SEO basics: correct website structure through internal linking
A website generally consists of a number of interlinked web pages. Links (shortened from hyperlinks) are used to connect two pages or sites, so that the visitor can be led from one to the other. All these links from individual pages determine the link structure as well as the whole structure of a website.
As opposed to external links, which direct the user from one website to another, internal links refer the user to other pages within one specific website. Here the practice of internal linking defines the navigational path through a website. It’s important to have a cleverly-laid out website structure, as it has a positive effect on a website’s search engine optimization (SEO). So in order to incorporate a best-practice strategy, we can ask ourselves: what is the SEO way of handling internal links?
Internal linking and link structure: an overview
Navigating though websites should be intuitive and easy for the visitor: as a result, it’s important to make the website’s basic menu structure clear and self-explanatory. How your website looks depends entirely on the scope of the website, as well as your personal preference. At the same time, usability is one of the basic pillars of web design to pay attention to.
You can obtain an insight into the internal link structure of a website by looking at its sitemap: this is a list of pages on a website, usually in hierarchical form. Sitemaps illustrate how each site’s category items and menu items are structured and interconnected.
Beside website menus, you can also use internal links. If you feature a text that can be linked to additional information on another page of your website, you should link the user to this extra information. This is seen especially frequently on websites such as Wikipedia.
Using Internal links for an SEO-optimized website structure
Many webmasters associate search engine optimization with link building. This is where external links (directing to your website) are generated in the hope of influencing search engine rankings in a positive way. Since the Google Penguin update, however, it’s been a lot more difficult to actively practice link building. This is because many – often dubious - link building methods that originally had a positive impact on a website’s ranking are now penalized by search engines. Consequently, the websites using these link building are punished with a decreased ranking. Because of this, many website operators have decided to optimize their website’s internal linking and link structure.
Since search engines don’t publish their algorithms, the extent of the influence of an internal link on a page’s ranking can only be estimated. What is known is that internal linking doesn’t influence a site as strongly as external linking. All the same, it is relevant for web crawlers, since they reward a user-friendly internal link structure.
Internal linking: the basics
Web crawlers (also known as robots, search bots, or spiders) are computer programs that are used by search engines to evaluate websites. They analyze sites by following their links, and including the detected pages in their index. If a website has a user-friendly internal link structure, this makes it a lot easier for crawlers to evaluate all the web pages, which in turn has a positive effect on the page ranking. A well-linked site is beneficial for both visitors and crawlers.
Additionally with internal links, you can make the most of the link strength of individual pages: link juice is also passed on in the case of internal linking. Link juice (also called link power) indicates the strength of a link, which is then passed on to the linked pages. If you compare link power to a river, each tributary flowing off from it would represent a link: each section carries part of the link power on further. While an optimal distribution of link juice is one of the most fundamental challenges for the search engine optimized structure of internal links, it is by no means the only one.
Tips for internal linking
- Inheriting link juice: link power is especially high on websites with good reputations, meaning it should be distributed according to how important the subpages are. It’s important to know that link juice is evenly distributed from the output to all the linked web pages. The link power is divided by the number of linked pages. So if a web page links to ten other pages, the linked pages benefit from more link juice than if the web page linked to fifty other pages.
- The number of links pointing to a web page: if many internal links are connected to a certain page, the web crawlers will presume that this page is more important. Central pages (such as a site’s homepage, important subpages, or landing pages), should therefore be the most-linked to. It’s advisable to use internal links rather sparingly, i.e. only when they are useful to visitors.
- Flat link hierarchy: a website’s individual subpages should not go any deeper than they need to. The starting point is usually the homepage: if it takes ten clicks to reach a page from the homepage, the crawler will rank this page as less important than a page that can be reached in three clicks.
- Position and appearance of links: when working out the importance of links, the crawler also takes into account the structure and the design of individual web pages. A prominently-placed link (e.g. at the top of a page, in large font, or included in an image) is given more worth than less obvious links (e.g. at the end of a long article or in the website’s footer). Links in texts should always be highlighted (for example, in another color).
- Context: links to other sites rank even better when both sites contain similar topics. This is where relevant anchor texts come into play. Anchor texts are the part of the text you click on to access the link. If you want to link to another page that has information on a product you’re writing about, make sure to include the name of your product in the anchor text. These link texts (whether internal or external) inform the search engine as well as the user about the content of the linked page. Anchor texts should also always be individualized, since this practice is rated more positively by search engines.
- Breadcrumbs: breadcrumb navigation enables website visitors to keep track of where they are on a website. This is often shown through a line of text, where the individual menu items are shown along with the site you’re currently browsing (e.g. an online store homepage → online store → pants → jeans). Here, the whole website path is displayed which is helpful to users as well as search engines. If the navigational structure is labeled through schema.org, web crawlers can easily analyze bread crumb navigation.
- Accompany image links with alt text and title: if an image is linked, you should definitely provide a descriptive title and an alt text for it. Only then can search engines know what content lies behind the image link.
- Get rid of defective and unnecessary links: faulty links, which can lead to 404 error pages, should be deleted. The same goes for unnecessary links; otherwise, precious link juice is just getting wasted on meaningless internal links.
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Increase user-friendliness and strengthen individual pages with internal links
Many different factors have influence over how visible an internal link or the webpage behind it is. One of the essential tasks of internal linking is to make websites more user-friendly: a clear website structure with a flat hierarchy and low click depth is appreciated by both website visitors and web crawlers of search engines.
In addition, individual web pages receive a better search engine ranking when internal links are correctly used: redirecting link juice as well as correctly positioning and labeling links ensures that the linked page is brought to the forefront. In conclusion, correctly implementing internal linking can noticeably increase a website’s visibility.