Do outbound links matter for SEO?

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One of the most basic principles of SEO is that you need high-quality inbound links coming from reputable, relevant sources. However, one linking strategy that SEOs often overlook is the use of outbound or external links to other websites.

A 2019 SparkToro study placed outbound links as the second-least important ranking factor, according to more than 1,500 SEOs. Although the study also revealed this was one of the more divisive factors, meaning SEOs generally couldn’t agree on their importance. Meanwhile, we have names like Yoast saying, “We feel that every page should include an outbound link.”

Clearly, there’s some confusion on this topic.

Why are outbound links important?

Outbound links don’t have the same weighting as quality inbound links, of course, but this doesn’t mean they’re not important. Every article should include several outbound links to other websites and it’s really not that difficult to achieve in a natural way.

Look at the intro of this blog post, for example – there were two outbound links before we even got to the first subheading. Neither of these was forced in for SEO purposes, I simply linked to the sources referenced, as all quality content should.

Here’s why you should be using outbound links:

  • Quality content naturally includes data/information from reputable, third-party sources.
  • Outbound links can prove your content is accurate.
  • External info/data appears impartial, reinforces your message.
  • Users instinctively trust known/reputable names.
  • Users instinctively associate you with the brands you link to.
  • Content that contains a lot of data increases engagement, shares and trust.
  • Google’s Search Quality Raters look for outbound links.

Google isn’t going to give you a major ranking boost for having a lot of outbound links in your content. However, a user engaging with your content is going to spend more time on the page and trust your message more if you link to reputable third-party sources. Likewise, Google’s team of Search Quality Raters are going to be looking for this when they assess the quality of publishers’ pages, which means this is clearly something Google expects to see (more on this later).

The key term there is ‘reputable’ because Google will notice if you’re linking to a bunch of questionable websites and this is where link penalties come in. Luckily, you can protect yourself from any potential penalties by using the right link attributes.

Should you ‘no-follow’ outbound links?

Google doesn’t give a great reward for linking to websites it considers high-quality and relevant to your content. That said, Google can give out hefty punishments if you link to pages considered low-quality or highly irrelevant to your content.

This is where nofollow links come in, which allow you to tell Google that you’re not endorsing the page linked to.

As of March 2020, Google is making changes to how it handles nofollow links. Previously, Google would simply ignore links marked with nofollow tags, meaning no reward gets passed on to the external page and you don’t get punished for linking to it.

This allowed SEOs to use regular links for reputable sources and nofollow links for more questionable pages. This was an important strategy for posting guest blogs with external links, user-generated content and other instances where you can’t control which sources are being linked to.

So what’s changed?

Well, Google is no longer going to ignore nofollow links entirely. It will treat these as “hints” that you want it to decide whether the page linked to deserves any credit, theoretically protecting you from any negative impact while passing on credit when it’s deserved.

Google is also adding two new link attributes, meaning you now have three options to choose from:

  1. rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.
  2. rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user-generated content, such as comments and forum posts.
  3. rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

You can find out more about these changes by reading our guide to nofollow links in 2020.

As a general rule, you don’t need to nofollow outbound links but it’s good practice to use the relevant link attribute (above) when you’re not confident about the quality of the site you’re linking to.

Ideally, though, you want to be linking to high-quality sources wherever possible.

What we learned from Google’s Search Quality Rating guidelines

Earlier, I mentioned that Google’s team of Search Quality Raters look for outbound links when they’re assessing the quality of content. You’ll find clues of this in Google’s Search Quality Rating guidelines (PDF), where the concept of E-A-T as a measure of expertise, authority and trustworthiness originates from.

“Often very high quality news content will include a description of primary sources and other original reporting referenced during the content creation process. Very high quality news content must be accurate and should meet professional journalistic standards.” – Google Search Quality Rating Guidelines

In all forms of publishing, it’s standard practice to cite authoritative, third-party sources to reinforce the points you make. This proves the authenticity of your message. These citations need to be attributed and, for online publishing, this requires you to create outbound links to the original source.

