When discussing search engine optimization, you can’t avoid the topic of links. Typically, links are synonymous with external links – other websites pointing to your own. This is obviously a cornerstone of any SEO campaign. However, text links within your website that point to your own content are just as important (call them internal links). More specifically, text links that pass anchor text and PageRank must be utilized within your website to fully support your SEO efforts.
Internal links can be used for several purposes. The biggy is improving internal link structure (PageRank distribution). However, internal links also attribute keywords to certain pages/content via anchor text, and internal links can also be used to enhance user engagement. There are several ways to incorporate text links within your site (and for discounting them when necessary).
Internal Links and PageRank Distribution
I like to think of PageRank (or link juice) as lightening thrown down by Thor himself. Your homepage is a massive lightening rod waiting to absorb that energy. If there are no links on your homepage, that energy will sit there, unused. When links are present, they act as a conduit, safely spreading PageRank’s energy to each corresponding page.
The first step is determining your website’s hierarchical structure (i.e. Home > Categories > Blog Post). Your linking structure should follow a similar pattern. In my example, Category pages would be of high importance and necessitate a link from the homepage. From each Category page then, individual blog posts would be linked to. PageRank would be funneled to each individual post via its Category page.
Links count as votes in the PageRank system, so the more internal links a page has, the higher it’s PageRank will be. So you can experiment with increasing (or decreasing) the number of internal links to a particular page to try and affect its PageRank and rank.
Assign Keyword Importance with Anchor Text
Just like you would with a traditional link building campaign, be hyper-aware of the anchor text you use with internal links. Especially since you have 100% control! As you execute your internal linking structure, make sure that your anchor text contains those keywords your linked-to page is targeting. As the search engines crawl those links, they will use the anchor text in the process of determining what that page is about!
A great way to point internal links to your site’s content with great anchor text is to maintain an HTML sitemap. This is yet another argument for using traditional sitemaps. They aid your users, help the search engines to understand your site’s structure, and provide the search engines with keyword-rich anchor text pointing to your content!
Linking to Enhance User Engagement
My first brush with internal linking was to use cross-linking of content for decreasing bounce rates and increasing page views. The idea boiled down to if a user was on my site – how could I make their experience that much better? The process involved finding relevant content on the site that provided additional information or would lead them to their ultimate goal (i.e. a conversion trigger).
Before I ever understood how internal links distributed PageRank, I had hard data to prove that internal links can (and do) lower bounce rates and increase page views. Now that I understand the full power of internal links, I realize that cross-linking must be done as part of a PageRank oriented internal linking structure. But rest assured, you can have your cake and eat it, too!
Discounting a Link’s Power
You eventually will discover that you have links on your site that point to unnecessary content. Perhaps unnecessary isn’t the write word – but think of it as content you don’t want or need to be ranked. The simplest way to discount a link’s PageRank distributing power is to use “no-follow.” This tool can be used for an entire page (not recommended) or on inidividual links (preferred). When you place the no-follow tag within a link’s code, you are telling search engines that the page behind that link is not important. Google specifically states that they do not follow links with this tag. Period.
There are volumes more to be read and written on PageRank distribution and the full extent of internal linking structure and strategy. So, take this information as a solid first-step to understanding internal linking. Leave a comment if you have any questions or would like to add your 2 cents!