August 17, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Links are a necessary part of your web copy. They help people move around the internet and find the information they need. But for content marketing teams focused on using links as part of their pathways to success, they take on an even more important role: search engine optimization (SEO).Working with these tools leads to a lot of questions. How many external links should your content have? When should you use them? Do they even help your SEO? We’re tackling some of these questions with topics like:
External links take people from your website domain to another. Marketing writers and creative teams use external links to cite sources and give people more information on a topic from other expert sources. Even if you own both domains, if you leave one site for another, it’s still considered an external link. This is because each domain consists of a specific URL that no other domain has.
Is there a set number of external links you should put in your content? That depends on who you ask. Here are some of the opinions on external linking we found from various sources on the web:
So who’s right? Truthfully, none of these sources are “right” or should serve as the golden rule for external linking. This is especially true when SEO best practices frequently change. Even though there isn’t a specific set of rules for linking, it’s important to think about a few things as you include external links in your SEO plan:
Image via Unsplash by @kar111
It might not be impossible to have a good piece of content without any external links, but the odds are low. Think about why you use external links: to provide more information and cite sources. Even in the shortest pieces of content, like opinion-based blogs, for example, there’s always at least one place to cite a source. Even if that’s something as linking back to the original piece on which you’re providing commentary.
External links are also ways to help improve your domain’s authority with Google and other search engines. While Domain Authority isn’t a direct ranking factor, you can use it as a predictor for how likely your website s to rank on a search engine results page (SERP). If you never build any domain authority because you never link out to other websites, among other best practices, then you’re self-sabotaging your chances to rank higher in SERPs.
When you Google, “How many external links should I use” or a similar question, you get a lot of results with numerical answers. But the featured snippets and meta descriptions for the results don’t tell the full story. Some of the numbers Google and other search engines pull to answer this question are outdated.
For example, Moz wrote a blog post on this topic back in 2011, and it still appears on the first page of search results. The first page after a decade! And according to Moz’s article, you shouldn’t have more than 100 links on any page.
These findings come from comments and quotes from Google employees from 2009, so it’s safe to say this suggestion’s quite outdated. But this just proves that using newer information and evaluating what’s trending related to your content are better approaches to finding the most suitable number of links to include in your content.
There are plenty of ways your content can earn a penalty from Google and other search engines. These “red flags” affect how your content appears on those services and how high it can rank. But using too few or too many external links isn’t one of the paths to penalties. Any numerical suggestions you find for how many links to have in your content are just guidelines. They’re not hard and fast rules, at least not at this time.
Think of these guidelines as a way to provide your users with the best possible experience when they encounter your content. If you don’t follow the rule, you could hurt your readership, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll get a penalty against your SEO practices.
It’s natural to have more links, both inbound and outbound, in longer pieces of content. When you have more to say, you have more opportunities to cite and reference other sources. The two most general suggestions are between two and five external links for every 500 words or between three and five for every 1,000 words.
Like the “no more than 100 links per page” suggestion, this is meant to be a guide. You don’t need to hit four links every 1,000 words to comply with some sort of SEO crystal ball standard. In a 2,000-word piece, you may have three external links in the first two paragraphs and none in the rest of the article. Or you may have one external link in every paragraph. There isn’t a checklist for how often to include a link or where to put it that will magically make your pieces rise to the top of SERPs.
Overall, the quality of your links is more important than the quantity. In marketing and sales, it’s easy to get caught up in the metrics. You have goals to hit and numbers to watch, but the number of links you put in each piece of content you create doesn’t have to be one of them. The more important thing is that all your links are helpful and they contribute to the flow of the content.
Add external links where you think people will need more information, and include citations to help establish authority. When you view external links like this, they become less of a challenge and more of an asset. The focus shifts away from trying to hit an arbitrary number to providing the most value for your audience.
You’ve probably learned by now that the number of external links doesn’t matter for your SEO performance. Instead, it’s the relativity of how these links work together with other elements of your content to provide a quality user experience. What’s important is that no matter how many external links you use, you’re following best practices and providing your audience with the content they want to see. Here are a few areas to monitor to ensure external links are supporting your SEO strategies:
Anchor text is the clickable text for any link. It serves as a signal to tell search engines what your content is about and what content users will find on the other side of the link. There was a time when you could manipulate anchor text to increase how high you could rank for a specific keyword or topic.
Now, this practice could get you a penalty. Instead of focusing on using specific keywords in your anchor text, hyperlink only a few words or a short phrase that gives context to what you’re linking to. This helps readers understand the information you’re including for their further review.
Not all links are created equal. If you’ve ever clicked a link and visited a spam site—or worse, clicked a link and got a virus on your device—you know that all too well. Google and other search engines have taken this kind of practice into account with their algorithm updates. Not every link on a page holds the same amount of weight to influence your ranking factors. That weight is based on the click potential of each link.
If you want to link to an outside source but don’t want to give contribute to that site’s SEO success, use a nofollow link. This type of link uses a special HTML tag that tells search engines not to index and rank the external site in conjunction with yours. It also tells search engines your domain isn’t associated with the other site. This is a useful tool for situations where you have to cite a source or reference a concept on a site that could be less than credible or hurt your own rankings.
For example, if a competitor is the only source talking about a new concept in your industry, you might reference the source. But you don’t want them getting SEO boosts from your article, right? Situations like this make the nofollow link an effective tool. You can safely refer readers back to that content on your website without improving your competitor’s SEO.
At CopyPress, we help our clients plan and integrate SEO writing and promotion—including link building. Because of that, we understand how to incorporate external links into your content so they flow smoothly and provide your audience with just the right amount of outside information.
Schedule a free strategy call with our team today to teach us more about your SEO goals. We’ll help you create a game plan to improve SERP rankings, boost SEO authority, and increase audience reach.
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