Why Your Internal Links Aren’t Actually Optimized by Cyrus Shepard of Zyppy
Webinar recorded on February 23, 2023
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Cyrus Shepard of Zyppy joined us to share some reasons why most sites are not optimizing their internal linking correctly.
You’re probably not internally linking enough. And if you are, you’re not using enough anchor text variation. Cyrus shared several strategies for how to increase your anchor text variations (and an interesting internal linking tip).
Cyrus shared results from a study his company Zyppy ran on over 23 million internal links and his 7 rules for internal linking.
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Watch the full webinar
And check out the resources Cyrus shared below:
The founder of Zyppy, Cyrus loves geeking out on Google's algorithm and ranking factors. In his 10+ year background of building and marketing SEO software, he's published many large-scale SEO experiments cited throughout the industry.
Follow Cyrus on Twitter:
Zyppy is a specialist in SEO consulting, content marketing, technical SEO, and software. We work with customers worldwide from our home office in beautiful Astoria, Oregon.
Read the transcript
All right, we'll go ahead and jump into this. I want to talk about internal links. It's one of my favorite topics. Google's guidance on internal links is changing daily on how they treat links. I think I just saw a study the other day from Patrick Stox on PageRank, about how Google is still using PageRank 25 years later, something like that. But this is one of my favorite topics and I'm really happy to be talking about it. Sorry, there we go. Who am I? Who the heck is this person talking to you today? Some of you know who I am. For those who are just joining us, who have no idea who this person is talking about internal links, I'm the former lead SEO for a company called Moz.
I built my reputation on doing a lot of large scale SEO experiments. I am now the founder of Zyppy SEO, which is this company here in beautiful Astoria, Oregon. I am an SEO dummy, so I'm always learning and researching and trying new things and trying to stay humble. I want to make sure that we're all on the same page, that we know what we're talking about throughout this presentation. I want to go over some definitions, because we think we know what internal links are, but I just want to make sure we start with the foundational stuff. Because throughout this presentation, there are some things that very beginner people are going to be able to understand, but also some advanced people as well.
I hope everybody gets something out of it. But starting with the very basics, what are we talking about when we talk about an internal link? There's basically three elements. There's an A and an Ahref, there's a link that goes to another page on your site, and there is some anchor text. This seems really simple, very basic stuff, but I'm going to be referring to all these things later in the presentation because they all take on more significant meaning. Then we have the internal image link. This is a link. There's Goose from Top Gun, everybody's favorite. An image link, basically the same thing.
You have an A, Ahref, but you have a source of the image, an image file, and you have your alt text, which acts as your anchor text. These become more important later in the presentation as well. We're all on the same page. We know what we're talking about, links and internal image links. Why do we love links? Well, there's two important signals that internal links tend to pass within Google's algorithm. One is one we're probably more familiar with, that is PageRank, aka popularity. Most SEO tools have some popularity metric, whether it's Moz rank or Ahrefs Rank or Semrush, whatever they call it.
They all have this basically PageRank metric that they report on links and internal links. Possibly equal and maybe even more important that we don't pay attention as much to is anchor text, aka the relevance. You'll often find these anchor text reports in SEO tools, but they're like the ugly stepchild of metrics. They're not reported on as much. People want to know their PageRank, their domain authority, but we don't often talk about their anchor text as much because it's a little hard to measure. It's a little more English language. It's hard to put just a number on it, but we're going to talk about anchor text a lot today.
These are all the reasons we love internal links. Number one, we know that they are an official Google ranking factor. Google just came out last week with updated documentation on linking best practices, including internal linking. It's one of the few ranking signals that have survived since the very first days of Google. Google often likes to de-emphasize how much they use links. They like to hide it under the table. But yes, it's still a huge significant ranking factor that we need to be aware of. Links help Google crawl your site. We know this, 80% of links, I think this is the stat that Google used just recently, 80% of links that Google discovers are discovered through links, 20% through sitemaps.
Don't sleep on your sitemaps either. But 80% of the links that Google finds on your site on average are through links and a lot of those are internal links. Again, this is all something we know already. Links can improve engagement signals. I'm a huge proponent of engagement signals. It's a little bit controversial, understanding how Google uses engagement signals. They do. Think about it as this, when you have a website, you're giving people something to click. And if they have something to click on your website that's interesting, they're going to stay on your website longer. They're going to read more articles.
They're going to learn more before they go back to the SERP and choose something else. But links are one of the number one ways that you can improve your engagement signals, lower your bounce rate, improve your time on site, and give people something interesting to click on. We know that internal links move the needle. This is what you knew before you came into this webinar. Because if you see anything about internal links on Twitter or LinkedIn or social media, this is what everybody shares. You see a hundred case studies, a hundred graphs. People are like, "We improved our internal linking and we saw this great traffic up to the right."
This is everywhere. We know links work. When I talk to my friends in agencies and they're like, "We need to move the needle as quickly as possible," they do one of two things. They work with title tags and they work with internal links, because those are the two quickest things that you can do to a site to move the needle to get more traffic. And then they go on to other things. But we know internal links work. But my favorite reason for liking internal links is the link request. I hate link building. I hate link building. We've all been there. No matter who you are in your professional career, you've all written to somebody and you've asked for a link.
