Keep a spreadsheet of your best content
There is an explicit reason for internal linking (to improve the UX for the user and allow content discovery) and an implicit reason (to get more of your website crawled, send more ranking signals to Google and place higher in search).
Both of these efforts are best served by knowing what your best content is. Econsultancy provides a good case study here.
I’ve been looking at Pi Datametrics which tracks top returning URLs for a whole bunch of search terms.
We’ve got so much content that for many topics, Google ‘isn’t sure’ what our best content is on certain terms. Consequently, top returning URLs switch fairly regularly.
See the chart below for the term ‘ecommerce in China‘ – the letters on the line show when the top returning URL switched (not the clearest chart, I know).
This switching is not necessarily bad, of course, as the topic of ‘ecommerce in China’ evolves and updates all the time.
However, there’s a chance we could rank higher with one page if we were clearer about what our best content is by being more consistent when internally linking.
Creating a spreadsheet of the best content to link to would help with this consistency. This is most important for our evergreen content whose popularity we want to maintain over time.
Assess and optimise your landing/hub pages
As detailed above, internal linking is about improving the ranking of (and customer journey to) your most important pages. These may be landing or hub pages.
The definition of a landing page is a bit ambiguous, but usually it includes some form of data capture, is fairly focused and may have a different format to other pages on a site.
They are of course intended to be a point of entry to your site, but in some cases it’s still relevant to divert users towards them.
Hub pages collect content on a particular topic, allowing users to access multiple pages easily, and helping publishers to rank higher in search engines.
At Econsultancy, we have 10 topic pages (e.g. search marketing) which are intended to act as hub pages, showcasing a variety of research and blog content.
Although we should perhaps be prioritising improving the ranking of these pages, in practice we tend to focus on our individual reports, which we feel are more cogent pages and can be optimised for less competitive search terms e.g. Marketing Automation Buyer’s Guide.
The lesson here is that you need to understand which of your pages are converting. If a landing or hub page isn’t optimised, you’ll need to improve it or start linking somewhere else.
There’s no doubt though that hub pages can be critical to search success.
It’s important to prepare new hub pages in anticipation of major events or in response to the popularisation of a topic. Graham Charlton uses the World Cup to show how a hub page was crucial to The Guardian’s search performance in 2014.
Part of an Econsultancy topic hub page.
Understand your users and write anchor text for them
Understanding your users obviously dictates where you may want to link to. This could be related products and services, definitions, background reading, sources etc.
Though it is tempting to throw in internal links after you’ve written something by simply skimming through and highlighting a term for anchor text, this isn’t always going to be most appropriate for the user.
For example, linking to a ‘trainers’ category with the anchor text ‘trainers’ does make sense on an ecommerce site. However, linking to a ‘how our trainers are made’ page simply with the anchor text ‘trainers’, doesn’t make as much sense.
It’s obvious really, you need to give the user enough contextual information to understand where a link will take them. If there’s not enough context, make the anchor text more descriptive.
Link profiles, whether internal or backlinks, are less suspicious (to Google) when they are varied. So, don’t always try to link using the same key phrase.
Understand that context can change over time
Over time, the context of content may change, without you having made any changes to it. An example here is Econsultancy’s content around the loose theme of ‘digital transformation’.
When we started to write about it, the term was fairly new and so it was okay to link to our digital transformation landing page (mostly about our consultancy services) using ‘digital transformation’ as anchor text (wherever the term first appeared on page).
The page we linked to does include resources, as well as detail about our services, so it’s useful for the user.
However, as the term became more entrenched in the industry and understood by more readers, it makes sense to be more transparent with the anchor text e.g. ‘see further research about digital transformation‘ or ‘see how we can help you with digital transformation‘.
This might seem like a small change, but it’s important to be up front with the user.
Part of the Econsultancy Digital Transformation landing page
Make sure all content writers understand canonical URLs…
Think about how busy content managers go about their business. They spend a while carefully crafting the content, the imagery, the text, the design etc.
Then, in their excitement at seeing their concept realised, they rush through all the housekeeping.
They quickly proof, perhaps cursorily browser test, and throw in all the bits of formatting, such as internal linking, that they know is vital to site architecture and search visibility.
The problem, if they’re grabbing links quickly and throwing them in, is that there are often different versions of the ‘same’ link all over the web.
For example, blog posts might be saved in several different categories by your CMS and have URLs to match (blog.com/seo/internal-linking/ and blog.com/content/internal-linking), or product pages might have dynamic URLs depending on how the user navigated to them.
Canonical tags help Google to understand which is the preferred URL for this page. That way, all the ranking signals pages give off by internal linking will be associated with just one URL, which will hopefully ensure this version is consolidated as the top-returning result in Google.
So, get your canonical tags added, or if this is beyond your control, ensure that when you internally link, you do so with a consistent URL, ensuring consistent backslashes, http protocol and www. (or lack of).
See Google’s canonical URL page for more information.
…and UTM parameters
The same busy content manager may go and snatch a URL from social media or within a newsletter email. Here, links may have UTM parameters added to track the success of various marketing channels (see the Google URL builder for a full explanation of how this is done).
Here’s an example: https://econsultancy.com/blog/67115-seven-of-the-most-interesting-us-digital-marketing-stats-we-ve-seen-this-week/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=econ%20blog
The problem is that these UTM parameters will, as they’re intended, give the source as Twitter in this instance (and not from within your site).
So, make sure you don’t use these parameters when internal linking, either by accident or in an attempt to track traffic within your site.
If you want to track internal behaviour, this can be done by event tracking or simply by using the custom reporting capabilities of Google Analytics.
You can easily set up a simple custom report in Google Analytics showing visits from internal links.
To do this, set up a report with dimensions as ‘page’ and their ‘previous page path’, metrics as ‘unique pageviews’ and filters that exclude ‘previous page path’ when it matches ‘(entrance)’. See screenshot below.
This will show you every page visit from another page within the site (excludes page visits from site entrants).
A custom report to show views from internal links
Try not to use too many internal links
Again, this is a point about UX. Think about it in terms of tempting the user to follow a link.
If a page is riddled with links to irrelevant content using exact match anchor text, many users will get wise to this fact and ignore them, even the few good ones.
Additionally, Google does take note of the volume of internal links. While there’s no upper limit, per se, there should be an appropriate number in relation to the content on page.
Concentrate on your most relevant content and respect the attention of your users.
Review your footers
Plugging your footer with links is pretty standard practice, creating an abridged site map helping to direct users.
However, footers, once created during site design, can be easy to forget if they’re not automatically updated by a CMS. Take the time to review and update your footers as the focus of your content evolves.
The Econsultancy footer
Use common sense and track success
Essentially, this guide is about using common sense and taking your time when adding internal links.
Combine that with some rudimental tracking of search success over time and you can’t go wrong.