Sign up for our daily recaps of the ever-changing search marketing landscape.
Fix your outbound link problem in a single workday
Worried that poor outbound linking practices are hurting your site? Columnist Pratik Dholakiya shares his method for identifying and fixing these potentially detrimental links -- without getting rid of the ones that are helping you.
Links are the foundation of Google’s algorithm. A naïve reading of the algorithm suggests that you shouldn’t link to anybody else, ever. It turns out that’s not at all true. But your outbound links play an important role in your ability to turn up in the SERPs.
Let’s make sure your outbound link game is on point. Follow the steps below and get yourself situated today.
Background: It’s not just a PageRank issue (and hasn’t been for years)
Google’s original PageRank algorithm was pretty simple. Each page inherits PageRank from the pages that link to it. The PageRank that gets passed from one page to the next is its own PageRank divided by the number of outbound links on the page, minus a damping factor. Basically, it was a simulation of how likely somebody was to land on your page if all they did was randomly click on links.
It wasn’t long before SEOs started hypothesizing that linking to other sites could hurt your PageRank — the idea being that you lost a little bit of PageRank by linking out to other sources, perhaps giving their page a boost at your own page’s expense.
Taken in concert with Google’s suggested limit of 100 outbound links per page (a guideline which has since been dropped) and Google’s push to combat link spam by penalizing sites with “unnatural outbound links,” it’s no wonder SEOs and webmasters began to conclude that outbound links were best avoided (or nofollowed) altogether.
It’s true that spammy outbound links can be detrimental to your site. But there is evidence to suggest that, when implemented correctly, outbound links do not hurt — and indeed can actually help — a site’s rankings. Matt Cutts, former head of the web spam team at Google, made it clear way back in 2009 that “parts of [their] system encourage links to good sites.” Google doesn’t want your site to be a dead end.
While Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller has since made contrary claims, an experiment conducted by Reboot Online demonstrated results that could scarcely be more definitive. By the end of their five-month experiment, the sites with outbound links to authoritative sites were in the top five positions in Google for a made-up keyword, and the sites without outbound links were in the bottom five positions. These results were also true for a second made-up keyword that they didn’t include in the anchor text of those links.
So if you want to optimize your outbound links for search engines, you may need to cut some links (those to spammy or low-quality sites), but it would be a very bad idea to cut all of them.
Let’s talk about how to identify and fix any outbound link issues on your site.
1. Crawl that site
You’ll need to start by crawling your site to get a list of all of the links. There are a lot of tools you can use to accomplish this, but Screaming Frog is a freemium product whose free version can get you everything you need.
Once Screaming Frog is installed and running, enter your site’s home URL in the bar up top:
Press the “Start” button and allow it to crawl your site until the bar to the right reaches 100 percent:
Now, go to the “External” tab:
From here, sort “Inlinks” in descending order, so that the arrow is pointing downward:
The “Address” column now lists the URLs that your external links point to, sorted by the highest number of outbound links on your site.
Next step: Start cutting links.
2. Trim those sitewide links
Our first goal in trimming outbound links is to eliminate as many unneeded sitewide links as possible. These are the outbound links that sit in your site’s navigation, meaning that they link out to other sites on every page of your site (or at least on every page of your site that uses the same navigational template).
When your outbound links are sorted descending by “Inlinks,” sitewide links will sit at the top. They are easy to identify, because the number of inlinks will be comparable to the number of pages on your site.
I wish I could give you a perfect rule that would tell you which outbound links you should cut here, except no, I actually can’t. If things were that easy, it would ruin a lot of innovative marketing strategies. Still, these guidelines should give you an idea of what to trim.
As a general rule, these are the kinds of sitewide links you may want to keep:
- Links to your social media profiles — provided you’re strategic about this, the profiles are active, and you aren’t listing dozens of profiles. You should consider a link to a dedicated page on your site listing all of your properties if you have more than three or so.
- Links to places you were recently featured, provided that this remains in rotation and doesn’t start to pile up. Again, if you have more than three of these, a link to a dedicated page on your site would likely be more useful.
- Links to a parent or sister company, if and only if this isn’t part of a link scheme.
- Links necessary in order for aspects of the page to function correctly.
