It’s not the first thing you think of when you hear “link building.” It’s definitely not the sexiest aspect of link building. But, I’d argue it’s among the most important components of a solid link building strategy.

That’s right, folks: today we’re going to chat about internal linking.

Cue the communal groan.

It’s okay! I’m not going to talk about anchor text. Instead, we’ll dive into how to set up a logical internal linking strategy, as well as some of the more technical aspects to keep in mind when it comes to your internal linking.

Why An Internal Linking Strategy Important

SEO is a multifaceted endeavor comprised of many different parts of varying levels of importance. I’m not saying internal linking is the most important part, but it is up there.

Internal linking helps lay the foundation of your SEO efforts. It allows you to indicate to search engines which pages of content are the highest priority, as well as which pages are thematically related to one another. Such signals are incredibly helpful to search engines in ascribing value and meaning to your pages, and if you don’t take the time to manage these signals via strategic internal linking, you’ll be at the mercy of the search engines’ judgment call.

In the limited time that Google spends on my site, the last thing I want is for it to be confused about where I want to be ranked and which pages are high priorities.

Thinking Logically About Internal Linking

Most people see internal linking as something like this:

internal linking

I know — I’m not a designer.

In this case, “The Hulk” is the most important page — the one they want Google to index and rank — so they link to that page from every other page on their site, regardless of whether or not it makes logical or contextual sense to do so.

The result is one hot mess. When internal linking is set up like this, it sends confusing signals to both search engines and your visitors, especially if you scale to hundreds or thousands of pages.

Instead — and I preach this on every aspect of SEO and link building — think more about how your users navigate websites, and consider which information they would find valuable based on their current location. Is the information on Page A related to Page B? Would someone reading Page A also want to read Page B?

In general, e-commerce sites do this really well. Let’s look at a ModCloth product page as an example. (No affiliation other than a deep love for their dresses.)

mod-cloth-internal-linking

This page contains internal links pointing to similarly styled dresses, the site’s most popular dresses, and return/buying information. Customers also have the option to look at other products in the same fabric or category via tags. The one thing missing is a set of links to complementary accessories: matching shoes, jewelry, purses, etc.

As you can see, ModCloth’s internal linking strategy is designed to provide value to users rather than to game search engine results pages. The result is an internal linking structure that is intuitive to users and that naturally prioritizes the most important pages for the most relevant keywords.

As another example, we’re currently redesigning our website, and one of our goals is to better showcase our service offerings. To do this effectively, we started with a simple question: “If I’m a visitor, and I land on the service page for User Experience Design, what else would I want to see?” This question generated a number of great ideas for valuable, logical internal links, including:

  • Our Portfolio: Here, visitors can easily view samples of  our User Experience Design work
  • Case Studies: Visitors can discover the value of our work by reading recent client results
  • Staff: Visitors can see experts on User Experience Design
  • Related Blog Posts: In-depth pieces and industry news about User Experience Design is readily available for those who want to learn more
  • Related Services: The page provides a list of accompanying/related services that visitors may want to consider

Not only do we get a clear idea of how our service pages relate to other sections of our website, but we now have a blueprint for the information we want on these pages, making our designers’ jobs much easier.

Once again, by considering what information users might find valuable rather than which pages we want search engines to rank, we can develop an internal linking strategy that accomplishes our SEO goals without being spammy.

Thinking Technically About Internal Linking

Many consider “technical SEO” to be a specific set of tasks done in isolation; but, the truth is a full internal linking strategy has to include many technical aspects, especially where potential duplicate content is concerned. In cases of duplicate content, it’s important to ensure that there’s consistency among the version of a page you’re linking to from other pages, the version you’re canonicalizing, the version in your sitemap, and the version that Google is indexing.

To illustrate this point, we experienced a canonicalization problem with our home page specifically — www.352media.com was the desired version of our home page, so we set up permanent 301 redirects from other versions of this page (352media.com, /default, /default.aspx, /Default, etc.) to eliminate any duplicate content.

After implementing the redirects, we assumed that we were fine — that is, until we noticed that these other versions were still appearing in search results. We discovered that this was the result of some funky canonical tags:

  • “www.352media.com” to “www.352media.com/default.aspx”
  • “www.352media.com/default.aspx” to “www.352media.com/Default”

The problem here was that we were giving Google mixed signals. We were pointing Google from various versions of our home page to www.352media.com — but once they got there, we were telling them  that the content was actually better read on the URL they just came from.

We had a similar problem on our blog that came to light when we noticed a discrepancy in our submitted/indexed ratio in Google Webmaster Tools. We noticed many instances where the indexed URL for a blog post was not the one we expected:

  • Preferred URL:  http://www.352media.com/blog/Summing-Up-SEO-September.aspx
  • Indexed URL: http://www.352media.com/blog/post.aspx?id=3d843bb3-76b9-41c3-91b9-c80f92ac75af

Upon further investigation, we discovered that, once again, we were sending Google mixed signals. Although we were using the preferred version of our URL in all of our internal and external linking, we were telling Google that the second URL was the canonical version — so that’s the one it indexed. Thus, no matter how well thought out your internal linking plan is, it won’t succeed if you fail to incorporate technical SEO into your strategy.

Conclusion

A solid internal linking strategy goes beyond simply linking to your most important pages often with keyword-rich anchor text. By considering the user’s needs and ensuring consistency from the technical side of things, you can create an internal linking strategy that is natural, intuitive and aligned with conversion goals.