Wherever you are in your journey of SEO expertise, whether you are starting at the beginning or if you’re looking for ways to achieve advanced outcomes, it's important to have a grasp on the nuts and bolts of how internal links work and how to use them to reach your goals.
What are Internal Links?
Let’s start by asking: what are internal links? It’s very simple. There are internal and external links, and the difference between these link types is that internal links originate from your own site and point to other pages on your site whereas external links are links that connect your site to an outside site or vice versa.
Easy, right? Well, that all depends. The complexity increases when you’re looking to scale your knowledge beyond the basics of SEO. There’s a lot more to learn, especially when it comes down to creating SEO authority.
We like to think about internal links as signposts to understand how they work with SEO. The three primary ways of content discovery are through internal links, external links and site mapping. Crawling, indexing, and ranking happen first and foremost with internal links.
The Goals of Internal Linking
The goals of internal linking are simple:
- Provide clear navigation for the user on your website
- Define the architecture and hierarchy of your website
- Distribute page authority and ranking power throughout the site
- Improve how the site is indexed and crawled
The way many websites are organized today is great for people who are looking to find products, but it’s not ideal for SEO. Site taxonomy, or your site's classification of its pages, includes a first level of navigation links, usually in the main menu or navigation bar prominently featured on the home page.
Most of the time a website is organized around generalized sections or topics in navigation links and it filters down into smaller categories.
This process is great for people who are looking to find something that falls into those categories, but tougher for web crawlers that are indexing your site. The problem exists due to the tree architecture and website structures that filter from general to specific topics.
Many website structures navigate according to these paths to different pages. However, the average user or casual visitor on your site will only go through seven clicks from beyond the home page. The goal with internal linking is to get customers, visitors to your website, and search engines to understand where they need to go with as few clicks as possible. As a result, a good SEO strategy for internal links has to take into account these two schools of thought.
Types of Internal Links
Internal links have several subtypes and understanding them and how they work will help you gain authority and get acknowledged for your expertise through the appropriate treatment of your links and how they relate to each other.
The first and most obvious type of internal link to make note of is a navigation link or universal link. Navigation links can be found on every website in the header or footer section of a home page and provide global context to your visitors on what is important on your site. For the most part, each item in a homepage navigation bar or menu has a link to each section of the website, navigating the user from the home page to the rest of the site.
The second type of internal link is called a category link. These appear in the left navigation and often show refinements when searching for a product or subtopic. These links are also referred to as dynamic navigation or dynamic filters. Optimizing your site structure and paying careful attention to category links can have a big impact on your site’s organic traffic.
When we drill down from navigation and category links we also have content links. Surprisingly, not many companies use this type of internal link, but those who do see big results. A content link provides the user with context around the copy that appears on your site.
For example, if you run a travel site, there is a big difference between Rome, Italy and Rome, Indiana. A content link is highly effective at telling your users which Rome you’re referencing in your text. Though often overlooked by some companies, the key bits of text in these links work very well to provide a more in-depth context to your site visitors.
Product and service links are also internal links and they show up on product and service pages. They are the cross-sell and up-sell opportunities at the bottom of a web page as well as similar products listed as well on the same page. They help crawlers and visitors find related products. It’s important to use detailed and unique product descriptions that go beyond keywords as well as showcase an understanding of how your website’s products are related.
Internal Link Modules
Internal link modules are another type of link that only the smartest companies are using. When search engines can navigate your site with the least amount of clicks, it dramatically optimizes the position of your site in search engine results and increases traffic. Most websites use a hierarchical taxonomy. This structure resembles branches on a tree, and because it involves drilling down into a lot of layers of information, it’s not always easy to quickly find information.
Deep linking bypasses the standard tree-like hierarchy to hasten discoverability of the right topics. Internal link modules use the shortcuts offered through deep linking to reference other parts of a website much faster.
Internal Linking Principles
If we begin to see internal links as signposts, we can use the saying “All roads lead to Rome” as an analogy. This saying came about because the Romans built some of the world’s first roads, and it was the most important city at the time. The same concept holds true when applied to the internal links of your website: if a page is important to you, there must be roads and signposts leading to it.
Your best and most important category should have a lot of internal links pointing in its direction. Think about how many hops or clicks it takes to get to one place. When companies provide dead ends or wrong or ambiguous directions your links are ineffective. If a link on a website says click here, you can’t help but wonder, where exactly is meant by here? People need to be led more specifically via internal linking principles.
With Rome as our analogy, below is a list of the seven basic principles of internal linking to help you grasp the full picture of how they function.
