How to use internal links to improve search performance

How To Use Internal Links To Improve Search Performance

How To Use Internal Links To Improve Search Performance

Before your content can rank, Google needs to be able to find it. Google does this by crawling different pages on the web, mapping out what’s what and what links where. Those “links” allow Google to find new or old content it hasn’t seen before.

The more links a given page or post has, the better it’ll rank. Think of links as a vote of confidence; the more people vouching for you, the better. And that’s where internal linking comes in. Internal linking allows a website to share its own content, helping both readers and Google find it and, if done correctly, helping them rank higher on Google.

But you can’t just link from one page to another and expect things to improve. You have to make sure those two pages are relevant and complimentary to one another. And that’s where this article comes in. Here we’ll go over the different types of internal linking, why they’re essential, and how to implement them properly. Let’s start from the top by going over the two primary types of links found on every website.

Internal links vs External Links

What are Internal Links?

An internal link is a hyperlink pointing from one page to another on the same website. Internal links are commonly found on a website’s navigational menu, sidebar, and footer menus. Contextual links, located in a body of text, can be either internal or external.

Their general goal is to self-promote, encouraging readers to continue onto another page, earning that website additional pageviews, reducing bounce rate, and further building rapport with the readers and Google alike. Internal links additionally improve a site’s indexing and page rank.

What are External Links?

External links are links that point from one page to another page on an entirely different website. These types of links are typically used to point readers to a product page or citation source. External links are also commonly referred to as “backlinks.”

This includes links between sites that the same person or company owns. Quality external linking, especially to sources, boosts your credibility and authority for readers and search engines. In this case, we would provide a backlink, a major ranking factor in Google’s search engine. 

Generally speaking, the more high-quality and relevant backlinks a website has, the better it will rank. The same can be said of other websites linking back to your site. Other sites providing you a backlink are external links that primarily point back to your website’s homepage or a specific piece of content.

4 Common Types Of Internal Links

There are four common types of internal linking: navigational, footer, sidebar, and contextual. While they sound similar on paper, each link has its unique purpose and goal. Let’s go over each one in detail, starting with:

Navigational Links

The links found on a website’s “main menu,” typically found at the top of the screen, are called navigational links. Navigational links are essential for internal linking and your website’s structure because they are a user’s primary tool for navigating your website.

navigational internal linking example using diffuse digital marketing's main menu

With how vital navigational links are, it’s critical you have a plan in mind for how you want to direct visitors on your website.

  • Do you offer services?
  • Is your site primarily used to educate readers?
  • Are you operating a store with several product categories?
  • Would you prefer people to call your business?
  • Are you trying to get people to fill out a contact form?

All of these are essential questions to ask yourself when you are building your main menu. With that in mind, you don’t have to stick with internal links for all of your navigational items. Some companies opt for external links instead of internal links for specific menu items, typically:

  • Click-to-call phone numbers.
  • Calendar appointments.
  • Sister websites, commonly for: courses, products, sales funnels, and forms.

Footer Links

A website’s “footer menu,” found at the very bottom of any webpage, consists of footer links. Footer links are identical to navigational links, both in importance and functionality. The key difference is their location.

footer internal linking example using diffuse digital marketing's footer

It’s common for websites to repeat their main menu items here with a couple of additional links. While your website’s main menu should be sleek yet functional, it’s perfectly acceptable to do the inverse in your site’s footer. Stick to your core design, but don’t be afraid to lean into functionality here.

Some additional resources you may want to consider sharing with your audience include:

  • A simple contact form
  • Your company’s physical address, if you have one
  • A google maps embed if you have a physical location you wish to share
  • Additional links to your site’s blog, category pages, FAQ, or affiliate/rewards program

Sidebar Links

Sidebars are menus typically found on the right side of a website and commonly link to additional content. The links in a sidebar are simply referred to as “sidebar links.” Commonly you’ll find links pointing to a recent blog post, the author’s page, contact forms, or category pages.

sidebar internal linking example from kamini woods blog
The “Categories” section on the right side of the image.

Sidebars vary heavily from site to site. 

Information-based businesses, like niche or authority websites, generally use the sidebar to:

  • Share additional details on the article’s author
  • Share details about the website itself
  • Display an affiliate or advertisement disclaimer
  • Show additional articles in that category
  • Show fresh content
  • A floating table of contents
  • Display an advertisement

Service-based businesses usually share the following:

  • Contact forms
  • Links to service pages
  • Discounts or coupons
  • Additional blog content in that category
  • Opt not to display a sidebar

Product-based businesses, like eCommerce websites, may show:

  • Discounts or coupons
  • A table of contents
  • Display similar products
  • Opt not to display a sidebar

Contextual Links

The links you see throughout a body of text are called contextual links. Contextual links are typically bolded, underlined, color-coded, or stylized to help them stand out to the reader and point readers to additional content they may find helpful or interesting.

contextual internal link example
The red highlighted text.

