Internal Linking: Recouping Your Site’s Hidden SEO Value

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Synopsis – As one of the basics of search engine optimization, link building is a key component to ranking well in search engines. But one aspect of linking that many search marketers overlook is the power of internal links, leading to many sites not taking advantage of these means of effecting solid positioning.

In his article “Internal Linking: Recouping Your Site’s Hidden SEO Value,” Chris Boggs discusses the benefits of paying attention to each and every opportunity to build links between the pages of your website. Chris begins his analysis with a solid example of a site that has maintained number one ranking for a very competitive term since 2005 primarily by an intricate web of internal links.

There are two main areas where one can concentrate efforts to improve the status of internal linking on a site. First, Chris identifies a number of components related to navigation links, including aspects related to drop-down navigation, customized navigation, and dynamic issues and CMS (for large-scale ecommerce sites). Second, he discusses the issue of benefits of anchor text linking and best practices related to such links.

Chris concludes his article with a discussion of advanced internal linking considerations and the controversies of nofollow and hidden links.

The time to explore internal linking opportunities is during initial design or re-design of a site. As Chris points out, internal linking is an excellent example of a process that may prove to be too costly to implement as effectively once your website is live, so its importance cannot be overstated.

The complete article follows …


Internal Linking: Recouping Your Site’s Hidden SEO Value

Search engine optimization (SEO) has become mainstream enough that most Internet marketers understand the primary tenets of a successful SEO initiative: address technical concerns blocking efficient and accurate spidering of the site, provide relevant and unique content, and improve inbound links to each important page on the site. A recent review of a number of websites, however, reveals that the proper handling of internal linking is still lacking in many game plans.

Links to a page count as an important part of search engine algorithms. For links to count as votes for the particular page to rank better for specific terms, they need to be from relevant pages which also have some authority of their own. For webmasters and marketers that truly care about SEO, building links doesn’t stop at the home page and top-level category pages – every page that is somehow relevant to a specific topic should have appropriate links pointed to it, if one hopes to succeed in matching search engine queries related to the topic.

The number-one item people seem to forget when optimizing a website is that internal linking can help a site as much as links from pages on other domains. Granted, internal pages with more inbound links pointed to them from outside sources (such as a site’s home page) are better able to pass SEO value known as “link weight.” Simply building a page and then linking to another page, without relying on any links from external pages, will not do much from an SEO perspective. Using internal linking effectively to aid SEO efforts requires commitment and careful planning.

An Example of the Power of Internal Links

An excellent example of the value of internal linking can be found by searching Google for the term “insert printing,” a phrase related to newspaper insert advertising. In 2005, the G3 Group optimized a page specifically to perform for this term which, at any given time, may have a dozen or more websites competing for paid search positioning. Naturally, sites are also competing for this term within organic listings.

Since 2005, the G3 page has ranked number one in the organic listings for this term. The amazing thing about the page is that there are no external inbound links of much value to the page. Instead, there is an internal navigation link using the anchor text “insert printing,” as well as one additional link using the same anchor text within the content on printing on the G3 Group site. How could such a page maintain top ranking for more than two years for a very competitive term while lacking any external links of significant value?

The simple answer is that the site’s brilliant design incorporated very skilled coding (all provided by the owner of G3 Group), and consequently the internal links and relative value of the page are strong enough to survive in the top position. Some might argue that since the page has held the number-one spot for so long, it has gained additional trust in the algorithm, but there is little evidence that this typically happens (aside from branded terms vital to a search query). Instead, the primary factor that has helped this page remain number one over the years is likely the internal linking.

The Benefits of Navigation Links

From an SEO perspective, navigation links are most effective if they include visible anchor text instead of images. Primary and secondary research over the past few years have convinced me of this, and the use of text-based links should be one of the top best practices mentioned by SEOs advising on navigational schemes during site design or redesign. For those wishing to keep the aesthetic value of image links, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) can make text links appear as images to blend with the rest of the site’s design.

One way to see if your link text is being indexed by search engines is to place your cursor on the page and choose “Select All” to see if the words within the navigation links are highlighted (selected). If they (like other images on the page) are not highlighted, then the text is not being indexed. You can also test this with a text browser.

Some may argue that using ALT attributes to label image links is as effective, since the ALT effectively replaces the anchor text. I have seen some value in this over not having the ALT attribute, but the majority of research points to the actual text being given more weight than the ALT attribute.

