Internal links are the nervous system of your website.

They are signals pointing visitors where to go next, connecting your domain’s multitude of web pages into a coherent, functional framework.

Imagine the tiny tear of your liver or the searing stub of your toe: Every part of your body is immediately alerted as pain is transmitted throughout your network of nerves.

While a broken, misdirected or nonexistent link on your website doesn’t conjure a commensurate, intrinsic bodily response, it certainly hurts your domain’s ability to do its job effectively, and it certainly invites subsequent and perhaps more severe problems in the future.

Think enormous bounce rates, declining page authority, poor UX and recurring index issues.

The stakes are that high.

In this post we’ll explain why, and we’ll examine the ideal methods for maximizing your internal link strategy for stronger SEO.

What is an internal link?

An internal link is a web hyperlink that tethers two pages on the same site. By linking together pages, users can seamlessly navigate through a website by clicking a hyperlink with the appropriate anchor text.

Internal links are necessary for a number of reasons, primarily because they provide users with navigational and contextual opportunities. If someone wants to be directed to another page on your site (that’s related to the one they’re already on), they can click the hyperlink. Similarly, if someone wants clarity on a specific keyword or keyphrase that’s hyperlinked, they can click to find out more.

There’s also another key benefit to internal links: They accrue and pass along link equity to associated pages.

So if a blog post on “7 content types to launch in 2019” ranks on Page 1 of Google, it clearly has a level of authority and user value. And if you inserted an internal link into that blog that directed users to your “Content types” product page, in theory, you’d be transferring some of that same authority and value to your product page.

Existing pages that already generate a decent amount of traffic can be leveraged in this way: funneling some of that high-intent traffic to other pages on your site, those that are likelier to convert. As such, there’s a direct pathway for a site visitor to not only “visit” your site but to purchase from you as well – all through your helpful link infrastructure.

Internal vs external links

An internal link differs from an external link in their intent, although their function is similar.

An internal link exists as a mechanism for intra-domain communication and navigation. An external link is an inter-domain relationship.

External links connect pages from different domains, and they add authority and credibility to the pages to which they’re linked.

Users still click on a hyperlink to gain more information and context, except they’re directed to an external page.

What’s interesting is that so much of today’s marketing discussions revolve around external link building: the generation and accrual of backlinks from other websites. It makes sense, too. High-quality incoming links are a top-three Google ranking factor.

But a linking strategy is incomplete without also considering the internal component, aka the optimization to be done on your own site that doesn’t involve reaching out to external publishers and requesting backlinks or link swaps.

Mapping link structure to marketing goals

Internal link building is a foundational SEO task. It’s part of having a high-caliber website, of running an online business, of operating in a digital-first climate.

However, under the umbrella of an internal linking strategy are the precise goals you may have and the tactics you intend to use to accomplish said goals. That’s why not all link structures are created equally: Some websites are more complex than others, and their site hierarchies accommodate additional user navigations.

For instance, if you run an e-commerce business, you need a relatively flat and user-friendly link structure. You need site visitors to immediately land on product pages so they can add items to online shopping carts and checkout – ideally very quickly.

So your site doesn’t require additional categories, subpages and tiers that include a large quantity of internal links. All the information about that product should exist on that single product page. If a user clicks a link and navigates away from the page, you’re less likely to get them to return to actually complete a purchase.

Conversely, a company that sells manufacturing software might require a more intricate and in-depth site hierarchy, complete with several navigation opportunities. Sales may not be possible online; a user may need to speak with a sales rep first or set up a meeting or draw up a contract. So you would need additional information and pages that outline those requirements – it’s not a one-click process.

In this example of our home page, you can see that the top nav bar drops down into several tiers when hovered over. Each of these solutions is a clickable internal link that leads users to a dedicated page, and each of these pages has subsequent pages to which they’re linked.

 

This isn’t because we love talking about ourselves. It’s because our site visitors need this level of information to make their own decisions. If our internal link structure stopped at “Content Creation Services,” then we would have had to cram all five of the child pages for “Written Copy” “Graphic Design,” “Video Production,” “eBooks” and “White Papers” onto a single page.

Can you imagine how long and overwhelming that would be?

Broadly speaking, a link structure should resemble the following pattern:

internal linking best practices link structure

Beyond providing clarity to search engines and users, internal links should fuel your core marketing objectives too. In content marketing, these goals are often:

  • More traffic.
  • Better leads.
  • Higher organic rankings in SERPs.