The red highlighted text.

The overwhelming majority of internal linking is done through contextual links; it’s also the most overlooked opportunity. Because search engines crawl websites one link at a time to each unique page, the bulk of your site’s indexing is done by following your internal contextual links.

Contextual links play several critical roles in your website’s SEO performance.

  • Improving click depth
  • Reducing bounce rates
  • Increasing page views
  • Building topical authority
  • Clustering / siloing your content
  • Increasing your content’s indexability

Contextual links don’t just play a positive role in your SEO strategy. They can also cause headaches if not done properly, even for experienced digital marketers. Keyword cannibalization and orphaned pages being two of the most common issues, more on that later.

Why Do Internal Links Matter?

Internal links are the network of roads and highways allowing users and search engines to roam freely around a website. That unrestricted movement leads to a better user experience, improving vital SEO metrics, and boosting our websites’ accessibility for search engines. Helping our content get indexed and rank faster.

Internal linking has three key benefits: adopting orphaned content, implementing content silos while building content clusters, and improving click depth. Let’s go over each of these in detail.

Orphaned Content

One of the best use cases for internal linking is for adopting orphaned content. Orphaned content are internal pages on your website that don’t have any links pointing to them, leaving them stranded with no way for users to reach them or search engines to crawl them.

Orphaned pages are rarely indexed, leading to poor SEO performance even if you did everything right when it came to keyword research and content creation. Broken internal links can also lead to orphaned pages, especially if the previously linked page was deleted or updated without setting up a 301 redirect.

301 Redirects tell Google, and other search engines, where a previous page can be currently found. This is done by pointing the previous URL to the latest version, and it would look similar to this:

yourwebsite.com/blog/old-url   ->   yourwebsite.com/blog/new-url

WordPress has many reputable plugins that can help you build these out, of course, if you don’t feel comfortable with that, we are more than happy to help. Both of the above issues commonly impact your site’s oldest content.

Develop Topic Clusters And Content Silos

Content silos and topic clusters are essential to every successful SEO strategy and rely almost entirely on internal links. Both follow a similar principle but are executed in different ways. Let’s start with explaining content silos.

What is a Content Silo?

Content silos are a formal method of organizing the different pages on your website. These are generally navigational links, visible on menus and category pages, and are meant to improve user experience and help search engines better understand your content.

topic cluster example

You want to see this type of structure in your website’s sitemap. A sitemap is a file that lists all the different pages, posts, videos, images, etc., on your website. It’s best practice to consider this concept when designing and building your website.

What are Topic Clusters?

Topic clusters are informal patterns, similar to a spiderweb, of contextual internal links that direct both readers and search engines to additional relevant content. Improving user experience, lowering bounce rates, increasing pageviews, and building topical

content silos - pyramid structure example

The goal here isn’t to link to any other page on your website but to link directly to something someone reading would like to see next. That internal link should be relevant and helpful to the reader.

For example: 

  • A detailed page covering landscaping services could reasonably link out to retaining walls, another common service businesses offer in that niche. It’s relevant, helpful, and could lead to a potential call or sale for that business.
  • On the other hand, a page covering dog grooming linking to a post about dog crates isn’t as relevant and likely won’t help the reader. Leading that link to be seen as “low value” with a negligible impact on search performance.

Keyword cannibalization is a common problem for topic clusters through anchor text; more on this in detail below.

Reduces Click Depth

“Click depth” is the total number of clicks needed for a user to navigate from a website’s homepage to a specific page/post. Higher click depths result in a poor user experience and make your website harder for search engines to crawl, negatively impacting indexing.

Most tools organize click depth into four different categories:

1 Click – Common core pages, like services or categories, are typically a single click away from a website’s homepage. Resulting in a click depth of one.

2 Clicks: Additional content, usually blog posts or service area pages, are two clicks away from a website’s homepage. Yielding a click depth of two.

3 Clicks – It takes users and Google three clicks to navigate to this content. User and search performance are starting to be impacted negatively at this point.

4+ Clicks – Pages 4 or more clicks away from the homepage are difficult for users and Google to navigate to, hindering their SEO performance and user experience significantly.

Internal Linking Best Practices

With how effective internal linking is, it’s best to find and follow the latest practices used throughout the industry, starting with getting a birds-eye view of where we currently stand by conducting an audit.

Audit Your Current Internal Links

We’re looking for four things regarding an internal link audit.

  • Broken or missing URLs (code 404 or 4XX)
  • Orphaned content
  • Non-permanent redirects (code 302)
  • Click depth

We start this audit by looking at broken or missing URLs for three reasons: 

  1. They’re easy to find with a tool
  2. They provide the most value for our effort
  3. They generally have the fastest turnaround time.