There are indeed many factors to consider when defining the navigational architecture of a site from an SEO perspective. Some of the top ones involve treating drop-downs, strategizing customized navigation depending on the section of the site a visitor is in, and managing “dynamic issues” caused by content management systems such as IBM Websphere.

Drop-Down Navigation – At a high level, drop-downs using JavaScript are nearly always bad for SEO purposes, while CSS-generated drop-downs are the best practice. Even if it’s not your designer’s first choice, CSS can be made to blend in with the rest of the design elements of the page.

Customized Navigation – Using regionalized navigation is fortunately becoming more and more en vogue with site architecture planners. Not only does this help from a usability standpoint, but it creates “mini-sites” within a website, focused toward one particular topic. A financial services website, for example, can create navigation links specifically aligned with the subject matter of the page on which each resides. If someone is in the banking section of the site, the left navigation links all relate to the various banking products. Although this is becoming more common, unfortunately many redesigns still take the “easy way out” approach of universal navigation on the top and bottom, and miss out on increased usability. (Note: top navigation should remain universal (sitewide) in nearly all cases.)

Dynamic Issues and CMS – Navigation can be tricky for large-scale ecommerce sites with hundreds or thousands of products. At the highest level, particular care should be taken to appropriately map out how navigation bars will be handled as pages are served to visitors. Consistency is very important, and relevancy/grouping can be a valuable ally here as well. As an aside, make sure to control the number of unique URLs generated as a result of navigating through a site like this via different paths to end up at the same page.

Anchor Text Linking Benefits

A popular trend over the past few years is the use of more and more descriptive links within the content of a web page. Despite this, many sites fail to grasp the power of using good anchor text within links, simply placing a button (image) or the non-descript “learn more/click here” as the words making up the actual link to the next page. Anchor text should be descriptive of the destination page, often using one or more of the primary targeted SEO keywords for that destination page.

Anchor text is most valuable from one relevant page to another. For example, this can be as simple as a link from a company website’s main insurance page to a health insurance page using the anchor text “health insurance quote,” to a more complex semantic relevance like a link using the anchor text “heart disease information” on a page about overeating.

For best results, map out the use of anchor text. Simply winging it by throwing a link in here and there as you optimize pages will not be as effective. Plus, if you have a large site, you may end up linking numerous times to specific hub or theme pages. In order to increase the natural footprint of the inbound links to that page, consider mixing up the anchor text to use various versions of the primary keyword and even non-targeted synonyms.

Advanced Internal Linking Considerations

Over the past year or so, internal linking has gained an additional layer of complexity beyond simply ensuring that you have intuitive links pointed to the right places on your website from a number of potentially valuable pages and navigation areas. When Google rolled out the “nofollow” attribute in January of 2005, they envisioned it as a way to help prevent comment spam in blogs. The idea was that if you labeled a link “nofollow,” it would not pass the value of the link from an authority perspective in the search engine algorithm.

SEOs have long sought to control the number of links pointed off a page, especially if the page is particularly valuable from a link authority perspective. If a page has many inbound links, it is considered stronger or more authoritative. In most cases, the home page is the strongest page on a website, since it naturally tends to have the most links pointed to it. There are a certain number of links that have to exist on the home page, but the fewer there are, the more value is passed to each link. SEOs have realized that by using the nofollow attribute to block certain internal links from passing value, they can control the flow of value within their site.

SEO technical specialists are in disagreement as to the true value of controlling internal links in this manner, but many webmasters and SEOs are using the nofollow to label links to pages considered relatively unimportant from a search engine perspective. For example, what is the use of your Privacy Policy ranking in search engines? Other overhead pages sometimes targeted include shopping carts and “contact us” form pages.

One other internal linking practice is that of hiding links. In short, people come up with creative ways to hide links for some purported SEO value. Instead of delving into the multitude of reasons you may want to avoid this practice, I will instead refer you to a blog post by chief Google spam-fighter Matt Cutts, who says it all in “Hidden Links.” (http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/hidden-links/).

Conclusion

When it comes to search engine visibility, internal links can make or break a website. The tactics I have described in this article are considered best practices by a number of SEO experts – none of the advice presented is new or earth shattering. The key point is to take the time to consider the importance of internal linking during site design or redesign. Don’t wait until the site is live and the SEO consultant comes along and points this important fact out, by which time it may be too costly for the site owner to consider going back to implement.

About the Author

Chris Boggs of Rosetta is a specialist in search engine optimization and paid search advertising. Chris joined Brulant in 2007 as the Manager of the SEO team, and Rosetta acquired Brulant in 2008.

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