Internal link structure isn’t totally controlled by SEO professionals for most websites. A mix of content, UX, IT, and other factors and stakeholders weigh in.
The challenge with that is that internal link structure can have a big impact on SEO performance overall and across a range of SEO factors.
Whether you’re thinking about getting link value into the site and managing where it goes once obtained or considering how user experience might impact conversions from organic search, internal link structure is an important consideration.
In this column, you’ll learn five specific best practices to gain an SEO boost from internal link structure.
1. User Experience
Be good to your site visitors.
Don’t hit them with things that are bad for SEO like thin content, too many ads above the fold, or disruptive interstitials. These will make a visitor bounce back to the search results page.
Search engines put emphasis on rewarding positive user experiences as they care about their end customer – the searcher.
When the searcher uses Google or Bing and finds what they are looking for at the top of the search results, that search engine and the site they visited are giving the user value.
With billions of data points on how users interact with search results and websites, the engines have the ability to tune algorithms based on user experience factors and this is only expected to grow moving forward.
This is especially important with the use of machine learning and automated algorithm updates. On top of that, the more widely talked about Core Web Vitals have created a lot of new confusion and urgency.
Beyond what Google has specifically called out in updates, it’s important to align your content with your conversion goals.
If you have valuable content that naturally leads through the customer journey and sales cycle, you’re setting yourself up for the opportunity to keep the visitors you land on your site.
Lastly, the most obvious but still sometimes overlooked UX factor ties into content and layout.
Tell site visitors what you do in a clear way, right away. If we can’t determine quickly if what we’re looking for is on the page, we’re often going back to Google.
2. Flow of Link Value
Don’t take off your link building hat when links get pointed to the site from high quality external sources. Link value passes from page to page within your website based on the same logic.
Years ago, when we had a clearer picture of Google PageRank, we could see how much value each of the pages on our site have and manage our linking structure to push PageRank into areas we care about most.
The rise of PageRank sculpting came and went and now we can’t see PR scores at all.
Now, we rely on SEO tool-specific page and domain quality metrics. But knowing where inbound links from other sources land on your site is still critical, as is setting up your site structure to ensure that you don’t dilute the value on the landing page.
By having a streamlined navigation and not spelling out dozens of links on every page, you can concentrate link value to flow to the pages that are most important — whether that means spreading it around to top-level topic pages or down into a silo of content on an extremely specific topic.
Your link building strategy should align with your content, how it is structured, and where you ultimately want to send important link value.
Thankfully, the days of flat sites and home pages are in the past.
We don’t have to do extensive cleanup to keep from diluting all link value on the first hop within the site, as PageRank value is passed proportionately to all links on a given page.
3. Context & Hierarchy
Don’t be afraid to have your site visitors click and scroll.
We don’t have to keep all technical and deep-dive content on the first or second-level page of the website. Organize your content around topics and prioritize what gets top-level focus versus being multiple clicks deep.
We don’t need to have a single page per keyword, as in the old SEO days. Now, we can think in terms much more similar to a term paper outline. Naturally structuring our content from a high-level down to specifics allows us to develop topics and topics-within-topics on our site.
This ultimately leads to ranking on anything from broad top-level all the way down to unforeseen long-tail keywords for the specific and detailed content.
Getting the hierarchy of your content in order is important for a user as well as the search engine. You can gain topical relevance by ensuring your content is well organized and logical to navigate.
The biggest challenge you’ll likely face is that stakeholders in your organization or within your client’s organization may that think that everything is important and needs to be on the home page or in the top navigation.
In addition to diluting link value mentioned earlier, having too many focuses and links on the home page interferes with what you’re doing to build context for your content and depth in the proper order.
4. Unique Content & Canonical Use
You need unique content to build a strong brand and provide a quality user experience.
Search engines filter duplicate content in their results. If you have the same content as everyone else, it can be hard to break through commodity status to become the industry or niche authority.
You can also introduce and encounter duplicate content issues within your own website.
However, there are some legit reasons for having duplicate content. You can’t ignore those or write off the need to address them.
- If you’re in a highly regulated industry, you likely have a lot of similar content to other sites and have to word your own copy in certain ways.
- If you’re an ecommerce retailer that has the same product in several categories and you have product descriptions being the same across many sites because you haven’t had time to customize for each.
It’s important to map out and acknowledge areas where you have duplicate content.
You can use tools like Copyscape to evaluate the extent of your duplicate content issues across the web and within your website via a batch search.
This is particularly important if you have product content on your site that others are using, as well.
If you know what you have to navigate around, you can then plan your use of canonical tags for duplicate and similar content pages, language variations (if you have international content), or pagination on your site.
From there, use your sitemap as a tool to understand when you layer on the canonical pages and URLs where you’re sending the search engines in and out of specific sections.
This can be tricky in ecommerce as you can inadvertently make a product category invisible if you canonical too many products to a more important category, or to a root version of the product page independent of any product category.
You’ll definitely need to plan this out carefully.
5. Crawling & Indexing
All of our efforts are in vain if we don’t ensure that navigation is crawlable and that only necessary primary and sub-navigation are coded out into each page.
Unnecessary navigation wastes precious crawl budget and focus. The key is not only to get the search engines to see all of our content and have an easy linear path to get through the depth of content in our topical areas but also to understand the linking association between the pages based on topical relevance.
We lose out on the opportunity to be highly ranked on terms across the broad spectrum of high-level to specific terminology when our lack of crawling focus prevents us from getting spiders to certain pages.
Plus, our site then looks shallow and flat despite our efforts to build quality content in depth.
While best practices are subject to change over time due to changes in website design trends, user behavior in general, and search engine priorities, we have to stay focused on what matters now.
From having a solid UX, managing the flow of link value, getting content/context and hierarchy right, managing duplicate content, and ensuring proper indexing, we can position our websites for success through strong internal linking structure.
We’re heading into an era in SEO where most of what we do is natural and aligns well with what logic would dictate.
If we start there and then work to understand the more technical aspects of how link value flows, how canonicals work, and how to get content indexed, we’ll be in good shape!