This section is immediately followed up by orphaned content for the same reasons.

404 pages and orphaned content are a “check engine” light for our website’s SEO and should be prioritized immediately. You can search for any broken links using this free tool from AHREFS. 

Whenever possible, we want to redirect 404 pages to another live and highly relevant page. Those redirects are done by performing a 301 or a permanent redirect. Telling Google and other search engines that the page and content they were attempting to share were in a different location.

Click depth is easy to check but is also the most tricky part of an internal linking audit and typically the most time-consuming to fix. There are several different ways click depth can be impacted positively and negatively.

  • New themes, site redesigns, or even updating your current theme (if old features you used were removed) can increase or decrease click depth
  • Broken links
  • Orphaned pages
  • Contextual linking through content clusters

Fix Broken Internal Links

After auditing your website, our first priority is fixing broken internal links or pages. The most frequent causes for these are:

Typos in the linked URL – This is where you link from one page to another on your website but have a typo in the link itself. An example would be: “youwebsite.com/… “instead of using “yourwebsite.com/…” or using “HTTP” instead of the secured version “HTTPS.” One missed placed letter, or symbol will cause a broken link. You can get around this by copying and pasting the URL you wish to use, but be sure to test the link just in case something happens.

Internal content moving to a new URL happens when we forget to update our internal links manually or haven’t set up a proper 301 redirect from the old URL to the new URL. While it’s best practice to update your links to the most up-to-date URL, it’s safe to start with creating redirects. Just make sure you make a note to go back and update, so you don’t forget. Too many redirects can lead to increased load times or errors, resulting in pages failing to load or being found.

It’s best practice to ensure a chain or redirects don’t occur, but we don’t want to remove any redirects we’ve set up; doing so would cost your backlinks. Because a third party does backlinks, generally manually, you don’t have a way to update them yourself. So the only way you can keep any existing backlinks is by redirecting the old URL to the new one you are using—more on that in the “Internal Linking Mistakes” section below.

Third-party content or websites no longer exist – These fall under external links instead of the internal ones we focus on. Still, since they also count as broken links, it’s best practice to find suitable replacements for these as well. Depending on the type of content, they may even give you a new topic to look into writing a new article or blog post on so you can link to yourself instead.

Identifying Relevant Content

Once you are done going through all the problematic page, link, and URL errors, we want to focus on grouping all of our like-minded content together. This is a great time to check and reorganize the different categories of content you have covered.

This is also a fantastic opportunity to link to any orphaned content you found in the auditing phase. When deciding which pages should or shouldn’t be linked to another, you must look at it from a reader’s perspective.

  • A blog post covering grooming a specific dog breed could link to an article covering brushes or shampoo. Both are relevant to grooming and could be something the reader is looking for more information on, making these excellent internal links.
  • A grooming article linking to a post covering dog crates, on the other hand, isn’t that helpful or relevant to the reader. While crates are certainly dog related, they aren’t directly relevant to the initial topic of “grooming,” making this an irrelevant low-quality internal link.

When you find two pieces of content you want to link together, you have to decide what text you want to use to “anchor” that link. Let me explain.

While you’re going through your site’s different categories, we want to make sure they’re directly added to our CMS. WordPress has a categories section under the “Posts” tab on the upper left-hand side of their menu. Check your CMS of choice to see if they can add categories directly. That’ll make adding a category section to your website’s sidebar significantly easier.

Choosing Anchor Text

Anchor text is the highlighted text you click that takes you to another page via a hyperlink. An example of this would be: what is anchor text?

The highlighted text “what is anchor text” links to another page on the internet. This one specifically directs you to a blog post on Yoast SEO’s website, where they cover what anchor text is and how you can improve it. A critical part of anchor text is ensuring the text we link to another page is relevant to the keyword/topic we want to rank the page for. When bots crawl these internal links – they use the anchor text to determine the context and topic the same way a reader does. 

In the example above, I used “what is anchor text” to link to a post covering precisely that, which is fantastic. If I used “anchor text” instead, it’s still relevant but doesn’t tell the reader or search engines what the link does for them. We aren’t “selling” the link. Where “what is anchor text” implies we’ve linked out to a helpful resource some readers may be interested in. Enticing people to click and move to that additional piece of content. This concept is equally important for both internal and external links. Here I’ve used an external link, so you or others have a more detailed resource available increase you’d like to learn more about anchor text.

It’s also important to know there is no “perfect” anchor text, but there are three tricks you can use to pick anchor text:

  1. Use that page’s “keyword focus”
  2. Look at what that page ranks for in Google Search Consoles’ “queries” section
  3. Use a snippet of or the whole title for the page in question

All of these ensure the text is directly applicable to the linked page in question, with next to no worry or guesswork on our end.