Recommended Reading: Internal Linking: Best Practices to Lift Your SEO Game
7 Basic Principles of Internal Linking
Here is a basic checklist of questions to ask yourself to make sure you’re on track with your internal links.
- Are you linking to your most important pages? Remember, all roads lead to Rome.
- Are these pages accessible with the fewest clicks? Provide users with the shortest route to Rome.
- Am I consistent in the keywords I use to point to these pages? There is only one Rome.
- Are you avoiding pointing to pages that are broken, canonicalized, or redirected? Avoid unclear or incorrect directions that point to a dead-end or a place where Rome is unreachable.
- Are you using the right keywords/anchor text to describe your destination page? Describe Rome accurately so the visitor will know they've come upon it.
- Have you corrected any ambiguous keywords that are describing your destination page? Describe Rome concisely removing any ambiguity.
- Have you avoided sending visitors to different versions of the same page? There is only one map of Rome to take you where you want to go.
Controlling How Your Links Are Crawled
If we do everything right, keeping the basic principles in mind, site owners can make sure that they only allow search engines to go exactly where they want them to go on their site. With the right instructions, meta tags, and directives in place it becomes easier to control how your site is crawled and ranked per your own specifications.
Controlling What Links and Pages Are Crawled
Make sure you only allow search engines to go where you want them to go by following these recommendations for your whole site, specific pages, and specific links. We can do this by putting up signs that are akin to “Stop! Danger! Do not enter!” Even if you have a signpost there, you still can strongly suggest not going to a certain part of your site. Here are a few different ways you can control that:
In this case, you would instruct the search engines never to go to a certain section of your site - no matter what. To do this, you can add instructions into your robots.txt file.
For example, if you have a URL that ends in /apparel and you want to override any possibility of that page being accessed, you can include a disallow*/apparel in your robots.txt (translation: do not allow any user agent, indicated by the asterisk, to access any URL that contains /apparel). This works nearly every time it's applied.
Here, we want to tell whoever lands on the page that there is nothing to see. We can do that with a meta name robots tag that looks like this:
<meta name="robots" content="nofollow,noindex"/>
In other words, this prevents the links on the page in question from being followed or indexed. Generally speaking, search engines will follow this instruction.
You can also put a tag on the links themselves that tells a search engine not to follow a link. You do this by adding a Rel=nofollow directive to the link, which looks like:
This is done in situations where the content is not related or is possibly incorrect and serves as more of a recommendation to the search engine. Your best bet is to apply a Site Wide instruction as listed above.
Recommended Reading: Internal Linking Strategies to Build Site Authority
How Does seoClarity Help?
We store a complete internal link graph of your entire website with every crawl using our proprietary crawler. This stores the relationship for every page that links to another and it also stores the anchor text used to link to a page. Using Internal Links Analysis, it’s easy to set up a new crawl to do an audit project.
To do this, we visit the Advanced Settings feature in Clarity Audits Projects. We set up a new crawl and select the Internal Links Analysis option, which will generate a link graph of the links found on the site.
This can be analyzed in the internal links analysis feature for more detailed insights into internal link structure optimization, including:
- Count of URLs analyzed, the total crawl depth, count of URLs blocked from crawling and count of URLs crawled with a canonical
- Number of internal links, broken down based on Follow or NoFollow directives
- Summary of response codes for 2xx, 3xx, 4xx, and 5xx statuses based on the analyzed URLs
- Average or total number of links by crawl depth (depth can be thought of as the number of links away from the starting URL).
- Number of pages based on count of inbound links.
In order to be effective, you want a clean, broad crawl. If your site has a million pages, then there are many millions of link relationships. If your website has a million pages and you only crawl ten thousand, you’re not going to have a full view of all of the signposts. That’s why the broader you can go with a crawl, the greater visibility you’ll have into your signposts and what they are saying.
The internal link graph display shows every internal link found in the crawl, but do note however, that only the top million pages with the MOST links are displayed.
You can also do a quick audit of the keywords that point to your most important pages. Ultimately, you want to make sure the keywords are relevant and mostly the same that point to a particular page.
How you decide to organize your website navigation, categories, and various web pages has a hand in determining the best internal link strategy for your company’s SEO success. When you know more about internal links and how they work, it becomes simple to formulate the right plan of action to optimize the ease and speed in which things are located on your site for site visitors, current customers and online web crawlers, all of whom are looking for specific things in different ways.
When you can correct errors in your internal links to better reflect your priorities and do some proofreading to ensure you don’t have broken links or repetition, your results will be worth the effort.