"Hey, we wrote this resource. Will you link to me?" 80% of people just don't even write back. Even if you have a relationship with a person, they're like, "Yeah, okay, I guess I'll link with you." I asked Rand here, he's enjoying his margarita, "Will you link to me?" He's like, "No, I'm not going to link to you. It's absolutely not worth it." You have a terrible success rate when you ask for links. But when your internal link building, you get 100% of the links that you ask for. I've been link building for years and I'm proud to say I have a 100% success rate building internal links. Every request has been approved and people are very nice because it's me responding to my own internal link request.
It's awesome. I love having the control of being able to link to myself however I want and nobody can tell me no. These are why we love internal links. The question is, are we linking enough? Now, I know what you're saying. The fact that you're at this webinar, you're probably some sort of SEO professional, marketing professional like, "Cyrus, we optimize our internal links. When we write a new blog post, the writers go through. They find five relevant articles. They add their link." I'm here to tell you, you are not linking enough. I know this because we have the receipts. We know your internal links are not already optimized, damn it.
There's a study from InLinks, Dixon Jones' company associated with Majestic. They did a study based on their own methodology where they were looking at relevant link opportunities from one page to another that were topically relevant. Across the thousands and thousands of websites that they looked at, they found 82% of the opportunities that they had not identified were just missing. Those sites would have benefited that much more from adding internal links. 82% of them are missing now. Now, you can argue with the methodology that they used here for this. They have some skin in the game, but we ran our own study at Zyppy and we found something very, very similar.
For the Zyppy study that we used with our own sites that we have Google Search Console access to, we looked at 1,800 websites, 23 million internal links. Now, what was interesting about this study that we're going to use a little bit later on is that we were able to actually see Google Search Console data for these 1,800 websites, so we could correlate traffic with those internal links. But this is what we found about the number of links for those 1,800 websites. This is what it looks like. Most pages only had one internal link, one internal link. Some had two, but then the curve just dropped off precipitously.
53% of URLs had three or fewer internal links pointing to them. Maybe this is enough, but this seems like a pretty small number. If this was me, if I was the SEO manager of these 1,800 sites, I'd be like, "People, we can do better than three. We can do better than two. We can do better than one. This just isn't where we want to be." Only 24% had more than 10 internal links. Most of your pages out there, most of the pages that people are telling me about, "Cyrus, we have all these internal links," the numbers when we start crawling with Screaming Frog or whatever, we're just not seeing them there. This does not even include orphan pages, pages with no links.
The data is telling us we're not linking all that much. Here's the question, the million-dollar question, and this is an AI generated profile picture, I'm wondering where my finger is? Sorry, that's just too distracting. But if you're not wondering where my finger is, the question I'm asking, how many internal links do I actually need? It seems like I'm implying three isn't enough. Is 10 the right answer? Well, we have some data on that too, because what we did is we correlated those links with how much traffic the pages were actually receiving. I'm still looking for my finger. This graph, there's a lot to dig into, so I'm going to go a little slowly here.
This is the number of internal links coming to the URL versus Google search clicks on the left. The higher the bar chart, the better the traffic is. This is across 1,800 URLs. You can see that there's a slight decrease actually. As you increase the number of internal links up to a hundred, traffic starts to go down. But what's interesting is when we dissect this and we try to go in a little bit more detail into what's going on here, there's actually an increase at first. As the number of internal links increase per page, traffic actually goes up pretty dramatically. And then after a certain point it's, it tails off. There's a reason for this once we dug in, and we'll explain that in a second here.
That was just raw links. Remember I said there were two signals? There was PageRank and anchor text. This was looking at PageRank signals, the number of links. Then we looked at anchor text variations. Let me explain what that is for a second. Anchor text variations are the number of different types of anchor text pointing to a page. Click here, best spa in Switzerland, Switzerland spas. Every time you have a different type of anchor text, that's what we measured and we put them all into buckets. This chart blew our mind. Because when we looked at anchor text variations, there was no decrease.
The number never dropped off. The more anchor text variations the page had, the traffic went up and up and up. We cut this chart off because the data started to get unreliable after a certain point, but it just kept going up and up and up further. We ran this data so many times to make sure we weren't making any errors and it came back the same every single time. The more anchor text variations the page had, i.e., e.g., the number of different ways that people linked to themselves internally, the more traffic we saw per page. This blew my mind. I've been doing SEO for like 15 years and I've never seen a relationship like this or data explored in this way.
It kind of blew my mind, because we always talk about pages having links increasing the rankings, but we usually don't talk about different types of links improving the ranking and the variety that's going on there. This one chart really changed the way that I started thinking about internal linking and how we should be approaching it. Instead of raw numbers, we need to be really looking at deeper numbers and metrics and the way that we're linking. Let's dig into this a little bit. Let's talk about anchor text variety. You've heard me use this word, but I know 10 to 20% of you are out there going, "Cyrus, what are you talking about anchor text variety? I still don't quite get what you're talking about."
