Are Internal Links A Ranking Factor?

You hear about internal links all the time. But how important are they?

Do internal links affect search rankings, and if so, how can you best optimize them for SEO?

That is what we will explore by diving into Google Search Central, patents, tweets, and office hour videos.

The Claim: Internal Links As A Ranking Factor

What are internal links?

Internal links are simply hypertext links connecting two pages on the same domain. For example:

  • A link from one Search Engine Journal article to another within the domain would be an internal link.
  • A link from a Search Engine Journal article to an article on Google Search Central would be an external link.

Peruse articles from the top SEO blogs and experienced marketers. You will likely find advice on properly optimizing internal links to increase visibility for your key pages in search results. For example:

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The Evidence For Internal Links As A Ranking Factor

Google’s page on How Search Works explains how links help Google discover new content.

“Because the web and other content is constantly changing, our crawling processes are always running to keep up. They learn how often content they’ve seen before seems to change and revisit as needed. They also discover new content as new links to those pages or information appear.”

In 2017, Gary Illyes, Chief of Sunshine and Happiness at Google, was asked if breadcrumb navigation links passed value. His response:

“We like them. We treat them as normal links in, e.g., PageRank computation.”

It sounds like he confirmed that internal links could influence a page’s performance in search results.

Does Google look at the anchor text of internal links? John Mueller, Search Advocate at Google,  tweeted a response to this question later in 2017:

“Most links do provide a bit of additional context through their anchor text. At least they should, right‽”

During a Google Webmaster Central Office Hours Hangout in 2018, Mueller was asked if updating the anchor text of internal links to help users could affect rankings.

He responded that if you were making the anchor text more useful to users, it would also be more beneficial for search engine crawlers.

Later in 2018, when asked about ranking changes related to mobile-first indexing, Mueller stated, “…if your mobile site doesn’t have all of the content you need for ranking (including internal links, images, etc.), then that could have an effect.”

On Twitter, in response to a question about the results of a Lighthouse audit in 2020, Mueller said, “…internal links with useful anchor text help users, and they help search engines.”

In a Google Webmaster Central Office Hours later in 2020, Mueller was asked how internal linking would work for two pages about cheese on the same website. He noted that there didn’t need to be a change to the anchor text that separated a page to buy cheese from a guide to cheeses.

In 2021, during Google SEO Office Hours, Mueller discussed how Google might choose a website’s homepage, category page, or other pages as the most relevant for a specific keyword search result.

He suggests you use internal linking to let Google know the most important pages on a website. For example, if you have one more important product to your business than others, link to that product specifically from your homepage and other essential pages throughout your website.

This would help Google recognize that one product is more important than the others on the site.

Mueller answered another question about internal links in 2021. Are internal links diluted if you use too many on a page?

Mueller’s response ultimately boiled down to site structure. If Google can still understand the site structure and see the differentiation in the importance of some pages over others, then the number of internal links is acceptable. He gives a similar answer to this question again in 2022.

In 2022, Mueller was asked if placing a link in a header, footer, or content makes a difference. He responded that it didn’t mean anything. He answered similar questions during future office hours.

Later, in March 2022, Mueller was asked if internal links are still crucial to SEO if structured data for breadcrumbs are present. He states that “…internal linking is super critical to SEO.” He calls it one of the biggest things you can do on a website to guide Google to your most important content.

The evidence is pretty straightforward. Internal links help people and search engines understand your site. Google gives internal links weight and uses them to help determine which pages are your most important.

So, what makes a good internal link?

[Learn More:] Google Ranking Factor Insights

Google’s Advice For Effective Internal Links

Many of the Google employees’ responses focused on improving users’ experience and helping search engines understand your site. What are the most effective ways to indicate your essential pages using internal links?

Google’s documentation provides clear answers.

Google’s explanation for How Search Works For Site Owners reiterates the role that links play in helping Google discover new content.

“The first stage is finding out what pages exist on the web. There isn’t a central registry of all webpages, so Google must constantly look for new and updated pages and add them to its list of known pages. This process is called ‘URL discovery.’

Some pages are known because Google has already visited them. Other pages are discovered when Google follows a link from a known page to a new page: for example, a hub page, such as a category page, links to a new blog post.”

They recommend that creators use Google Search Console to learn how to make their site more accessible to crawlers. GSC offers reports that help website owners identify their top-linked pages and pages with the most internal links.

Google’s official Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide discusses internal linking, beginning with the use of breadcrumbs.

“A breadcrumb is a row of internal links at the top or bottom of the page that allows visitors to quickly navigate back to a previous section or the root page. Many breadcrumbs have the most general page (usually the root page) as the first, leftmost link and list the more specific sections out to the right. We recommend using breadcrumb structured data markup when showing breadcrumbs.”

The guide also references internal links as part of a naturally flowing hierarchy.

“Make it as easy as possible for users to go from general content to the more specific content they want on your site. Add navigation pages when it makes sense and effectively work these into your internal link structure. Make sure all of the pages on your site are reachable through links, and that they don’t require an internal search functionality to be found. Link to related pages, where appropriate, to allow users to discover similar content.”

As for advice on how to help your website’s SEO, Google recommends writing good link text.

“Links on your page may be internal – pointing to other pages on your site – or external – leading to content on other sites. In either of these cases, the better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you’re linking to is about.”

It continues:

“You may usually think about linking in terms of pointing to outside websites, but paying more attention to the anchor text used for internal links can help users, and Google navigate your site better.”

Of course, Google also warns not to use “excessively keyword-filled or lengthy anchor text just for search engines” or links that don’t help users with navigation throughout the website.

In a Google Search Central Blog article from 2008, Google discusses the importance of link architecture.

“Link architecture – the method of internal linking on your site – is a crucial step in site design if you want your site indexed by search engines. It plays a critical role in Googlebot’s ability to find your site’s pages and ensures that your visitors can navigate and enjoy your site.”

The article goes on to answer questions about internal linking. The answers, in short:

  • Google doesn’t recommend using nofollow with internal links for PageRank sculpting or siloing.
  • Google doesn’t have a problem with cross-themed internal linking, such as a website discussing biking and camping.

Under Advanced SEO documentation, Google discusses the importance of internal links for your website’s sitelinks in search results.

“Ensure that your internal links’ anchor text is concise and relevant to the page they’re pointing to.”

In another Google Search Central Blog article from 2010 offering website advice for non-profits, Google noted that:

“20% of our submissions could improve their sites by improving the anchor text used in some of their internal links. When writing anchor text, keep two things in mind:

  • Be descriptive: Use words relevant to the destination page, avoiding generic phrases like “click here” or “article.” Make sure the user can get a snapshot of the destination page’s overall content and functionality by reading the anchor text.
  • Keep it concise: Anchor text that contains a few words or a short phrase is more attractive and convenient for users to read than a sentence or paragraph-long link.”

Does the number of internal links matter?

Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s webspam team, answered this question in a Google Search Central video in 2013. He responded that internal links would not cause trouble. Website templates and architecture will naturally lead to many internal links with matching anchor text. So long as it is natural and for user experience, it is okay.

[Deep Dive:] Your Complete Guide To Google Ranking Factors

Our Verdict: Internal Links Are A Ranking Factor

Ranking factors: confirmed

Google’s documentation about how search works and its starter guide on how site owners can help Google understand their content explain internal links’ importance.

You can also find advice on Twitter and YouTube from Google representatives about optimizing internal links to help Google determine the most critical pages on your website.

Internal links are a part of the ranking factors that help determine where your webpages will rank in search results.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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