Are External Links Good For SEO?

External linking is one of those SEO protocols that often raises initial objections from clients; unaware of any benefits to linking out and swayed by misguided and ill-informed attempts to ‘sculpt’ PageRank, we regularly hear the same thing:

“Why would I want to help someone else’s SEO by linking to them?”

“Why would I link to a potential competitor when I could link to my own internal page?”

“Won’t external links cause me to lose PageRank?”

“Won’t external linking cause me to drop in the SERPS?”

It occurred to me that many people might be struggling with this issue in their own SEO campaigns, so I thought a blog post was in order to help clear up a few of those pesky SEO myths and hopefully help you get your external linking protocols up to where they should be.

Leading by example

As a creative SEO agency, one of our ongoing tasks is to look at which sites consistently rank well for both long-tail and highly competitive short-tail keywords; attempting to find common, recurring elements in each site. Completing exercises such as this not only gives you a good idea of the techniques and approaches used by the most popular sites, but it also helps you put together a list of potentially beneficial ranking elements.
I consider the best sites to be leading by example – even if they’re not trying to, and it’s our job to take notice of (and learn from) these examples.

Looking at some of the biggest and most popular sites online, you can start to get an idea of what it will take to get your own sites ranking strongly, and using positive correlation, you can even start to eliminate some of the more pervasive SEO ‘myths’. One such myth is the belief that external links have a negative effect on rankings, and that using them ‘leaks’ PageRank to external sites.

Just by looking at the external linking policies of some of the biggest and highest rankings sites (take Mashable, SEOMoz, BBC or SearchEngineLand for example) we can see that this simply can’t be the case – all of the above sites tend to link out in the body of articles or other content, and all rank well, which would seem to suggest that external linkings simply don’t negatively affect your rankings. Admittedly, this isn’t the most compelling of arguments to state definitively that external linking doesn’t hurt your rankings, after all it could certainly be possible that external linking was indeed a negative factor, but that the weight of all the other positive factors (high quality content, high quality inbound links, natural link profiles, high levels of engagement and sharing via social media, strong SEO-based markup, etc) are causing the sites to rank regardless of their outbound links. However, a look at SEOMoz’s SEO Ranking Factors 2011, we can see from the correlation data gained from their research that there is a 0.04 correlation between the number of outbound links on a page and strong search engine rankings. This might seem insignificant, but when considered with all the other ranking factors it gives a pertinent indication – that external linking doesn’t negatively affect search engine rankings.

Quality and quantity

Of course the previous statement assumes that you’re linking to relevant, high-quality content from your website, if you’re placing dofollow links to low-quality sites hosting malware and selling counterfeit viagra then you can safely assume it probably will have an negative impact on your rankings, just as it will have an impact on the way people view your brand (and how many people subsequently visit your site).

When we’re looking at the external links from the most popular and best ranking websites, we can immediately see a common theme – they’re all linking to high-quality, relevant and useful content. Generally speaking, this is usually referencing content that expands on an area of discussion, recommending additional content or service providers, or used to provide credit or acknowledgement (usually for data, quotes or images). As a result, the links that come from the biggest pages are useful, and not there simply to push you to a sales page or as an obvious attempt to bolster another pages’ ranking for a specific term (both internally and externally, like the anchor text links you find on sites populated with posts from article marketing and distribution networks).

The other thing you notice is that the quantity of external links is any given piece of content on a high-quality site is never overwhelming – the text isn’t stuffed with outbound links. Rather the links are placed only when they’re useful or necessary from a journalistic standpoint (i.e. crediting your sources). They’re also only placed when they’re relevant, which is another crucial element to successful outbound linking.

What we can draw from this is that external linking should be an element of your on-site content production, but only when it’s relevant and adds value to the user (even a source reference link adds value, as your readers may be interested to check out the source of quotes or data). External linking shouldn’t be adopted because it will help your rankings, it should be adopted because we can be fairly sure it doesn’t hurt your rankings, and because it adds additional value and weight to your content.

Community-led value

A potential benefit of external linking that people often overlook is the community aspect of external linking, and the potential benefits that can bring (such as additional traffic, brand awareness, inbound links and social media links). If you’ve got a website with a decent amount of traffic and high level of readership and engagement, then any outbound links you place in your content will likely send additional traffic to that external source. As a result, you will show up in their analytics as a referring site, and this awareness can be extremely valuable.

If you’ve linked to someone in a positive way (i.e. through an advocation of their talent, review of their service or product, etc), then they may well link back to you, or link to your content via social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Not only will this send additional relevant traffic back to your site, but these social media links will help your SEO, not to mention improve your overall brand awareness.

Dofollow or nofollow?

I often come across people adding the nofollow attribute to external links in their content, in what I’m sure is an attempt to maintain fabled ‘link-juice’ on their own pages. For me, if you’re placing an external link to additional content on your site, it should be a dofollow link*. Nofollow links are designed for links to content you don’t trust (or at least haven’t verified), and therefore don’t want to be crawled from your site (making them good for links placed in comments and other user-generated elements), but this simply shouldn’t apply to external links in your content. Why would you be linking to content you haven’t verified or a site you don’t trust? If I’m going to add a link to my content, that link will be relevant, high-quality and will be adding value to our readers, so I’ve got no problem with those links being dofollow.

*The only exception here is with banner advertisements and paid text links, which should always be marked with the nofollow attribute.

Hopefully that will give you more confidence when it comes to linking to external sources; just make sure they’re relevant and that they add something to your content, and you should find they have a far more beneficial impact than a negative one when it comes to traffic, brand awareness and SEO.

Post by John Pring – Follow him on Twitter (@john_pring)

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