All right, so here is a graphic explanation, anchor text variations, all the different ways. If this was my page on recipes, Pinch of Yum, a wonderful website with wonderful recipes, will probably be replaced by ChatGPT, but in the meantime, it's a great recipe site. If I want to link to this page, there are many, many different ways that I can do it. I can do it in the navigation. I can link with recipes on another page. I can say it's tasty dishes, top-rated dishes, click here, terrible anchor text. I can use the URL as anchor text, our favorite dishes, and read more. All of these represent seven different ways that I can link to this page.
This is important because a lot of websites don't do this. They all link to the same page using the same anchor text. But these are different ways that we get to do this. What screws up anchor text variation? Well, consider if you link to your page in the navigation. That's the first link. These are our friends at SparkToro, a post by our friend Amanda, and they have a link that a lot of websites have, how it works, in the top navigation. This is great because we get a lot of links, a lot of links. Every page on our site links to this blog post or links to how it works, but it's the same anchor text every time. If you think of those two charts, one chart has a decreasing relationship with traffic.
The other chart has an increase. This has lots of links, but it only has one anchor text. Now, compare that to this idea. We basically have this thing of anchor texts canonicalization. I don't know if anchor text canonicalization is a thing, but imagine you're Google and you have a thousand pages on your site with one nav link all pointing to the same page. When I started in SEO, I used to think, wow, I'm putting this link in the nav. Man, I'm going to have a thousand links to this page. I'm really, really, really going to rank for how it works. Anyone who does this knows that that's not really how it works.
If you put a link in your nav, it's not like you got a thousand links all of a sudden. You got a thousand links, but you got one anchor text variation. If you've ever done this before, you don't really see that thousand link boost by putting a link in your navigation because it doesn't really work like that. I think it's because Google is canonicalizing your anchor text signals. Even on your own site, if you have two different pages, they both happen to use the same anchor text, I'm not convinced you have two different links. You've got two different PageRank going into that page, but I'm not sure you have two different links, because Google says, "Well, this one looks like this one. Let's just throw them together."
This is theory, by the way, not fact. Don't go to John Mueller and say, "Hey, Cyrus is talking about anchor text canonicalization." He's like, "Ah, we don't do that." This is just a theory. Now, compare your navigation links to your text and body links. We have links in the navigation, how it works, same on every page. But you put a link in your blog post and, well, you're going to have fewer links because you have to add them one by one, but you have infinite anchor text. You can do a different anchor text on every single blog post. We don't pay attention to these anchor texts very much, but the possibilities are a bit endless.
You have a little more flexibility here in your body links. Going back to the data, this is what we found when we started diving in. Remember when the chart went up and then started going down? Those downlinks, the links in the higher numbers, when you have 70, 80, 100, 200, 1,000, and again, we cut this chart off, the links at the top part of the chart that had those super high number of internal links, those tended to be navigation links. Then it starts to make sense why we saw that negative decline after a certain point, because these pages were not being linked in the body. These were site-wide navigation links where we start to see that negative correlation again.
It could be because they didn't have as much anchor text variety. Not going to draw any conclusions yet at this point. We see examples of this in the wild. Backlinko sold to Semrush along with the folks at Traffic Think Tank yesterday. Big congrats if any Traffic Think Tankers are watching. Semrush is buying all the things. You can buy Zyppy at some point if you want. I don't really care. But anyway, Backlinko, hugely successful site. This is its nav, Brian Dean's nav. If you've ever used Backlinko, it's kind of hard to find stuff on his site because he has almost no navigation, home, about, newsletter, kind of the prerequisite links.
Very minimal linking. But what that does is when he links to something, he can choose any anger text he wants because he hasn't linked to it in his navigation. It gives him a lot of opportunities to do that. You compare that to a site like Home Depot. Home Depot, if you live outside the United States, it's a big e-retailer here that helps you with home goods. They put everything in their navigation. Absolutely everything. You can find any category, whatever, you can find it very easily in their nav. They put everything in. They lose the opportunity to link in their post using specified anchor text. But I have a theory about this.
I'm going to jump into theory again. Home Depot is a huge site, very popular site. It has lots of authority and lots of other sites linking to them. If you look at the anchor text of any particular page, they have tons of anchor text variety because everybody else all over the world is linking to them in their own way. Any given page on Home Depot already has tons of anchor texts. This was just a random page. They had 75 different anchors from a thousand different websites. They don't need to worry about their own anchor text variety because everybody else is already giving it to them.
Whereas Backlinko, Brian Dean, he's not as big as Home Depot, he might want more control in how he links to himself because he doesn't have 75 different anchors going to every single page. Just something to think about. Again, diving into the world of theory, but it makes sense. Here's a question for the top 50% of those watching out there, what happens when you have a link in the navigation lower down in the text and they both link to the same page? What happens in that situation? Here's a post that I wrote for Moz, in the exact same situation. We link to our SEO tools in the navigation.
