Did you ever wonder why competitor sites with inferior SEO: lesser content, lower Domain Authority and Page Authority are outranking your website for big money search terms? In many cases, the culprit is your website’s internal linking architecture. These SEO internal linking concepts could be the difference between pay days and dog days.

There’s been a tremendous amount of focus in the last few years about creating high quality content, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the focus on content has moved many SEOs away from the fundamentals, often to the detriment of their rankings.

Internal linking is how Google and Bing distribute Page Authority (Link Juice) throughout your website. If your site’s internal linking is poorly designed, it can take your rankings from the Penthouse to the Outhouse.

It’s absolutely possible to rank a page with no external links. It happens all the time, with 3 caveats:

  1. Your domain needs to have strong backlinks.
  2. Pages with lots of link juice need to link to your target page
  3. The external and internal links need to be topically relevant.

What separates the experts from the novices in SEO is the pro’s ability to rank higher with fewer backlinks. In one form or another, backlinks cost serious money. Whether you are investing in content marketing, webmaster outreach, outsourcing your link acquisition, or buying links (naughty, naughty), link building consumes personnel resources and hard dollars. A major key to maximizing your backlink investment is proper structuring of your internal linking.

This article is the first in a 5 part series that demystifies site architecture.

  • Part 1: Internal Linking Concepts
  • Part 2: Block Level Analysis
  • Part 3: Link Juice Sculpting
  • Part 4: Architectural Types
  • Part 5: Silo Architecture

Basic Internal Linking Concepts for SEO

  1. “Link Juice” is the ranking power given to a website through external/off-site sources. This could include: Backlinks, Social Shares, Brand Mentions, Branded search, Citations, etc.
  2. Links Cost Money. Whether you are acquiring links by content marketing, or have outsourced link acquisition to a 3rd party firm, links have a hard dollar cost. In order to show the best possible ROI on website investment, it is a prime responsibility of an SEO to rank keywords with the lowest investment possible in link acquisition.
  3. Every website and every page, at a given point in time has a fixed amount of link juice. Google is constantly changing it’s algorithm, and the quantity and quality of your site’s links and shares are also fluid. What we are saying here is that at a particular time, a website has a fixed and limited amount of external ranking authority. More importantly, that ranking authority can only go so far.
  4. Link Juice is distributed across the site via internal links: It’s a well known fact that Google distributes internal link juice via links. This is how Google did it with their old Pagerank algorithm:
    a. Let’s say a page has a hypothetical 1000 points of Link Juice
    b. The page keeps 1000 points to rank itself, and can pass on 80-90% of the juice to other pages via links (for this exercise we’ll assume 80%)
    c. The link juice is divided between all of the links. If there are 4 links on a page, each link would carry 800/4=200 points of link juice to the target page.
    d. Each of the target pages would have 200 points for itself to use for ranking, and could pass 80% of that on via links to other pages.
    While Google has devalued the actual Pagerank algorithm, this link juice distribution model still holds true today.
  5. The location of a link on a page is a large factor in how much link juice it passes. Google was granted a patent for this in 2011. Matt Cutts discusses it here. It’s known as “Block Level Link Analysis”. It is pretty well known that linking power from most important to least important works in this order: In-content links, header links, sidebar links, footer links. Think of in-content links as a fire-hose, and footer links as a straw. It is also known that the higher up a link is on the page, the more link juice it passes.
  6. For commercial and revenue purposes, some of your site’s web pages are more valuable than others. The factors here are the potential number of Google searches, product line, conversion rate, pricing, etc. At the extreme, a website’s “About Us”, “Privacy Policy” and “Terms and Conditions” pages have very little commercial value. Put your low commercial value pages in the footer whenever possible.
  7. The more links that are on a page, the less link juice each one will pass. This is simple math and common sense. Let’s assume for a moment that every link on our page carries the same amount of link juice. If the page has 5 links, each link will pass twice as much link juice than if the page has 10 links.
  8. Topically Unrelated Link Juice LossGoogle discounts link juice passed between web pages that are not topically relevant. This concept is extremely important. If a page about lawnmowers links to a page about poodles, Google discounts the linking power since the pages aren’t relevant. If the link from the lawnmowers page has a theoretical 200 points of link juice, the poodles page may only receive 40 points of ranking benefit. The rest of the link juice spills on the floor.. Internally linking pages that aren’t topically relevant to each other can absolutely hemorrhage link juice.
  9. Anchor Text Matters – A Lot: Google weights internal anchor text for keyword ranking. When you are establishing your navigation system, use the primary search term that you want that page ranked for in the navigation. For image links, the Alt Attributes serves as the anchor text. For in-content contextual links, you can use 2 different ranking strategies:
    a. Using exact match and partial match anchors to rank the target page for 1 search term. If you want to rank the target page just for “widgets” your anchors would all be exactly widgets, or include widgets in the anchor
    b. If you are trying to rank a page for a grouping of keywords – “steel widgets”, “wooden widgets”, “widgify your home”, etc., you would use those terms in your anchors.
  10. No Follow Link Juice LossAvoid using nofollow for internal links. Link juice cannot be sculpted using nofollow links. If a page has a nofollow link on it, link juice still leaves the page. In the example on the right, 200 points of link juice gets lost with the use of nofollow. Once again, your precious link juice just spills on the floor. Unfortunately, links to pages that have no commercial value should be “Dofollow”. The advantage is that your “About Us” page can pass the link juice on to other pages. If you nofollow the link, it’s totally wasted.
  11. Don’t sacrifice UX (User Experience):  In most cases, perfectly structured linking from a ranking perspective would create a poor UX for your visitors. This will hurt your site in 2 ways:
    a. Your site won’t satisfy and engage users, which will hurt your conversions and repeat visitors.
    b. Google uses click data as a major component of the algorithm. If your site under-performs, Google will demote your site in the rankings.
  12. Don’t hoard link juice: part of Google’s algorithm includes rankings benefits for linking out to other highly authoritative websites. Reboot ran a test that showed positive results as did Moz. If there’s another high quality site that you can reference, and it benefits your readers, link to it in your content.
  13. Google loves “Nodes of Authority”:  I would define an authority node as a website or subsection of a website that:
    a.  Has a significant number of tightly themed pages
    b. The pages are authoritative, exhaustive (long) and exceptionally well written
    c. The pages are tightly linked in a thematic hierarchy
    For every keyword or keyword theme, there appears to be a tipping point where adding new, high quality content positively affects the keyword rankings of the other pages in that node. This tipping point varies significantly based on topics, but Google seems to put these nodes on ranking “steroids”. Add in a sprinkling of authority backlinks, and your site can blast off.

