Internal in-content linking practices have remained the same for the past twenty years, which is strange because Google has gone through dramatic changes within the last ten years and even more so in the past five. It may be time to consider freshening up internal linking strategies so that they more closely align with how Google understands and ranks webpages.
Standard Internal Linking Practices
I want to make clear that I’m not saying that this is the only way to do internal linking and everyone’s wrong. I’m simply pointing out a disconnect between how in-content internal linking is currently done and how Google understands content and becoming aware of that disparity to use knowledge to consider your own way of doing internal linking, to find what works best for you.
Raise your hand if this is you:
An SEO is writing or updating content and comes across a keyword phrase that’s a match for the keywords targeted by an inner page, so those words get turned into anchor text.
Okay, you can put your hand down. 🙂
I expect that there will be a lot of hands raised and that’s okay because it’s how everybody does it, likely because that’s how it’s always been done but not necessarily because that’s the best way to do it.
Does Google Recommend Using “Keyword-Rich” Anchor Text?
There’s some other site claiming that Google recommends using keywords in the anchor text and even shows a screenshot from a Google developer page that if you look at it doesn’t even say that. The fact is that Google’s various guidelines do not recommend using keyword rich anchor text. Check it for yourself in Google’s SEO Starter Guide or in their SEO Links Best Practices page.
- “…the better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you’re linking to is about
- With appropriate anchor text, users and search engines can easily understand what the linked pages contain.
- Write anchor text that provides at least a basic idea of what the page linked to is about.
- paying more attention to the anchor text used for internal links can help users and Google navigate your site better.”
“Good anchor text is descriptive, reasonably concise, and relevant to the page that it’s on and to the page it links to. It provides context for the link, and sets the expectation for your readers. The better your anchor text, the easier it is for people to navigate your site and for Google to understand what the page you’re linking to is about.”
That links best practice page recommends a way to test your anchor text:
“Try reading only the anchor text (out of context) and check if it’s specific enough to make sense by itself. If you don’t know what the page could be about, you need more descriptive anchor text.”
What should be clear is that there is not a single recommendation to use “keyword rich” anchor text, not one. That’s an SEO thing, not a Google recommendation.
The Think Like A Reader Test
Another way to think about anchor text is to think like a site visitor.
If you think like an SEO then there’s nothing wrong with using keyword rich anchor text because the anchor text matches the target keyword of the second page.
But if you think like a site visitor then what is the chance that the reader will stop reading and click the link to learn more about [Insert Keyword-Rich Anchor Text]?
Quite likely it would be zero percent of readers would click on the link because the link is not contextually relevant.
What Does A Machine Think About It?
As an example of how keyword-rich anchor text can go sideways, I visited a website that offers an SEO-related service and in an article about the “importance of internal linking” they link to another page that about “What Is Internal Linking”, using the anchor text “internal linking”, which is the standard practice of using the keyword you want to rank for.
But it’s not right because the context of the sentence and the paragraph is Why Internal Linking Is Important and the context of the second page is What Are Internal Links.
Those are two different contexts and it’s not just my opinion, either.
To see what a machine thought about that sentence I copied it asked ChatGPT:
“What does this sentence mean?”
“The sentence highlights the critical role of internal linking in SEO strategies.”
I then asked ChatGPT to summarize the paragraph in fifteen words or less and it responded:
“Internal linking is crucial for website indexing and ranking, with link context being particularly important.”
The context of both the sentence and the paragraph is the importance of internal links which is different from the topic of What Is Internal Linking.
The insight from this example is that for an internal link to be contextual, it’s important to consider the meaning of the sentence and the paragraph in which it exists.
What Internal Linking Is Not
There are decades-old precepts about internal linking that are commonly accepted as canonical without sufficient critical examination.
Here are a few examples:
- Put your internal links closer to the top of the webpage.
- Internal links are for helping other pages rank well.
- Internal links are for helping other pages get indexed.
- Use keyword-rich anchor text but make them look natural.
- Internal linking is important for Google.
- Add internal links to your most important webpage on a topic from all of the subtopic pages.
What’s missing from the above commonly accepted ideas about internal linking is that none of that has anything to do with the site visitors that are reading the content.
Those ideas aren’t even connected to how Google analyzes and understands webpages and as a consequence they’re not really what internal linking should be about. So before identifying a modern way to link internally that is in line with the modern search engine it’s useful to understand how Google is understanding webpages.
Taxonomy Of Topics In Webpage Content
A taxonomy is a way of classifying something and every well organized webpage can be subdivided into an overall topic and the subtopics beneath it, one flowing into the other so that the overall topic describes what all the subtopics as a group are about and also each subtopic describes an aspect of the main topic in what can be called a Taxonomy of Topics, the hidden structure within the content.
A webpage is called unstructured data. But in order to make sense of it Google has to impose some structure on it. So a webpage is divided into sections like the header, navigation, main content, sidebar and footer.
Google’s Martin Splitt went further and said that the main content is analyzed for the Centerpiece Annotation, a description of what the topic is about, explaining:
“That’s just us analyzing the content and… we have a thing called the Centerpiece Annotation, for instance, and there’s a few other annotations that we have where we look at the semantic content, as well as potentially the layout tree.
But fundamentally we can read that from the content structure in HTML already and figure out so “Oh! This looks like from all the natural language processing that we did on this entire text content here that we got, it looks like this is primarily about topic A, dog food.”
The centerpiece annotation is Google’s estimation of what the content is about and it identifies it by reading it from the Content Structure.
It is that content structure that can be called the Taxonomy of Topics, where a page of content is planned and created according to a topic and the subtopics.
Semantic Content Structure And Internal Links
Content has a hidden semantic structure that can be referred to as the Taxonomy of Topics.
A well constructed webpage has an overall structure that generally looks like this:
Introductory paragraph that introduces the main topic -Subtopic 1 (a content block) -Subtopic 2 (a content block) -Subtopic 3 (a content block) Ending paragraph that wraps everything up
Subtopics actually have their own hierarchy as well, like this:
Subtopic 1 -Paragraph A -Paragraph B -Paragraph C
And each paragraph also has their own hierarchy like this:
Paragraph A -Sentence 1 -Sentence 2 -Sentence 3 -Sentence 4
The above outline is an example of how unstructured data like a webpage has a hidden structure that can help a machine understand it better by labeling it with a Centerpiece Annotation, for example.
Given that Google views content as a series of topics and subtopics that are organized in a “content structure” with headings (H1, H2) demarcating each block of content, doesn’t it make sense to also consider internal linking in the same way?
For example, my links to the Taxonomy of Topics article and the source of the Martin Splitt quote are contextually relevant and many readers of this article may likely to follow those links because they expand on the content in an interesting way, they are… contextually relevant.
And being contextually relevant, in my opinion it’s likely that Google will also find the topic matter of the the linked pages to also be relevant.
I didn’t link them to get them crawled or for ranking purposes either. I linked to them because they’re useful to readers and expand on the surrounding content in which those links are embedded.
Semantic Relevance And Contextual Internal Links
For more than ten years I’ve been encouraging the SEO industry to let go of their keywords and start thinking in terms of topics and it’s great to finally see more of the industry finally get it and start thinking about content in terms of what it means at the semantic level.
Now take the next step and let go of that “keyword-targeted” mindset and apply that understanding to internal links. Doing so makes sense for SEO and also for readers. In my 25 years of hands-on experience with SEO, I can say with confidence that the most future-proofed SEO strategy is one that thinks about the impact to site visitors because that’s how Google is looking at pages, too.
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