People have long added external links to their blogs in hopes of being seen as relevant.
Countless others are vying for these backlinks because they want their rankings to increase.
“What will happen if I external link to a popular website like Wikipedia?” a Redditor asked.
And Google’s John Mueller broke the floodgates open with his take:
“Nothing happens. Why should it? This has been one of those things that SEOs have claimed / hoped since literally decades.
“Here’s my affiliate site about handbags – and here’s a link to CNN & Wikipedia, please take me seriously now, k?”
Treat links like content. Does this link provide additional, unique value to users? Then link naturally. Is this link irrelevant to my users? Then don’t link to it. Name-dropping a dictionary doesn’t fix your spelling mistakes.”
If you’ve been following “best practices” and linking out to authority sites as part of your on-page SEO, you’re not alone.
Many people in the industry follow this practice, and there have even been some case studies proving the validity of claims that external links on your site can help with rankings.
Do – or did – external links help with rankings?
Studies on external links on a page have shown that they help. Reboot Online ran an experiment years ago that spread like wildfire, and the gist was simple:
- Purchased 10 new sites.
- 5 sites didn’t use external links.
- 5 sites used external links.
Some big names in the industry chose to review the data, including Rand Fishkin.
The sites that had external links did experience a positive impact from the links. But there is one problem: the study was done in 2015/2016.
The same team redid the study in 2020 with the same results.
For 4 to 5 years, external links on the page helped with rankings.
What Google ‘really wants’ from your content
In a very “vague” manner, let’s discuss what Google wants because we know that no one really knows and is merely looking into a crystal ball that Google seems to shake up whenever it likes.
Mueller’s comment suggests links should:
- Provide additional value.
- Be natural.
- Be relevant to the user.
So, Mueller states that linking out won’t help your site if the link is irrelevant.
If we build off Mueller’s example, imagine that we sell handbags and write an amazing article on how sustainable handbags are manufactured.
Proper linking may link to sites that link to:
- Complex issues about sustainability.
- Statistics on the importance of sustainable production.
However, suppose I link to a generic definition of sustainability or a CNN page on handbags that don’t provide value. In that case, Google isn’t going to rank your page higher because you created a quick link.
If you’ve been paying attention to Google in recent years, they keep repeating one word: “users.”
Check out Google’s page on SEO fundamentals and “users” is in the content 57 times:
- Create a simple navigational page for users.
- Help Google (and users) understand your content.
- Do I serve high-quality content to users?
If we listen to Google, Mueller and countless other Google-related sources, they want you to do everything you can for the user.
But this isn’t the first time Mueller has repeated the same concept.
He has mentioned that linking out from your page in hopes that it nudges Google to think that your site is high quality hasn’t been a good idea since 2019, which you can also find on Twitter (X):
He also repeated something very similar in 2020:
- “Sure, sure. People have been linking to Wikipedia, CNN, etc for decades now in the hope that their low-quality pages are suddenly seen as being high-quality. That’s not how you make high-quality content.”
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Where external links fit into the system
Everyone is talking about “users” and why you shouldn’t add a link on your page if it isn’t:
When adding a link to your next blog post, ask yourself if it’s useful and helpful.
You can write about something outside your niche and link to a resource that helps the user explore additional content further.
Google wants your posts to provide deeper insights and lead users to dive deeper into the subject matter.
Why? A lot of sites are running AdSense and Analytics, and it does benefit Google to some extent.
You also kept the reader engaged, which is powerful in itself.
Linking with the intent to provide value
Google wants its users to be happy, and you need to provide some form of value if you can make a user happy.
A few things I recommend after being in the industry for years when using external links are:
- Add the link to your content naturally.
- Actually, read the content that you link to and ask yourself, “Is this useful?”
Defining “quality” should be easy and intuitive, yet far too many people subscribe to adding two or three high-quality links to their content and not even to the exact page of the site that is relevant.
For example, let’s assume that you have a blog post that talks about IVDD in dogs.
You might link to Wikipedia’s page on “dogs,” but it will be even better if you link to “IVDD” or dogs that have this disease.
Why would you link to IVDD?
- “Dog” is something that people should know.
- People may not know what IVDD is, so they want to research it further.
Your article is a resource of knowledge that the user should be able to use to answer their questions and dive deeper into a topic.
You can add entities in the schema to make this even more powerful. Tony Hill wrote about this in “How to use entities in schema to improve Google’s understanding of your content.”
Should you remove your links or nofollow them?
No. you should only remove links that are not valuable and make no sense.
If your article on “baking” links to a “dog,” you may want to remove this link. The link may not hurt your SEO, but does it really provide any form of value?
Add value. Period.
You must always focus on adding value for users with anything you do – or Google will tell you that you must.
Now, I know there will be many conflicting views on this post because we all know that Google says one thing and rewards another.
However, if you heed Google’s advice, this is Mueller’s latest and greatest information on using external links on your blog posts.
It’s as simple as evaluating each link to ensure that it’s helpful and serves a purpose.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.