell the user what kind of content they’re going to find when they click the link.
In this example, it’s clear that when users click the link, they will get to a page that expands on the topic discussed in the sentence.
If they click on that anchor text, they should end up on an article about PageRank and how it has changed over time.
Anchor text should generally be two words or more as it’s rarely the case that a single word will suffice, but you also don’t want to make anchor text into an entire sentence. Three to four words is a good limit to set.
Use nofollow tags when necessary
Remember, nofollow tags are just a suggestion — Google doesn’t have to respect them.
Think of them as more like a hint. They help Google to understand that this is a link that likely shouldn’t pass link equity.
There are times when you might want to use the nofollow attribute, like:
- When you sold a link to someone, or they paid you to post their content
- If you think that it’s possible, you’ll get a penalty for the link
- Links in the footer to the person who designed your website (these should generally be removed)
- For comments or forum posts, though ugc might be a better attribute in these cases.
Avoid linking to low-quality sources
Low-quality sources should generally be avoided.
How you determine if a link is low-quality depends on several factors.
First, you’ll want to check out the article’s author and see if they have relevant experience in the field they’re writing about.
For example, medical articles likely need to be written by, or at the very least reviewed by, a medical practitioner in that field.
Second, you’ll want to check the sources of that article (if there are any). Are those sources themselves authoritative? For example, if studies are linked to, are those studies published in high-quality journals?
Third, you’ll want to look for spammy links and ads. Ads aren’t necessarily a problem, but spammy links (links that go to bad or low-quality sources) indicate that this is a low-quality source.
Fourth, look at the quality of the content itself. Is it well written? Does it cover a topic fully and completely? Or is it more like an advertisement for the company that wrote it?
If any of these factors apply, you’ll likely want to avoid linking to that source rather than using a nofollow link.
How to monitor external links with Google Search Console
Google Search Console makes it very easy to track backlinks. Navigate to links at the bottom of the page to get a report on internal and external links:
In this section, you can see:
- Top linked pages (external links)
- Top linked pages (internal links)
- Top linking sites (sites linking to your website)
- Top linking text (the anchor text of those links)
The value of this data is that it shows you everything you need to know about who is linking to you (and how you’re linking to yourself).
Applying this data depends on what you find.
For example, if you find that all your backlinks are coming from a single source, you’ll likely want to start looking for other sources that you can try to get backlinks from.
It also helps with your internal links. If you have many internal links to an important page but another important page has very few, you might want to look through your content for opportunities to link to this other page.
Other SEO tools and plugins for monitoring external links
Though Google Search Console is a great tool, there are other more powerful paid tools that you can use to track your external links (and some free tools that help with other aspects of external linking).
- Screaming Frog is an SEO spider that will help you audit your redirects and find broken links.
- Ahrefs — this has various useful features and includes “the largest backlink index in the world.”
- Linkody is a backlink tracker that helps you see how your competitors are doing with backlinks, whether you’re getting spammy or bad backlinks, and whether you’re gaining or losing backlinks.
- Disavow. It is a simple free tool designed to do one thing: disavow a backlink, which you may want to do if you find that you’re getting linked to by spammy websites.
- Moz Link Explorer —one of the features of Moz Pro, Moz Link Explorer helps you look at the backlinks of your website or a competitor’s website so you can see who is linking to them, which you can then use to try to get backlinks from those sources.
- CognitiveSEO — this tool has some interesting features, including “Unnatural Link Detection,” which helps you see if a website linking to you has a bad link profile (which might mean you’ll want to disavow links from that website).
- Majestic SEO — this digital marketing tool has a standard backlink analyzer, showing how many backlinks you have and who is linking to you. It also allows you to analyze the anchor text linking to you. This tool essentially does what Google Search Console does, but it does have a feature called “Trust Flow,” which is similar to Page Rank (by Moz) in that it tells you how trusted a page is by Google.
Get a complimentary SEO audit
External links are an important part of any SEO strategy. Backlinks can boost link equity, while outbound links can add to the user experience. Together, these can greatly improve search engine rankings.
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