Internal Linking Tactics For Users & Search Engines
The internal linking structure of a website represents a wealth of (usually) untapped opportunity. Back link acquisition is always going to be fundamental to organic search efforts, but before reaching out across the vast web for links, look within. You may have more potential juice to leverage inside your own site than you would get from several links from other sites, and manipulating your own links is (usually) much easier than securing links on other sites.
It’s important to recognize that internal linking isn’t just about SEO. It’s intimately tied together with site architecture, conversion and user experience. It’s still surprising to me how often this is neglected. While we often focus (to the point of obsession) on anchor text, for example, we rarely give the structural elements of internal linking enough thought from a user’s point of view.
While there are some general guidelines to go by, like other aspects of SEO this topic is complex and nuanced. There really aren’t clear rules; rather, broad concepts that if applied individually should yield rewards by improving ease of use by spiders, and ease of use by visitors.
Obvious but true: text links are good
Text links are good for SEO. It’s an obvious point, but bears mentioning. Search engines are based on crawlers that scour the web performing discovery every second of the day. And they do so, by and large, by following text links.
Image-based navigation schemes are quite common, and where text alternatives are lacking, they are usually made to work for the engines by adding tricks and workarounds. Tools like sIFR give designers more flexibility with layout without sacrificing as much to the crawl. But better than that (for users too, not just search spiders) is a good, clean, simple and search friendly text navigation. Usability tests have shown that while images are excellent at reinforcing context and pulling attention to a specific area of the page, they’re even better when clear labeling and navigation, in the form of keywords and links, are also present.
Obvious but challenging: link consistently
Link consistently to canonical URLs. Said another way, use the same URL structure when linking to pages internally. If you link to your homepage, use the same convention every time: http://mydomain.com/ instead of http://mydomain.com/index.htm for example. Every page on a site should have a single URL, and be linked consistently with that URL.
Anchor text often gets a lot of attention, and is given great importance by most SEOs. In my experience it certainly plays a part, but it’s not the golden key it’s sometimes made out to be. There are other factors at work, including the content of a page, the text surrounding the link, other links on the page (and where they point), synonyms used on the page and in the link, the anchor text and context of links pointing to the page, and the link text itself. While anchor text can be a factor in your internal link graph, its primary focus should be on relevance for users. The keywords used in links should match up tightly with the target page. Sounds simple, right? It is, but you’d be surprised how often developers and content creators get this wrong.
While anchor text isn’t the golden key to internal linking strategies, large sites with thousands of pages will have a distinct advantage in this area. The reason is simply that there are more pages to push around. Large sites become their own web microcosm. However, as the scale increases the complexity also increases, and duplicate content, crawling problems and PageRank flow become ever bigger concerns.
Links are inherently calls-to-action. Be sure to use them wisely in this regard. A relevant and compelling link will direct more qualified traffic to the target page, which will improve traffic quality and even conversion rate. When these user experience factors are combined with an internal link graph that is easy to crawl and an intuitive, related and logical site architecture, the benefits reaped from SEO can go through the roof.
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