But then if we wanted to write a post about it, I'll also link to those SEO tools. What happens when Google crawls this page, Google bots coming along and it sees both these links, how does Google treat both of these when they see them at the same time? Are they treated equally? There's an old thing called First Link Priority, and this has been around in SEO for like 15 years. People don't even talk about it anymore, but it was a very big thing back in the early days of SEO and people trying to dissect Google's algorithm. The advice we got from Google at the time and several experiments confirmed, when Google sees a situation like this, they treat the links a little differently.
The first link on the page they give priority to, and that means it passes PageRank and anchor text. Any other link on the page, unless it's an image, only gets PageRank only, meaning we miss the anchor text. We lose the anchor text signal on that second link. It passes some PageRank. Top end SEO tools, according to the old legacy First Link Priority rules, I lose that second anchor text, and that sucks because I want that anchor text. I want top end SEO tools. I'd love to get two anchor texts on the same page. But this is old school. This really outs you as an old person in SEO when you're talking about First Link Priority, but this is important.
But I wondered, okay, the kids are using TikTok today. Is this still true in 2023? Should Cyrus Shepard, oldest SEO in the world, be talking about First Link Priority? I wanted to test this, and I thought it was time to update some of our knowledge here. I created a bunch of pages, and it turns out it's difficult, but you can test this. I created a bunch of pages, added a bunch of links all going to the same page. Thanks to Google, I was able to create a property in Google Search Console just for these pages, and I could go into the anchor text report. Google's link reporting is really difficult to use.
But in situations like this, I was able to see all the anchor text that came into my particular test pages, so I could see exactly what anchor text Google was counting and which anchor text they were ignoring. It was very effective in this case. It was hard to set up and it took several weeks for Google to crawl and index and do everything, but I could see exactly which anchor texts Google was recording and which they were ignoring. Let's go through some scenarios in my test and see how First Link Priority might work in 2023. Here's my test page. Throw it together in a few minutes. In this first example, the first link is an image link.
It's going to use the alt text based on our previous rules. The second link is a regular text link. Now, according to the old rules of Google, we would expect Google to index both of these. Because whenever there is an image link first, Google tends to count the second link. This is important if you run an e-commerce store and you have product images and then you have maybe a link beneath it, opportunities to use two different anchor texts that a lot of people don't take advantage of. Ran this test and came back. Yes, Google indexed both anchor texts. This is great. If you have an image link and a text link, I have an opportunity to use two different anchor texts on this page.
That confirms that part of the theory. Let's set up something a little more complicated. In this test, more links. Remember, all these are going to the same page, the same target. First link, text link. Second link, text link. Third link is an image link. Now, according to the old rules, Google will pass PageRank through all these, but they may not pass anchor text through all these. When I go into Google Search Console, I look for these anchor texts, what do I find? Ah, interesting. Google counted the first link, ignored the second link entirely, not entirely, just the anchor text, and gave me the anchor text to the third link.
I wasted my anchor text on the second link. This seems to confirm that Google is still using some sort of First Link Priority, where all these links pass PageRank, but only some of them are passing anchor text. Okay, well, this is interesting because I often link to the same page more than once from the same URL. How does this influence my strategy? We got a third test coming up. This was the most complicated of all, text link, text link, image link, text link. Based on what we know so far, based on First Link Priority, what would we predict would happen in this scenario, text, text, image, text?
Based on the rules of First Link Priority, this is what we would predict. Google would pass PageRank through all these if they rendered them, which isn't a guarantee, which is a whole nother webinar we'll get into some other time, but what we would expect is Google would give us the first anchor text, ignore the second anchor text, give us the image again, this is why it's important to use different anchor text on your images because Google's given you freebie there, and not give you the last anchor text. What actually happened? Before I reveal the results of this test, I have withheld information from you.
I haven't been totally honest with you about this test. Since I want us to have a good relationship, I want you to trust me, I need to come clean. I cheated. I totally cheated on this last test, because I wanted to get around rules that Google's put in place about First Link Priority. Yes, Cyrus Shepard is an SEO cheater. Don't put that on Twitter. Back in the day, there was a rumor that if you used a hash URL... Hash URLs, you use these for jump links sometime. You don't have to use them for jump links. If you just put a hash in your URL, it'll just go to the page. You'll resolve like normal, or you can use an anchor and take visitors to a certain page.
The rumor was, and one of the ways people talked about getting around First Link Priority, was to use these hash links. On this test page here, that's what I did. After the first link, I used hash links for all the other links, with the hopes that Google would start picking up the anchor text. And that is exactly what happened. When I implemented hash links, Google picked up every anchor text just by me using different URLs. Instead of one or two anchor texts on this page, I now had four anchor texts on the same page going to the same target. This improves my anchor text variations, which we saw in the first chart is associated with higher rankings.
I didn't waste those anchor texts. Everything's getting passed, and I can breathe a sigh of relief. This is how it works in 2023. I don't know if Google will make changes to this. It seems to work. It's been working for them for 15 years. I would expect it to work a little bit longer, but let's not advertise this fact to Google. Let's not ruin a good thing. If any Googlers are watching, let's just keep this between ourselves. We've talked about theory for a while, but now I want to get into some meat and bones and all the good stuff or some vegetables. I'm not a meatatarian. I want to give some practical advice, some rules of internal linking.