Looking at each of these goals, here’s how relevant link structure matters:

More traffic

Google Analytics uses a first-touch attribution model, so if a user arrives to your site, then clicks on a subsequent page via an internal link, the second page is still logged as one session. So you can actually get more traffic to deeper, child pages than may immediately be visible in GA. But you’d need the appropriate links to do so.

Better leads

You need to be able to funnel leads to certain high-value pages on your site, and you accomplish that via internal links. A top-of-funnel blog post may be targeting a tertiary persona, so it may not make sense to route them to a product page. However, a commercial-intent reader may be looking for additional gated content or a web demo, in which case they’ll need an internal link to get there. By weeding out lower-quality traffic and funneling high-quality leads to the right destination, you increase your overall lead quality and sales potential.

Higher organic rankings in SERPS

Links add authority and dimension to your on-page content, so crawlers grasp a more holistic understanding of what your page is about. And you can create pillar content by having multiple other pages link to it, thus funneling a lot of traffic to a single page. That page, or pillar, stands a higher chance of ranking in SERPs because it houses a lot of information that can rank for a broad number of primary and secondary keywords.

SEO internal link building

There are a few basic fundamentals to SEO link building, which have been around for more than a decade and still hold true today. Those are:

  • Anchor text: The page the link points to. Placing a hyperlink over the optimized anchor text ensures users know exactly what they are clicking on and where they’re being directed to. Anchor text doesn’t have to be exact match, but it should be as relevant as possible and ideally be close to a keyword.
  • XML sitemap: A roadmap of how Google crawls your site. A sitemap is a navigation structure that breaks down your site into logical relationships, i.e., parent and child pages, categories and subcategories, etc.
  • Robots.txt: Code that instructs search engines to interpret a page in a certain way. For example, not all pages need to be indexed, such as checkout pages or those that contain sensitive web information. On the other hand, you need to ensure the content you create is able to reach the masses, which Robots.txt helps with – it tells search engines which pages are allowed/disallowed.

Luckily, most content management systems and plugins make it incredibly easily to understand how to use follow and no-follow links correctly.

internal link building

To maximize link equity and relational context between pages, you can embed internal links in a number of places and fashions. There are:

  • In-text links: Regular hyperlinks in your on-page copy.
  • Top nav links: Sticky headers that contain top-level site navigation.
  • Bottom nav links: Similar navigation at the bottom of the page, often with additional pages for contact information, resources and tech support.
  • Sidebar links: On the right or left handrails of the page, often with links to similarly related content or recent updates.
  • HTML/quick links: Headings, subheadings or table of contents links for quick jump-navigation.
  • CTAs: Clickable buttons, go-to links or conventional in-text links.
  • Captions: For image or video embeds (on same domain).
  • Ads: Native ads routing to unique landing pages.
  • Pop-ups: For newsletters, unique form fills and other actions that direct to new pages.

The key is to only include a link if it’s relevant. In the past five years, search engines have cracked down on the use of unnecessary or intentionally misleading links, known as black-hat links.

It’s also worth mentioning that your site may have an updated link infrastructure today, but it can easily go haywire for a number of reasons, such as:

  • A single link breaks, affecting all pages related to it.
  • A plugin or snippet of code disrupts crawlability.
  • Unforeseen digital attack.
  • Unreported site update.
  • Any backend changes that affect page hierarchy.
  • Improper category or folder settings.

Using a tool like Screaming Frog, Ahrefs or SEMrush can provide you with a comprehensive site audit that uncovers broken links, 404 errors and other prohibitive site problems, as well as potential remedies to address them.

Avoiding spammy link design

Link spamming is old news, and it’s getting harder for nefarious webmasters to game Google. Link spamming often occurs with external links, those that direct traffic to other domains without users even knowing.

But poor internal link building poses issues too, such as:

  • Linking to the same page several times in one post. One link is enough.
  • Phrasing content awkwardly just to make room for an internal link. Don’t force it.
  • Burying pages deep into sub-sub navigations. It’s too hard to find.
  • Nondescriptive or misleading anchor text. Link text should be as relevant to the destination page as possible.
  • Not double-checking link tags. Ensure your hyperlinks are labeled as “follow” and that there is an open and close tag.
  • Invisible or chromatic-match links. Links should be clearly visible in a distinct color or with an underline.

Internal links are vital to high-powered content marketing, and the simpler you make them, the easier they are to manage.

What internal link ideas do you have in 2019?

Mike O'Neill is a writer, editor and content manager in Chicago. When he's not keeping a close eye on Brafton's editorial content, he's auditioning to narrate the next Ken Burns documentary. All buzzwords are his own.