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Serious Question: Are Internal Links a Ranking Factor?

Too often, the chatter around internal linking as a ranking factor seems more like an endless phone game than the real source, search engines.

Some legendary SEO stories about internal linking have been passed down through generations of SEO professionals. It can be difficult to tell fact from fiction.

In an effort to set the record straight, I’ve tapped into our resources to check if internal linking is a confirmed ranking factor. Drum roll, please: you will find out the truth about internal links.

The claim: internal links are a ranking factor

An internal link is a hypertext link from a page of a domain to another page of the same domain. Internal links help people navigate websites and create site architecture for hierarchy.

Okay, but what about more concrete questions, like:

  • Is the total number of internal links pointing to a topic page?
  • Is the the quality of these internal links pointing to the page has a strong effect?
  • What about the anchor text of these internal links – is this another signal of relevance? Does longer anchor text add more value?
  • Is there such a thing as too many internal links on a page?

Evidence of internal links as a ranking factor

Since there are still tons of internal linking questions to answer, and I want you to have all the facts straight, here they are.

Are internal links a ranking factor?

Google confirms that internal links are a ranking in its search engine optimization (SEO) starter guide. Google says:

Create a naturally fluid hierarchy.

Make it as easy as possible for users to move from the general content to the more specific content they want on your site. Add navigation pages when it makes sense and integrate them effectively into your internal linking structure. Make sure that all pages on your site are accessible via links and do not require internal “search” functionality to be found. Link to related pages, where available, to allow users to discover similar content.

And, Google’s “How Search Engines Work” establishes internal linking as a ranking factor.

Some pages are known because Google has already crawled them before. Other pages are discovered when Google follows a link from a known page to a new page.

This is also why Google Search Console offers the “Top Linked Pages” report. It is used to “confirm that the main site pages (home page, contact page) are linked correctly within your site”.

The SEO Getting Started Guide also recommends using internal links in your breadcrumb structured data markup, stating:

“A breadcrumb is a row of internal links at the top or bottom of the page that allows visitors to quickly return to a previous section or to the root page. Many breadcrumbs have the most general page (usually the root page) as the leftmost first link and list the more specific sections on the right. We recommend that you use breadcrumb structured data markup when displaying breadcrumbs. »

The PageRank algorithm itself, and its internal flow, relies on internal links.

Does your web page rank faster if you have internal links from high traffic pages?

Ever since Bill Slawski shared his analysis of Google’s Reasonable Surfer patent, there have been arguments in the SEO community about whether pages with or without traffic affect internal link ranking signals.

Slawski said that “…based on the probability that someone following random links on the web might end up on a particular page.”

The patent talks about the position of a link on a page.

Essentially, it’s about giving the links more weight than it thinks people will Actually click, including links placed in higher positions on the page.

Matt Cutt confirmed this at PubCon in 2010.

The patent does not refer to traffic.

Slawski also dives into the page segmentation patent which further explains the placement of internal links on a page. And, it shares other information about how search engines use internal links to understand a web page.

Is anchor text in an internal link a ranking factor?

The SEO Getting Started Guide clears up the confusion if internal link anchor text is a ranking factor as it states:

“Also consider anchor text for internal links.

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

Google’s John Mueller too responded to this complaint on Twitter, where he said:

“Most links provide a little extra context through their anchor text. At least they should, right?”

And, in 2019, Mueller talked more about how internal linking helps your rankings in a Google Webmaster Hangout.

However, the claim of long anchor text in your internal links is just speculation at this time. Search engines have not verified this myth.

In fact, the SEO Starter Guide obviously recommends avoiding “using anchor text that is too long or filled with search engine-only keywords.”

Rand Fishkin also dives into his anchor text experiments to prove the value of quality anchor text.

And Roger Montti of Search Engine Journal examines Mueller’s response to whether anchor text helps improve rankings.

Are internal links used as a ranking signal in your site architecture?

Internal networking can have positive or negative effects:

  • NinjaOutreach increased their site traffic by 50% in three months thanks to their internal linking structure.
  • The Daily Mail failed to outrank its competitors due to weak internal links.

Google’s patent on ranking documents based on user behavior or feature data explores site architecture in more depth.

So what if your internal links are broken?

Broken internal links prevent search engines from indexing your pages and users from browsing your site. Broken links are a sign of a low quality site and can affect your rankings.

The Google Web Page Decay patent validates this claim because it states,

“If the webpage contains a relatively large number of dead links, it is considered an outdated webpage.”

Now, how many internal links are too many?

In 2009, Matt Cutts said there was a limit of 100 internal links per page.

In the past, Google didn’t download more than 100k of a single page (it no longer does), so the idea that links would distribute your PageRank made sense.

In 2013, Matt Cutts retracted that statement saying to “keep it to a reasonable number”. Thus, the rule of 100 internal links is no longer valid.

Internal links as a ranking factor: our verdict

Yes, there is some truth to the myth that internal linking and your search engine rankings are related.

Think of it this way, as Cutts said:

“…if there’s a page that’s important or has big profit margins or converts really well – escalate that. Put a link to this page from your root page, that’s the kind of thing where it can make a lot of sense.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/SearchEngineJournal

Ranking factors: fact or fiction?  Let's bust some myths! [Ebook]

Rosemary S. Bishop