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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
Speak to our team of experts today on 02392 830281 or submit your details here and we’ll call you.
Kerry is Head of SMB SEO. Kerry started her digital marketing career with a web design company back in 1996, then moved in-house as a digital marketing manager before moving back to the agency fold with Vertical Leap as an SEO specialist in 2006, moving to the department head role in 2011. She currently lives in Bishop's Waltham with her husband and daughter.
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