The first rule of internal linking is to audit your anchor text. Previously, I talked about SEO tools. I've worked in the SEO industry on the tool side for years, and there's a bit of a gap there. I've built SEO tools myself. It's easy to report on PageRank type metrics. It's easy to talk about how this page is really well internally linked from eight different pages. But what's missing in most SEO tools is anchor text reports, anchor text coverage, anchor text variety. Mostly that's manual work that you have to do yourself. If any Semrush, Ahrefs, Mozers are listening out there, this is an opportunity because I think this is something that moves the needle for folks.
When you audit your anchor text, make sure that whatever tool you're using comes with an anchor text report. I chose Screaming Frog in this example because it's a very popular piece of software that a lot of us already used. You can anchor text out of Semrush, Ahrefs, Moz, a lot of different crawlers. This is how you do it. In Ahrefs, you just go to a bulk report, you get all anchor text, and you export it. You can put it on a table. You can do all sorts of things with it after that, but you have to manipulate it and you can see all the different anchor text going to each individual page. That's number one.
Make sure you're not just auditing your internal links to make sure pages are linked to, but you're auditing your anchor text as well. One thing I want to point out is that even unoptimized anchor texts can help. Google advises against using generic anchor text or URL anchor text. But when we ran the data looking at those millions of internal links that we saw, we saw increased traffic to pages that used unoptimized links. In this example, it was naked URLs, pages with no words, but just the URL as an anchor text. We found those pages actually had more traffic than pages without the naked URLs. I'm not necessarily saying this is a ranking factor, but this does seem to help give you more anchor text variety.
Maybe you can unoptimize some of your anchor texts, but any variety of anchor text seems to help in the data that we looked at. That said, don't shy away from your exact match anchors. When we looked at exact match anchors for pages that were actually ranking for certain terms, the data blew everything out in the water. Pages that had exact match anchors pointing at them had something like 500% more traffic than pages without exact match anchors. That was really interesting, because we had the Google Search Console data, we knew exactly what every page was ranking for, so we knew what exact match anchors to look for.
Pages should have probably at least some exact match anchors. If you've been doing SEO a while, you understand that this works a little easier if you're a big established site. You can get away with exact match anchors because you probably already have a lot of anchor text variety. If you're a new site just starting out, you may not get away with exact match anchors as much, because, well, for one, you don't have as much authority, and two, you just don't have the variety there. But when you're increasing your anchor text variety, an exact match seems to help in the long run. Second rule, Cyrus' second rule for internal linking, don't miss your alt text anchors.
Going back to the beginning, our definition, alt text on an image is used as your anchor text. In our dataset, we found that somewhere close to 5% of all links that we looked at were missing their alt text. 98% of them were image links, just like this. Well, not just like this, that's a creepy, creepy image, but you know what I'm talking about. Generally, images were missing their alt texts. I get it. You have a CMS. You're running an e-commerce store. The alt text is imported automatically. You don't pay attention to your alt text. And even if you add it, it doesn't seem to move the needle as much.
But as we saw, you can use that alt text to gain another anchor text variation because it doesn't have to be the same as your other text links on the page. Don't miss your alt text anchors because they are extremely important. This picture is just creeping me out. Let's move on. One thing that more advanced SEOs that I talked to, and if you fit in this group, congratulations, tend to understand is that we tend to think of linking as when I link to a page, we're improving the ranking of that page. But when you've been doing SEO a while, you start to understand that I'm actually helping both pages.
I'm helping the page that I'm linking to, but I'm also helping the page that I'm linking from. This is a dividing line between I think more advanced SEOs and beginner SEOs when they get to this point. Our friends over at SearchPilot have done studies on this, and you may have seen these online. This is a case study. They have your typical e-commerce product page and they add some internal links. They're just testing, adding internal links. They add some popular categories on the page, and then they run it through thousands of pages. We've all seen things like this. They're like, "Oh, we added internal links and traffic went up."
In this case, it was a very successful test. Traffic went up 20%. People go, "Oh, internal links are good. That's great," but here's what you may have missed. It wasn't just the target pages that went up 20%, the source pages that had the internal links added to them also went up 20%. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this that are in theory possible. You're adding relevance. You're adding context. Linking to authority sources, linking to topically relevant pages, Google sees this as a sign of expertise or authority or whatever they do.
But we've seen this time and time again consistently for many years, linking to authoritative topically relevant pages, even if it's on your own site, can help Google see that your page is trustworthy. It's relevant. It can add some relevance there. Again, this is theory. We don't know why it works, but it works time and time and time again. The smart SEOs link for the target page and the source page by finding those topically relevant pages to link to. Rule number four, Cyrus wants you to link high and tight. This means when you have important links, internal links on your page, I want you to put those links in places where people are actually going to click them high in your page in the main body of the text.
