External Links: How Outbound Links HELP Your SEO, Directly and Indirectly

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In today’s edition of the Mediavine SEO series, we’re going to delve into the role of the external link.

What is an external link? It’s exactly what you think it is — an outbound link from your web page that points to a third-party site, or a different domain or sub-domain than your site.

Any time you link to another website? That’s the type of external link we’re talking about.

Often times publishers think of external links as links towards their site. These are incredibly important, but these are actually backlinks, or incoming links — a topic for another article entirely.

External links are outbound to other sites. What a lot of people don’t realize is that these outgoing links can have as much impact on your site’s SEO and rankings as those linking to you.

What are external links? The links on your site that hyperlink to other websites are an important SEO tool. Learn how to harness them for your rankings today! - Mediavine Pinterest image

Why External Links Matter

As we discussed at length in our PageRank post, links are basically the voting system of the internet.

Voting via internal links is certainly important, but no man is an island. External links are equally integral in making PageRank, and Google, work. So you’d better believe Google wants to see outbound links on your site.

It’s worth putting in bold: Google judges who you link to, not just who links to you.

As we stated earlier, the backlinks pointing toward you are incredibly important, and we’ll address this in a future blog post. But who you link to is almost as important for reasons you might not expect.

The external links you post won’t improve your PageRank directly (it will have an indirect impact — more on that shortly), instead they establish what your content is related to, and what site(s) you see as an authority.

A helpful way to think about it is this: You can’t control who links to you, but you do control who you link to. Google recognizes this and has learned from it in refining more effective algorithms.

Some of you may remember the good old days of Google bombing, a hilarious prank in which a bunch of people on the internet would get together and link to a page using similar anchor text.

With enough links pointing at one page, you can boost its ranking immensely, even if it never mentions that phrase. Google has adjusted to prevent this SEO tomfoolery, but it teaches a valuable lesson:

You can’t learn about a page merely from the pages linking to it.

Pages must be analyzed for all the on-page attributes you can find, and that includes external links. That means you should think about who you’re linking to as endorsements of sorts. Who are you endorsing?

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Be Careful What You Link To

Don’t just take it from us. Google’s SEO Starter Guide matter-of-factly says, “Be careful who you link to.”

What does that mean? With an external link, you’re giving a vote to that site and its content, and passing your SEO credibility onto it. Implicitly, you’re saying you trust that site, and so should your readers.

This leads us to a quandary we’ve asked ourselves often through the years: If external links pass along PageRank, or “link juice” if you will, why link to other websites (competitors, potentially) at all?

It’s not a crazy question, but you still should. Here’s why.

External Links Can Directly Help SEO

Google doesn’t explicitly say that who you link to impacts your SEO, but it’s the literal foundation of their search algorithm. You can be certain Google wants you to link to other people, and wisely.

The closest we’ve seen to direct confirmation was John Mueller’s answer to a question during #AskGoogleWebmasters. In this Q&A, a user asked if linking to other websites helps or hurts SEO.

John responded just as you’d expect a Google authority to respond, by encouraging linking:

“Linking to other websites is a great way to provide value to your users. Often times, links help users to find out more, to check out your sources and to better understand how your content is relevant to the questions that they have.”

Long story short: Google uses links to determine if content is relevant to the user, which is the entire goal of Google Search. So from this, you can easily infer that linking to other websites is a key SEO factor.

three women using mobile phones

Outbound Links Also Help Indirectly

Getting those backlinks — links coming inbound, toward your site — is essential to SEO success, and part of that effort requires being a good linking citizen. No one wants to link to you if you’re not linking back to the community.

External links also often notify people in CMS platforms such as WordPress as a pingback, or trackback.

If you link to a site, you’ll be on their radar. Even if they don’t have these features enabled, other webmasters and content creators are human too. They see who’s a good participant and who isn’t, and it matters.

Be a quality citizen and that good link karma — and PageRank — will come back around.

Who Should You Link To?

Hopefully that novel of an introduction impressed upon you that external links are a valuable SEO tool. But who to link to? The short answer is to always try and link to the best authority on a subject.

For example, look no further than this SEO Like a CEO blog series. I link to the ultimate authority, Google itself, whenever possible. But you’ll also see me linking to other experts. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for the in-depth article on Google bombing.)

As we touched on briefly before, this may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t all these outbound links helping other websites? Without question, they are, but they’re also helping you, the reader.

Think about it: If someone can back up their information with data, quotes resources from Google or other trusted authorities, aren’t you more likely to trust that person?

That trust is the pretense for why Google cares who you link to.

This example, with Google itself as the authority, was admittedly easier than what our lifestyle bloggers may encounter. Nevertheless, in any space there are established experts, even if they aren’t as well known.

You know who they are. Link to them. Don’t worry about anyone “beating” you. Think of them as your peers if you plan to be an expert too. Look at external links as endorsements that will pay off in the long run.

above-view of hands typing on a laptop keyboard

How Often Should You Externally Link?

Returning again to our PageRank discussion, your linking authority is divided up amongst all the links in your posts. It’s incredibly important that you don’t send away ALL of your PageRank on a given post.

Basically, there is no short answer or simple number we can give you. Instead, the best practice we can encourage is going to be relative to the number of internal links you have.

I love to see at least 1-2 external links per post as a minimum, hopefully balanced out by significantly more internal links, say, 7-8. In the end, your content is only sending off 10-20 percent of your PageRank to other sites.

This is overly simplified, of course. Google’s formula is infinitely more complex and you’ll have plenty of other internal links in your navigation and site theme, so the outbound percentage will be less in practice.

But use that as a rule of thumb. Try to include at least 4-5 internal links per external link in your posts. Do this and you’ll endorse plenty of outside authorities for Google’s (and the community’s) liking, without diluting your own PageRank.

Should I rel=nofollow External Links?

Amber has a great blog post specifically about using nofollow links.

In summary, you should not use nofollow links in the external links you place in your posts unless you really don’t trust that source (begging the question of why you’re linking at all, but there are unusual cases) or unless you have been paid.

I strongly recommend using nofollow links only in the situations Amber discusses, otherwise you’ll lose the advantages we’ve described here; nofollow means you don’t trust a site – the opposite of what we’re going for with external links.

If you weren’t paid or aren’t talking about something negatively, you should always leave your links as follow, the default setting.

TL;DR? External Links = Good!

Don’t think of external links as a negative. They establish trust in your site, help you get incoming links and even help Google figure out what your content is about. Go forth and use them!

Our next posts in this series are all about keywords, where we go into detail with explanations of the longtail keyword, keyword prominence, keyword density, keyword proximity and keyword research. Don’t miss them! 

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