Internal Link Count

The last thing we need to worry about after adding internal links is adding “too many.” The idea here is we don’t want to come across as “spammy.” The part that makes this tricky is that there is no “perfect” link count for every page on your website.

A general rule of thumb is that it’s acceptable to have more links on longer content than shorter content. An article or blog post that’s 1,000 words will look just fine with 2,3,5 or maybe even 10 links if they’re relevant and help the reader understand that topic better. But a longer page that’s 3,000 words may look goofy if it has 30, 50, or 100 links. 

A great place to start is by adding 3 internal links to each and every page on your website. We also want to ensure the different pages on our website have at least 3 internal links pointing to them.

These links help visitors navigate your website’s different pages and search engines. Boosting user engagement, reducing bounce rates, increasing page views, improving your website’s crawlability, and helping your newer content rank faster.

That network of internal links throughout your website helps authority from one page pass through and boost another. Most people in the SEO world generally call that authority “link juice.”

We don’t want that authority to stagnate like standing water, we want it to continuously flow and cycle throughout the different pages of your website. This has the added benefit of boosting our topical authority and improving search engine rankings if done correctly.

8 Common Internal Linking Mistakes

Awkward text for the “perfect” anchor – We’re writing for people first, not search engines. User experience and engagement are massive indicators for Google and other search engines, telling them whether or not that page was helpful to the reader. Helpful content is pushed steadily higher and higher in the ranks, while unhelpful content slowly sinks lower in the search results.

Forgetting to set up redirects – When you change a post’s URL or delete it, you should add a 301 redirect, directing traffic to either its new location or the most appropriate replacement. Failing to add redirects leads users to broken or missing pages, causing some to bounce off your site entirely.

Improper link placements – Linking in headers – While headers like H1, H2, and H3s are generally SEO optimized, they’re meant to tell readers and search engines about that section on your page. Headings are not the right place to distract users by leading them somewhere else, the core body of your content should be keyword rich and have plenty of opportunities for this. 

Keyword cannibalization – We want to avoid linking to too many different pages with the same anchor text. This is hard to avoid on large websites or some niches, but it’s critical to avoid keyword cannibalization. Each content on your website should target a keyword, phrase, or question any reader could have. All being unique. Keyword cannibalization negatively impacts your rankings by confusing search engines because you’ve told them that two or more different posts are “essentially the same,” leading to conflicts and poor rankings across all pages involved.

Nofollow attributes on links – Most internal links on your website should be set as “do follow.” Do follow is a tag that tells search engines they should follow where those links take them, helping search engine spiders map out your website and positively impacting your website’s indexing. There are cases where it’s appropriate to set certain links to “no follow,” those being:

  • Linking to account/login pages
  • Linking to legal pages
  • Links in user-generated content (comments)

Not fixing or checking for broken links – Broken or missing links are a headache for users and search engines alike, so it’s best to fix them when you find them. Several different tools can help you identify broken links. Link whisper, Yoast SEO Premium, SEMrush, and Ahrefs, to name a few.

Once resolved, set up a weekly or monthly reminder to rerun one of these tools to check for new issues.

Overly short or lengthy anchor text – We want the pages we link to be relevant; likewise, we want the anchor text used in those links to be helpful and relevant. This is best done by keeping the text we use to anchor links short but descriptive. 

A good rule of thumb is to use anywhere from 2 to 8 words per link, 2 being an absolute minimum, with 8 being a theoretical maximum. We don’t want to use words like “here,” “click here,” “my post,” or “this” because they’re too short and vague, but we can’t reasonably use an entire sentence.

Redirect chains and loops – Setting up redirects from one page or URL to another is helpful, but many redirects in a series can lead to increased load times. Sometimes resulting in pages failing to load.

Long chains of redirects also consume your valuable crawl budget, a unit of time search engine spiders spend combing your website for content to index. Faster websites with fewer redirects get more pages crawled, resulting in better indexing.

Complicated redirect chains can also result in loops, where two or more different redirects result in an infinite loop. Leading search engine crawlers and users to never load the content they clicked on. Negatively impacting the user experience and wasting valuable crawl budget.

Conclusion: How Search Performance Can Be Improved With Internal Links

Internal links are an excellent opportunity to boost a website’s rankings and search performance in Google, but it’s often overlooked. That’s because internal linking is a fairly manual process that most website owners don’t have a real plan for at the beginning. But these links are well worth the effort.

Internal linking routinely improves a website’s search performance and rankings by improving user experience, resolving orphaned content, reducing broken links, and making your website easier for search engines to both crawl and index. If this is something you believe your website is missing, why not reach out and see what Diffuse Digital Marketing can do for you!