A lot of companies put energy into building more backlinks to their site, which is great.
But what about building and optimizing internal links?
I'd argue that internal links are largely overlooked, or at the very least, not fully utilized to optimize rankings and performance.
It is a big lever so understanding how internal links work and the best way to use them for any site is critical for long-term SEO success.
Table of Contents
Internal links are the hyperlinks created on your site that point to another web page on the same domain.
In order to understand some of the terminologies, we'll be using throughout this guide, let's cover some definitions and examples.
The link destination is fairly straightforward. It can be found in the href attribute of a hyperlink, is the URL of the page that your internal link is pointing to.
The anchor text is the text on your web page that is being linked. The words used within the anchor text should be relevant to the page you are linking to so that both visitors and search engine crawlers have more context for where the link will take them.
Nofollow refers to a directive that is included in the HTML of the hyperlink that tells the search engine crawlers to NOT follow the internal link to the destination. The "rel" attribute specifies the relationship between the current page and the page linked.
A 'dofollow' link is simply a regular internal link that does not have the rel="nofollow' specified in the HTML. The relevance here is that it does impact how crawlers navigate and index your site, as well as how link equity flows through your site.
Link equity is another way of saying how much authority or power is being shared from the linking page to the link destination. Sometimes also referred to as 'link juice' and 'PageRank'.
Internal linking structure describes the way that your internal links are set up relative to your overall site structure, which influences the way that search engines crawl your website.
The crawl radial map provides a visualization of how the example site was crawled. Digging into each of those individual dots (pages), we can get a better sense of what pages are being crawl directly from the homepage, how pages interconnected, and more.
When done well, internal linking can have a big impact on your rankings and organic performance.
It is the way that you shape the experience for both humans and bots with the same end goal in mind: effectively lead people to the most valuable information relevant to where they are currently.
The relationship between internal linking and link equity is an important one. With internal linking, you can control how link equity flows from your most important pages.
For example, a link from your homepage to a product page will pass more value to the product page than if you linked to a product page from something like a blog category page or a brand new page.
Be mindful of what pages on your domain are getting the highest volume of internal links as well as links from the pages with the most equity and make sure the authoritative pages are getting the most.
Many internal links happen naturally through your navigation, footer, etc., which are all opportunities to positively impact the user experience for visitors on your site looking for specific information. But beyond some of the core navigation elements, there are other ways to improve the user experience, decrease bounce rates, and increase dwell time on your site.
Linking to the important product or feature pages from other pages on your site can give visitors a guided path to follow from directly within the page instead of having to go to the main navigation or site search to find the next page they need.
Blog posts can link to key pages as well as provide links to related content directly in the text or at the end of the post. Using good anchor text is key for search engines as well as people, so make sure the anchor text you use is descriptive.
As search engine crawlers (also referred to as "bots") crawl your site, they follow every dofollow link that they come across and then follow all of the dofollow links that they come across on that page and so on.
The crawlers do not navigate the site the way a human would.
One of the reasons this matters so much is the crawl budget. Search engines will assign a crawl budget, or set amount of time and bandwidth they will allocate to your domain before the crawler will leave and move on. Because this time is precious, you want to make sure that internal links are pointing to the pages that you value most to make sure that the crawlers spend as much time as possible on your most important pages and not wandering down a path of hundreds of paginated tag results or other low-level pages.
In addition to the time and crawl budget, the crawlers are also keeping a tally of how many internal links point to each page on your site. This is one way for the crawlers to understand which pages are most important on your site, so you want it to reflect the right pages.
Here's a look at how this is displayed in Google Search Console.
Internal links can be a great way to help boost specific pages, especially if they are pages like a blog post or case study that don't have nearly as many natural internal links as your key pages.
Here you can see that SnackNation has include links to several of its biggest and most impactful blog posts in the global footer of their site, which gives each of them a substantial amount of internal links.
There are a lot of ways that you can go about setting up internal links in your navigation or directly on individual pages, so we've put together a few best practices to help make it easier to audit your existing internal links and build new ones.
The goal of your anchor text is to give good context for where the link is pointing for both the visitor and the crawler. The anchor text used for your internal links should be:
Linking to pages deeper in your site structure (i.e. several levels below the homepage) can help pass link equity to key pages and also help visitors find really good information without having to navigate there in a linear fashion. Everyone loves a good shortcut.
Here you can see the lines indicating links in a logical site structure and the red lines indicating an example where a link is created from the homepage or other authoritative page to a page multiple levels below.
As visitors to your site consume your content and progress through their 'buyer journey', you can give them clear paths to lead-generating pages that guide them to the next step in the process.