Back in August 2019, Google reiterated this point after a large number of websites were hit by core algorithm updates related to E-A-T. In a post entitled What webmasters should know about Google core updates, it mentioned a lack of outbound links or low-quality outbound links as a potential reason for being hit.

“Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?”

Essentially, it all comes back to establishing trust with the user. People reading your content want to know they can trust what you’re saying and a good set of outbound links gives you an authoritative seal of approval. Likewise, Google needs users to trust the results it delivers and this means the search engine has a vested interest in seeing this kind of link in your content, too.

Using outbound links to improve your E-A-T

Based on Google’s Search Quality Rating guidelines and recent comments from the search giant itself, outbound links have a clear impact on E-A-T. Not all outbound links are good links though, so here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Primary sources: Reference the original source, not sources citing other sources.
  • Recency: Reference recent, up-to-date sources – ideally no older than two years.
  • Accuracy: Ensure you are linking to accurate, trustworthy sources.
  • Update: Update your outbound links to ensure they still point to the most up-to-date, accurate info.
  • Quality: Link to high-quality, trusted sources wherever possible.
  • Link attributes: Use link attributes (e.g. nofollow) when you’re not sure about the quality or relevance of a source.

As a general rule, any time you state a fact, include stats or make a claim, back it up with a reference to an external site or your own research.

If you haven’t been following these principles with your content marketing strategy, this is something you should add to your process of updating old content. And, if you’re still trying to recover from ranking drops after recent core algorithm updates, make sure this is part of your recovery strategy.

How many should you have per page?

The answer to this question really depends on the type of content you’re creating. If you’re publishing a list of 50+ stats on a subject then it makes sense that you’re going to have 50 or more links pointing to where this data is coming from.

This article has a total of six outbound links and four internal links pointing to another page on our website. I could have easily included more links in this article, as long as it was done so naturally.

If your content benefits from including third-party data, stats, graphs, quotes etc, include as many of as you need to and link to each of them once. As long as these links are pointing to high-quality and relevant pages, you’re not going to have any problems. We’ve seen publishers increase outbound links from 1-2 per 1,500 words to an average of 16-18 and see a positive impact.

Again, that’s an extreme example but it helps illustrate that there’s no such thing as “too many” outbound links. It’s all about quality and relevance.

Just keep in mind that outbound links provide an opportunity for users to click away from your website. Don’t be afraid of using outbound links because of this but be a little strategic about how you format them. Try to keep outbound links as subtle as possible and make internal links to other pages on your site more visually prominent.

Outbound links have been widely known to be a ranking factor since 2009 although the importance has been debated. Even if we ignore the ranking benefits of outbound links, it’s important to remember the role they play in quality content; using third-party data to reinforce points, citing references, proving the validity of your data choices, increasing trust with the user, etc.

Also, keep in mind that every outbound link is an inbound link for the recipient page and link building can’t function without this. SEOs and brands have a reciprocal duty to keep this process alive by linking to content that deserves promoting.

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Kerry Dye profile picture
Kerry Dye

Kerry has been working in digital marketing almost since the beginning of the World Wide Web, designing her first website in 1995 and moving fully into the industry in 1996 to work for one of the very first web design companies. After a successful four years, Kerry moved to an in-house position for a sailing company, running the digital presence of their yacht races including SEO, PPC and email marketing as the primary channels. A stint then followed at another in-house role as online marketing manager. Kerry moved to Vertical Leap in 2007, making her one of the company’s longest-serving employees. As a T-shaped marketer – able to advise on digital strategy outside her main specialism – she rose through the ranks and in 2012 became the head of the Small and Medium Business (SMB) SEO team. In 2022 she became Vertical Leap's Automation and Process Manager. Kerry lives in the historic town of Bishops Waltham with her husband and daughter. When she’s not at work she enjoys cooking proper food, curling up with a good book and being a leader for Brownie and Rainbow Guides.

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