The best placement for a link when you're putting your internal links, placement counts so much, the best place that you can put your links are where people are actually going to click them. Not necessarily in the sidebar, not in the footer, not at the bottom of the page, but high in the article where they're prominent and people are going to click them. There's Google's Reasonable Surfer patent that talks about this, where links count more if they're actually in places where people click. This applies to PageRank as well. We see this in Google's patents. We're not sure how it actually works. But these links in these prominent places actually have more power.
They have more power than the links in the non-obvious places. When you're linking internally, you want to look for these high and tight places where people are actually going to click to pass the most power possible for your internal links. This is something we used to do at Moz all the time. We'd have an old post that was still getting reasonable traffic, was still relevant and wasn't as fresh, but still had good information, we would add related links, not at the bottom where you normally see related links, we would add them to the very top of the page. Because maybe this article wasn't as fresh as something they wanted to see, we would add the other related links to the top of the page.
Anytime we did this, every one of those pages got a boost, the pages that we linked to, but also this page, this post that's 13 years old, also got a boost because it became a hub. It had great engagement signals. We improved this page. We'd linked high and tight, and that's where I want to see your internal links. Put your most important links, at Moz, this was my rule when writing a post, most important links at the top, going to Moz resources. And then at the bottom, that's where I link to Ahrefs, Semrush, and Neil Patel if absolutely necessary. But don't call me out on that. Legal PageRank sculpting.
PageRank sculpting, again, I'm an old school SEO, PageRank Sculpting has kind of gone through a dirty word. I'll explain this to those who aren't familiar at all. PageRank sculpting was a technique very popular in the early days of SEO, where if you have three links on a page, they all pass a certain amount of power. If you get rid of one of those links, the two remaining links have more power. Google takes that and they pass that remaining link to those two other links. Back in the day, people would put a no follow on that third link and more power would pass through the two remaining links.
Well, in 2011, Google put a kibosh on that rule and said, "Eh, if you use no follow, more power does not pass to the other two links. It just doesn't work." PageRank sculpting came out of favor and people say, "Yeah, PageRank sculpting doesn't work anymore." Googlers are coming, "You can't PageRank sculpt. It doesn't work." That's not quite true. PageRank sculpting works to this day, 2023. You just can't use no follow for it. That's been true for a long time. There are other ways that you can PageRank sculpt that are totally 100% legal. It just doesn't involve no follow. One of the more devious ways, one of the more advanced ways is asking yourself, what's a link?
Going back to our earlier definition, Google just put out some advice last week. They republished their best practices on what's a crawlable link. They want links, whether they have an Ahrefs link. Google strongly prefers links in this format. But let's say you want to link to something, but you don't want it to count as a link. You can't use no follow, so what do you do? Well, if you're a little devious and you don't want to go through the work, and I'm not saying this is worth it, but there are ways to make links that don't look like links, that don't act like links, they don't validate his links. But to the user, they seem to be a link, but they're not going to count against you.
There's no idea that there's a link there. You could do some other styling things. I'm not actually advising you to do this because you can get yourself into a mess and I'm not sure it's worth it, but there are ways to get around the no follow. But there are other perfectly legitimate PageRank sculpting techniques that you can use that don't involve trickery like that. The classics are, instead of no follow link, you can just eliminate links. You can consolidate your links. These are very old school techniques. In your footer, if you have 28 links in your footer, that's 28 links leaking PageRank on every page, and they may not be necessary.
Cyrus' six rules, avoid First Link Priority. We talked about this earlier. I use this example. This was an actual example in the wild when I wrote this post for Moz a few years ago. It was a hugely successful post, but I wrote this entire post to link to our free SEO tools, and I didn't want to waste an anchor text opportunity. Even though we had free SEO tools in the navigation, when I linked to free SEO tools in the post, I used a hash link index. Nobody noticed. Users didn't notice, whatever. But in theory, Google gave me that second anchor text that I was able to use. Correlation is not causation, but when we published this post, this was traffic to the blog post itself, and got tons of visits.
This was traffic to the SEO tools page. Again, I can't say that that post helped that, but this is a couple million dollars worth of business just to that page. Maybe the anchor text had something to do with it, maybe not. I would assume the post did. But again, I would use that hash link all the time. My final tip for internal linking, I like doing things manually. I like writing blog posts without the help of AI. I like writing HTML by hand, but this is one area where I do encourage people to use automation. Because you have a thousand page site, 2,000 page site or more, internal linking, you can't hold those all in your head.
SEOs talk to me all the time like, "Our writers know the pages." No, no, don't. They're missing opportunities. They are not getting 10 or more internal links per page because we have the data to show that. It's important for me to leverage automation and use some of these newer software solutions that can find the internal linking opportunities for you. InLinks, Dixon Jones' company, is one of them. I always mess up the pronunciation of this other, Twylu, which is a great, affordable internal linking workflow. Link Whisper, this is for WordPress only. The company I co-founded, SiteSeer, I'm no longer associated with, they have an internal linking solution that I helped develop.