Reviewing your web analytics to understand which pages most often lead to conversions can give you good context for the most logical link destinations from other relevant pages on your site.
Let's assume you have a great resource on your site that does a really good job covering internal linking strategies in depth and you want to link to that from a related blog post so that visitors can explore more if they are interested AND the crawlers understand that the two pages are part of a topic cluster.
Good: This is one of the ways that internal linking strategies can help you improve your rankings.
Bad: This is one of the ways that internal linking seo strategies for Google and other search engines can help you improve your rankings.
If there is a logical way to use a keyword as your anchor text, that's great. Just make sure you always prioritize using the internal link anchor text naturally over optimizing for certain keywords.
There are some cases where adding rel="nofollow" to your internal links can be helpful, but generally, you will want to make sure that it is not included and the crawlers can follow the internal links you have set up.
Carefully considering how you approach internal linking on your site can be one of the best places to invest your time.
Building the right site architecture can ensure that your site will remain optimized even as it scales and crafting internal link paths for visitors and crawlers can improve your overall user experience and traffic.
Here are the four most important internal linking strategies to consider when you want to improve navigation, optimize your crawl budget, and boost your most important web pages.
How you structure your website can have a huge impact on both UX and crawl efficiency.
A flat hierarchy ensures that as much of your content is as close to the top (homepage) as possible. You want most of your core pages to be no more than 2 clicks away from the homepage. This ensures that crawlers will find and access the content more often AND your visitors can get to the content they need the most within 1-2 clicks.
Outside of the common idea of those core pages closest to the homepage, how does this look? What about sites with 3,000 pages?
It's true that not all content can be within 1-2 clicks for a very large site, which is where taxonomy comes in. But the overall idea of organization and structure remains the same.
For an e-commerce site, you will likely have category pages and one or more sub-category pages and within all of those, you will have a number of product pages. There are two important aspects to consider here:
This is why you see a clothing e-commerce store that has a category for Accessories and within that category, sub-categories for things like belts, hats, bags, etc. It is a good user experience for visitors trying to find items, but it also groups together pages and internal links that tell the search engine that these are all related.
Even though everything can't be 1-2 clicks from the homepage, it is still important to be mindful of crawl depth as you get to levels 4 or 5 or 6.
For example, if you didn't keep site structure and crawl depth in mind, you might create a category structure that resulted in six clicks to go from the homepage to a specific product page for a belt.
Mens > Clothing > Accessories > Belts, Suspenders & Ties > Belts > Belt product page
This is also why we see mega-menus. Far prevalent for e-commerce sites than B2B or other industries, but it works in bringing all of the important categories and sub-categories to within one click and make it easy for visitors and bots to make it to the product page content within 2-3 clicks.
On the B2B side, one of the biggest problem areas for companies is the blog or resources sections of the site. They are typically putting their product and solution pages front and center since there aren't hundreds of them, but the blog and resource categories and pagination of results can create some issues with crawl depth.
Sprout Social does a great job with their blog/resources navigation to make it easy to get deep into sub-categories in 1-2 clicks, which also organizes the content for search engines to easily crawl and understand the semantic relationship between the individual posts and the category/sub-category topics.
Site structure can take a lot of planning and work, especially if you already have a large site, but the results can be huge for controlling crawl depth and making sure that internal links naturally scale well as your site grows.
While navigation is an important factor in your site structure, it can also be a big lever when evaluating your internal linking and making sure that bots spend as much time and bandwidth as possible on your key pages.
In the case of both the global/main/top navigation (whatever you call it) and the site footer, these are present on all pages. This means that any link in the main navigation or site footer will be an internal link on every single page.
This is important because as the crawlers are going from page to page and following all links on every page, having these internal links in those global positions ensures that every page the crawler visits leads it back to your key pages, over and over again.
As noted earlier, most companies naturally put their most important pages in the main navigation because that's how they showcase their products or services. So, most often, the opportunity is in pruning the navigation and footer to make sure there aren't pages of low importance taking up critical bandwidth.
Another opportunity that companies have with the main navigation and footer is to link directly to important pages that would otherwise be several levels deep in the normal site structure. This may be represented as "Most Popular Articles" that links to 3-5 blog posts directly from the footer or perhaps "Most Popular Products" that links directly to an e-commerce company's most successful products from the main navigation.
Review your main navigation and site footer to see if there are areas where you can prune low-importance pages, add in key pages that aren't already included, or create internal links deeper into your site to give importance to those critical pages.
Content silos bring together a number of pages via URL taxonomy and internal links that are all sharing the same topical relationship.
A simple example of a content silo would be a /features page that gives an overview of your SaaS product and links to all of the following pages:
With the /features page linking to each of these and all feature pages linking back to /features, you have a group of pages that share the topical relationship of 'product features' now all together in a content silo.