These are the types of links you should consider cutting:
- Blogroll-type links to sites that you like, especially if you have more than three or so, and especially if the sites aren’t widely considered authoritative. The risk that these could be interpreted as part of a link scheme is fairly high, so you should only keep the links if you feel that the user experience argument is very strong. Consider moving them elsewhere if you want to keep them.
- In general, any sitewide link to another site that isn’t one of your properties needs a strong case in order to remain in place.
These are the types of sitewide links you should almost definitely cut:
- Any link with anything other than branded anchor text. No keywords, not even partial ones, unless they are part of the brand name, should be included at all. If you feel elaboration is strictly necessary for the user to understand the link, include it outside of the anchor text.
- Any advertising or sponsored placement at all, unless the link is nofollowed. Never place an advertisement without nofollowing the link.
- Anything over three links to external sites that aren’t your own properties should almost certainly be cut from the sitewide navigation and placed on a dedicated page elsewhere, even if the links are completely justifiable. Few things signal spam like a navigation full of external links.
- Any external link that could be confused for a part of the internal navigation. Don’t place external links in tabs or drop-down menus, or in other locations that most people would assume are part of the internal navigation. This is begging for a penalty.
- Any links that aren’t readily visible to the user, or that share the page background color even if they are visible, should be reformatted to be visible or removed. Anything that could be misconstrued as a cloaked link to an external site is all but certain to get you penalized.
All right, now that you’ve pruned your sitewide outbound links, let’s look at the rest.
3. Cut the non-authoritative links
Your site is bound to have too many outbound links to check entirely by hand (at least in a single workday, as this guide has promised).
So here’s what we recommend. Copy the rest of your link addresses from Screaming Frog and run a batch analysis with Ahrefs. Use the free trial and cancel if you must. It’s worth it.
After signing up for the free trial and going to the batch analysis page, all you need to do is paste your link URLs into the box and click “Start Analysis.”
When the analysis is finished, sort ascending by “DR,” which stands for “domain rank.” Your links will be listed from least to most authoritative.
Now it’s time to start cutting your low-authority links.
Let’s be careful in our language here. I’m not saying you should cut every low-authority link. I’m saying that if an outbound link is low-authority, it needs to be justified. We don’t want to be citing a 13-year-old blogger’s WordPress site for important facts. We don’t want to be citing “fake news” sites. We should avoid citing secondary sources if we can. We want to avoid linking to untrustworthy or spammy sites.
In other words, use good judgment when cutting your outbound links.
It would be misleading for me to give you a domain authority cutoff point. Again, use your best judgment and stop where you feel the links have reached a consistent level of trustworthiness.
For each of these types of links you cut, make a note in a spreadsheet indicating the page where the link was and what it used to link to. This will come in handy in the next step.
4. Spruce up your sources
This is the piece that most outbound link strategies are missing.
You can’t just cut outbound links and expect this to help your authority with the search results. Remember the first section? It’s not just about PageRank anymore, and simply hoarding your links isn’t going to do you any favors. The tests show the opposite. Cutting too many outbound links may hurt your own rankings.
Especially when it comes to informational content, like what you would find on a blog or magazine, outbound links are crucial. Anybody who’s been to college knows that you should cite everything, and use authoritative sources.
This is mentioned explicitly in the search quality evaluator guidelines. When looking for “Low Quality Main Content,” they are asked to look for content that is “Failing to cite sources, or making up sources where none exist.”
For every link you cut, you should consider replacing it with an authoritative link.
Here I’m speaking strictly in terms of citation. If the original link wasn’t being used as a citation to back up a claim, there’s a good chance you don’t need to replace it. But if you are stating a fact without a citation, adding an authoritative source is highly recommended.
Take a trip through your spreadsheet and collect your replacement sources all in one go. Then go through and update your site with the links. It will go much faster this way.
5. Get a system in place
Finally, it’s time to get a procedure in place to keep your outbound link quality ahead of the game for the future. Add notes such as these to your content guidelines, and make sure they are enforced:
- Factual statements should be sourced with a hyperlink.
- Link to the original source if possible.
- If the original source can’t be found, link to a trusted publication.
- Links to less well-known or widely trusted publications should be to attribute opinions, rather than to source facts, unless the publication is the original source.
There you have it. Your outbound link game is on track, your reputation is solid, and your future is looking bright.
Have thoughts on this? Do not hesitate to Tweet me @DholakiyaPratik.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.