The 4 Biggest Site Architecture Mistakes in SEO

  1. If you use too many links on your home page, nothing will rank. If we assume that your home page has the most link juice, if you link it directly to too many pages, you are spreading link juice too thinly, and nothing will rank. This is a regular battle SEOs fight with business owners. The business owners want their home page to link to every page on their site. I’ve seen websites jump dramatically in the rankings by simply cutting the number of links on the home page by 75%, and I also see that page views, time on site and conversions improve as well.
  2. Link Juice PyramidBuilding your website architecture too flat.  Think of your home page as the top glass in a champagne glass pyramid. The glasses directly underneath it are your primary category pages, and most important keywords.. Your home page passes link juice to your primary category pages, and they in turn pass link juice to children pages underneath them. Having too many links to category pages is like trying to fill 30 champagne glasses from the top glass.
  3. Internally linking between pages that aren’t topically related wastes link juice. This is another major battle SEOs fight against business owners. Websites that link between pages that aren’t topically relevant hemorrhage link juice.
  4. Passing too much link juice to pages that have no commercial value. Passing massive amounts of link juice to “About Us”, “Terms and Conditions”, “Acceptable Use Policy”, etc. pages is another major error. Whenever possible:
    1. Put links to those pages in the footer, where they will get less link juice.
    2. Consolidate as many of these pages as you can. For example, put the Terms and Conditions and the Acceptable Use Policy on the same page.

Website architecture is a delicate balance of usability and rankings. Too many internal links = lousy Rankings. Too few links = Poor Usability. That being said, most A/B split tests across the industry demonstrate that reducing the number of choices given to an end user improves conversions. The important point to remember is that you can overdo anything.  I’d recommend tracking your conversions and time on site carefully after you make any changes. There’s also the “3 click rule”. You should be able to navigate to any page on your website with no more than 3 clicks.