They're all good, and they're all pretty affordable to help you identify internal linking solutions at scale. To recap, my seven-year rules of internal linking: audit your anchor text, don't sleep on your alt text anchors, link for the source page, as well as the target page, link high and tight, use white hat PageRank sculpting or legal PageRank sculpting or trying to get rid of the word white hat, avoid First Link Priority, and leverage automation. These are the resources. They'll be available on the deck. Take a screenshot of this if you want to see. I'm not sure we're making the deck available.
This has been a fun webinar. I want to thank you for internal linking, and I think we're going to ask some questions. Let's go out and get those internal links. Thanks, everybody.
Awesome job, Cyrus. That was a blast. I think everybody takes away a lot. We do have several questions as well. We can jump into those for the next 15 minutes. The first one is anonymous. What are some ways to increase the number of anchor text variations when you only have five keywords?
That's a great question. I would argue, you don't have five keywords. You think you have five keywords, but you don't. Variations of those keywords. When I hear that, I only have five keywords, it sounds like we're talking about exact match keywords, best red dress or something like that, lady's necklace, cheap gold. I don't want to link with those anchor text variations anyway. I want to use what I call partial match plus on that. Let's say my keyword was best bedroom slippers, and that's the key word I want to rank for, best bedroom slippers. I'm not going to use that as my internal anchor text maybe more than once.
I'm going to use slippers for the bedroom or slippers at night or use synonyms like comfortable footwear for the bedroom. I'm going to use variations of that anchor text time and time and time again to use that link. If you go into Google Search Console and you look at what your page is actually ranking for, if the page has any traffic at all, you're going to see dozens or hundreds of variations of phrases that people are using to find that page. You can use any of those. I don't like to use them exactly. I would like to add a little. Google recommends against using overly long anchor text. I tend to make my anchor text pretty long just to keep it safe.
I don't want to over optimize. Because if you have too many of the same anchor text time and time again, that can actually hurt you. We saw that in the grass with the sitewide navigation links. Not so important if you're a bigger site, but that's a great question. Vary those anchor texts as much as possible because you don't have five keywords, you have hundreds of possible keywords. You just need to get a little creative in targeting those.
Nice. And then Alan had a follow-up question. When you were talking about linking images, he asked, should alt text be an exact match to the keyword or more descriptive in a natural language way?
Going along with that same thing, I like to avoid getting in trouble, so I go with natural language and I vary it every single time. I try not to use the same anchor text ever. Sometimes you don't even use the keyword, but you're using synonyms or closely related topics. And to be clear, when you use those anchor text, you're not just ranking for the words in your anchor text, you're helping rank for your main keywords as well. Even if you're just linking to the page, you want something relevant, and it should be related, but it doesn't have to use all your keywords. It just has to be in the same ballpark.
The more closely related, the better. But yeah, vary them. Think of the exact match anchor text as a golf ball. You can hit it long and hard, but it's hard to hit your target. With anchor text, think of it as a giant ball you can just loft. You're going to hit a lot more with those big bouncy balls. It may not drive through and hurt as much, but you're going to cover a lot of areas. Think of your anchor text as a big bouncy ball and not a golf ball.
Nice. And then we have another question, should you save exact match anchor text for pages that receive a lot of traffic from Google and then use variations for pages that don't receive a lot of traffic?
Yeah, maybe. I think the important thing to remember is that you want a lot of variety for all your pages. If you have a page that's receiving a lot of traffic from Google, that's really no different from your pages that aren't receiving a lot of traffic. Sure, use the exact match. My rule about exact match is only use exact match, and I didn't go into this in the presentation, only use exact match when you have a lot of existing anchor text variations in the first place. Don't go all charging in with your exact match out of the gate.
If you have an exact match coming from external websites, you probably don't even need to do it for yourself. Just go in with variations. I don't have data on that, that's just my experience, but treat all the pages the same and prefer variations before referencing the exact match, but make sure those important pages do have the exact match. And if they come from someone else, even better.
Excellent. We have another question. In regards to the first link counts test, did you validate that these anchors were counted by making sure the target pages ranked for the unique anchors using site colon search?
No, we did not do that. That wasn't part of the test. We knew that the pages ranked for certain terms. We did not validate that they ranked for these anchors, but that would be a very interesting experiment to do with that data and see what type of pages ranked for that. Whole different study. But no, we didn't do that. But that's an interesting idea. Thank you for that.
And then Michael was asking, how about using a button instead for sculpting? Is there any difference between using a button to hide a text?
We're getting a little bit into HTML technicalities. Buttons can actually have two alt texts. Depending on how you do your HTML, you can have a button in the HTML, I mean, an anchor text in the HTML surrounding the button, but you can also have alt text for the image if you're using an image for a button instead of you can create it with CSS. We're kind of getting into the weeds here.
There are different ways to build buttons. If you do it one way, you actually have an opportunity for two different alt texts, which may or may not be a good idea, I'm not sure. Just keep in mind, if you're using an image for your button, that image alt text is your anchor text. I think that's the important thing to remember.
Awesome. And then Brian asked, are there any negative implications if two or more different pages received the same anchor text?