When you have other pages like solutions or use cases on your site, this helps distinguish and group types of pages that could otherwise fit into a couple of different places on the site. Without it, you might have a page that was just domain.com/crm and it would be hard to know if it is a standalone product, a feature, a solution, etc.
There are a few reasons the content silos can be beneficial:
Topic clusters bring together a number of assets and contents that are all supporting the same topic via internal linking.
To continue with the example from above, we see that Workflow is a feature in the product, but what if you have a lot of information on all aspects of sales workflows across your site?
We can use /topic/workflows as the main hub where we touch on a number of high-level aspects of sales workflows and then link out to the following:
Here we can see that it is less about taxonomy and more about the topic. By creating this hub and spoke of pages all inter-linking, we can create an easy way for crawlers to associate all of this content with the same topic.
There are a few reasons topic clusters can be beneficial:
The bigger the site, the more internal linking issues that will always be popping up. That's just how it goes.
Here are some of the most common issues with internal links and how to resolve them.
Broken links can happen for a number of reasons.
Fix: Crawl your site to find any broken links. Review each broken link manually to understand why it is broken and then fix the destination, find a new link destination, or remove the link.
Internal redirects happen when the link destination of an internal link has 301 or 302 redirect is set up, causing the internal link to be redirected. It happens pretty fast so the visitor isn't typically affected by it, but isn't good for SEO to have the unnecessary additional hop.
Fix: Crawl your site to find any internal redirects. Change the internal link to point to the URL that the redirect resolves to, change the internal link to point to a different URL, or remove the internal link.
Even if an internal link isn't broken or redirecting, it can still be an issue.
As we noted before, internal links pointing to pages that aren't important or high quality can lead crawlers down a sub-optimal path and create a poor experience for visitors.
Your content and web pages will evolve and grow over time, so it is important to make sure that your internal links continue to be pointing to the best content and most valuable pages.
Fix: Regularly crawl your internal links as well as manually review your content to make sure that the internal links make sense, send crawlers to the best pages, and create the best experience possible for visitors.
Orphan pages are web pages on your site that don't have any internal links pointing to them and cannot be found in your sitemap. In other words, when a search engine crawler is on your site, there is no way for it to find the orphan pages.
This means the content cannot be crawled and the page won't be indexed. It also means visitors on your site will not have a way to find the content, so it isn't really helping anyone.
Two common types of orphan pages:
Fix: Crawling your site with a tool like ScreamingFrog or Sitebulb can help you uncover these issues. You will need to integrate access to your web analytics and let the tool crawl pages found in analytics.
This will help identify pages that exist and get traffic from an outside source (paid ads, email, social, etc.) but are not found via internal links.
The other option is to crawl your site and pull all URLs from web analytics and then use some Excel wizardry to find the URLs that exist in analytics but not in your crawl report.
From there, you will need to set up internal links or navigation to the orphan pages, fix canonical or .htaccess issues, or remove the pages and change the external links to point to a different page.
Auditing your internal links manually would be an impossible task, so there will definitely be some tools involved. Here are some of the tools we highly recommend and how they would best be used.
Screaming frog is probably the most popular site crawling tool in the SEO community. It is easy to drop in a URL and get started, but also has a ton of advanced features for custom crawls and breaking down larger sites into manageable chunks.
They provide a full list of the data points you'll see for internal links, but here are a few of the most important ones.
Sitebulb is a great alternative to Screaming Frog. It accomplishes the same end result as Screaming Frog but has a much more user-friendly interface and does a good job of visualizing crawl maps and grouping affecting URLs by issue.
Sitebulb shows you similar data as Screaming Frog and also makes it easy to understand URLs impacted by the following:
SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Moz are all SEO tools that cover a wide variety of SEO functions from keyword research and rank tracking to site monitoring and competitor analysis.
Each of these tools offer some version of site crawls that identify technical issues and other opportunities. They are a little lightweight compared to Screaming Frog and Sitebulb, but are a great asset for most that don't need the full power of the other site crawlers.
They all offer some sort of Chrome Extension that allows you to see some of the on-page elements for any URL you are currently on, as well as things like broken links, which can be helpful during some of your page-by-page manual analysis of your internal links on key pages.
If your site is built on WordPress, there are a number of WP plugins you can add to help with identifying, fixing, and creating internal links.
Check out the 7 Best Internal Linking WordPress Plugins (https://ultimateblocks.com/best-internal-linking-wordpress-plugins/) from Ultimate Blocks to learn more about plugins like Link Whisper, Rank Math, Yoast SEO, and more.