That is a very interesting question and we're talking a bit about cannibalization. And in truth, there could be. I think it depends on the unique situation. This happens in the wild all the time, and I don't think it's something we really measure, because you only want one page ranking for that particular term. But what if those two pages link to each other? It gets complicated and there's no one clear answer. It's possible that you're helping the rank of both those pages. It's possible you're shooting yourself in the foot because you're not giving the proper boost to the page that you want to rank.
I don't think there's a clear answer. I don't think it's best practice to do that because you want each page to have its own unique keywords, but I'm not convinced it's always a bad situation. It's just one of those things where you throw things into Google's algorithm and you see what comes out. Not best practices, but I don't think it's always going to hurt you.
Nice. And then Jimmy asked, what is your opinion on too many external looting a URL's ability to pass link authority internally?
Yeah, that's actually a thing. One of the things about so many internal links and lots of links in general is it dilutes your PageRank that you can pass, but it also makes it harder for Google to tell what you're talking about if you're linking to here and here and here and here and here. Yes, it is a thing. When I worked at Moz, we were very generous and we linked to everybody. We were not strategic about external linking at all. I think there is something to be said for... I'm a huge proponent of linking externally, passing along traffic, patching along those relevancy signals. Here's the other thing, when you link externally, I like to use optimized anchor text because I'm telling Google what that link is about.
That's a theory I have, but I think it's important. A lot of people when they link externally, they try to hide the link. Link here, click here. They don't want to pass signals to their competitors. I'm a huge proponent of linking externally with great anchor text, but doing judiciously and not having hundreds and hundreds of links diluting my PageRank. If you have to do it, if you have to do it, make sure you're putting your own links higher up on the page because that's an actual thing. Reasonable Surfer, your own links are going to pass more authority, likely if they're in more prominent places, people are actually clicking them.
The links that people aren't clicking, if you have to do it, put them down in places where people aren't clicking them as much. But if they're not going to be clicking as much, maybe you have to ask yourself, why am I including them in the first place? Great question. No easy answer. Thank you for that.
Nice. And then another question, would keyword search volume influence your decision when selecting proper anchor text variations? And if so, would you use relevant anchor text with keywords with zero search volume?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The thing is, as I said, I'm a huge proponent of partial match anchor text. Because when you have 10 or more anchor texts coming to a page that you're choosing, you can cover all your bases. You don't have to worry about using the precise keyword. You can use all the different keywords all over the place, and you can cover your bases in a more holistic way than honing in on those very specific keywords.
I would argue, if you're worried about this exact anchor text on this page, you got to broaden your scope. You have to think about how I am linking on the other nine pages and not worry so much about that. Because if you're focusing on exactly matching these keywords, you might get yourself in trouble with over optimization. It might look like manipulation. Broaden your scope, think about the 10 pages, and deoptimize. Deoptimize.
Nice, yeah. And then another question is we have this tracking system that makes us use a parameter for our internal links. What's your opinion on that?
It depends on the parameter. I don't like them. Most people in SEO don't. They screw up your analytics, yada, yada, yada. From a Google point of view, if you have proper canonicalization signals on those pages, as long as Google doesn't think that they are a separate page, you're probably okay. But no, we don't like them because they screw up your metrics, your reporting. But from a purely algorithmic signal, they can make things a little more complicated, but Google can probably figure it out as long as you have all your other SEO shipped up. Hopefully not a problem.
And then next, if there are two pillar pages in a category, would we choose one page to focus our internal linking or can we optimize both pages?
Both pages. Both pages and each other. Do all the things. That's all I'm going to say. Next question.
I think this might be the last one for right now. If you're looking to rank your homepage for keywords, would you use the hash links to control the anchor text since the homepage is in the top nav two?
That's a great question, because generally your homepage is going to be linked to every other page on your site by navigation. We all are linking back to our homepage at one point or another. Yeah, I would use hash links for those homepage links. Again, I don't think hash linking is the holy grail. Despite what I showed you here, I showed you proof that Google is picking up those hash links. What I don't have right now is evidence of it moving the needle. I don't want to misrepresent that, that hash linking is the holy grail of internal linking, but it's one of those details that's a best practice that I use.
Yes, I wouldn't use a hash link when linking back to the homepage if I'm trying to get it to rank for something else. The thing about the homepage is it usually has the most anchor text variety from other sites, so it's usually not something you need to worry about as much. But that's a great question. Thank you. Great question to end on too.
Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, Cyrus. Everybody, please drop a note on the socials letting Cyrus know how much you appreciate his talk today.
I'll be on Twitter later if anybody has any questions.
If there's anything you wanted to share, now is your time, Cyrus.
Well, gosh, I'm on the spot. My website is zyppy.com. I got some stuff coming out in the next few months that should be exciting. Launching a new newsletter. I'll be announcing that on Twitter and LinkedIn and Mastodon and all the places. I enjoyed this. Thank you, Travis.
Oh, fantastic. Yeah, excited for that. Awesome. Everybody have a great rest of your day. Take care.
All right, thanks everybody.
Director of Marketing, Clearscope
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