Understand Outbound Links—And Why You Need Them

Understand Outbound Links - Concept Image

Do you Understand Outbound Links–and Do You Use Them?

Do you put outbound links in your blog articles or other pages? That is, do you put links that point to a website other than your own? Maybe you do. Maybe you just say “meh.” Maybe you don’t because you don’t want to risks sending your visitors to another site. If you’re new to blogging, you may not understand outbound links or why you might (or might not) use them.

Let’s get to a basic question…

What is an Outbound Link?

There’s nothing complicated about the idea of outbound links. They are simply links that point to another site from your site.

They’re the opposite of backlinks, which would link to your site from an external site. They are also different from internal links, which go from one page to another page within your website. Each of these types of links is useful in its own way, with the value of outbound links being somewhat disputed in the SEO world.

Well, I’ll state my opinion: Outbound links are an undervalued asset that is grossly under-rated. There’s good evidence that they are a ranking factor and an SEO best practice. For example, this study from Reboot Online claims that “although we don’t know and have not proved how powerful outgoing links are in the grand scheme of things, we have proved they do have a positive impact if used correctly.”

What You’ll Learn About Outbound Links in this Article

We’ll start by looking at how outbound links support SEO efforts. Next, we’ll look at a series of best practices for using outbound links, including how not to use them. Finally, we’ll hit a few common questions that cause a lot of discussion but don’t have simple answers.

It’s up to each person to determine how they will use outbound links in their website or blog, but it worth it to consider what kind of value they can add to your site. The vast majority of SEO experts say that outbound links add to SEO, user experience, and industry reputation—and I concur! I think by the end of this article you will, too.

And away we go!

Outbound links positively affect SEO.

It’s common knowledge that backlinks are the #1 factor in Google’s search algorithm. Internal links also have a positive impact (learn more here), particularly by distributing authority throughout your website and increase page rank. Outbound links have their own set of benefits.

Understand How Positive Links Affect SEO - Relevancy, Authority, Expertise - Concept Image
Understand how outbound links positively affect SEO: Relevancy, Authority, and Expertise

Outbound links benefit SEO because they:

  • Increase relevance and context: Your outbound links help search engines define your niche and show how you fit into it in relation to others. This relevancy assists in how your site is indexed and ranked for search results.
  • Increase authority and trustworthiness: Instead of just giving credit to a source, link out to articles that provide data points, back up your arguments, or otherwise help you create a better page or article. Linking out to high-authority websites shows you’ve taken extra steps to create high-quality content, which increases your trust and authority scores for page ranking.
  • Send topical expertise signals: Google’s algorithm will recognize your expertise on a topic when you have a “cluster” of internal links on your website. Your relevant outbound links on a particular topic will add to the strength of this topic cluster. It’s only natural that you can’t provide all the information everyone might want on a topic, so it makes sense to link out to experts that can provide topical information that is outside of your scope. This is especially true when writing about complex topics, as may be the case in technology-focused B2B industries.

Outbound links provide value to readers.

When you provide value to readers, you will ultimately increase page ranking and traffic. When deciding whether or not to include outbound links, always think like your reader. Will it provide them with valuble, relevant information or not?

  • User Experience: When people conduct research on the web, your outbound links save them you. By pointing them to additional relevant information, you save them time and prove yourself to be a valuable resource. You help create a positive user experience. This improves your reputation and makes them more likely to view you favorably in the future—such as clicking one of your links on a search page instead of a competing link. Over time, this will increase authority, page ranking, and organic traffic.
  • Build industry relationships: You can establish and strengthen industry relationships by linking to other bloggers, industry experts, and companies. You refer traffic to them and demonstrate to your readers that the site you point to is credible. This may make it easy for you to reach out to them in other ways. It may also encourage them to reach out to you, link to or make a comment on one of your blog posts, or share it on their social channels.

Best Practices for Outbound Links

There are no hard and fast rules for outbound links, but there are important guidelines to follow. If you create outbound links wisely, you’ll have positive outcomes. If you aren’t careful, two things can happen: Either you’ll get no benefit or do yourself harm. These tips will get you going in the right direction.

  1. Link to high-authority trusted sources: Travel with worthy companions. When you link to an external site, make sure you want to be associated with them. This means linking to resources that are high-authority and trustworthy. Some of the things I consider, especially if using a source to cite recent data, are:
  • Is it relevant to my topic? If not, don’t use it! It’s useless to readers and may even hurt your ranking.
  • Is the article fresh? How recently the article was published or updated matters–sometimes more than others. For example, if my blog focuses on statistics for 2011, I don’t want my source to be based on a study from 2002. In other cases, the article is recent, but it provides old source material. However, if the information is not time-based, recency is of less importance. Nonetheless, when given a choice (all other things being equal) I’ll choose the most recent source data.
  • Is the author credible? If I’m not familiar with the author, website, or publication, I may check out other articles they wrote, where they’ve been published, if they are associated with industry associations and signs of authenticity.
  • Does the website have authority? I often go for sites that are well-known and respected in the industry and where they rank on the results page. Does it cite the source itself?
  • Link naturally: Only link when it makes sense to do so. The first rule for any content is to think of your readers first. Only include links that are relevant, add value, or provide cites to your source information.
  • Focus on your niche: Linking to websites and blogs within your niche will help you attract visitors that you are most interested in.
  • Leverage Social: You can get more eyeballs by linking to articles that have a high number of social media shares. However, make sure you only link to a reputable company’s or contributor’s channel.
  • Use “nofollow” and “follow” appropriately: On the back end, there are guidelines about coding the link as “followed” links and nofollowlinks.Followed means that search engines can follow these links and that they add editorial value to the article. Nofollow links don’t let search engines follow them through to the other website. You should use no-follow generally for items that monetize your blog—such as selling ads, banners, certain texts, and sponsored posts.
  • Identify problems with outbound links:  You can use tools like SEMrush’s free Site Audit Tool (paid version available) to outbound links marked as “nofollow” and make sure you are using it correctly. You’ll also want to check that no links are broken with a tool (free or paid) such as ahref’s broken link checker. —such as following them to other site pages that no longer exist. Another good tool is ahref’s broken link check.
  • Use anchor text correctly: Anchor text is the clickable words readers to reach the linked-to page. In internal links, you want to focus on the keyword of the pages you’re linking to. There’s no need to consider this for outbound links. If you want to use the keyword for the page you’re working on, make sure it fits naturally and isn’t forced.

RELATED POST: Internal Linking for SEO — [Section: Linking Techniques and Strategies, Bullet 3]

Avoid Outbound Link Problems

Avoide problems that will make your outbound links backfire.
Avoid problems that will make your outbound links backfire.

Outbound links are useful in all the ways discussed, but they’re not always appropriate. Here are some things not to do with your outbound link strategy:

  • Navigation: Using outbound links in your navigation confuses users, who expect links in your navigation to take them to other pages on your site.
  • Landing Pages: Outbound links onSign-ups and other pages focused on driving action will drastically drop conversion.
  • Gated materials: This is seriously inconsiderate to companies who are using gated materials to drive leads and get contact information.
  • Backlinking Networks: Reciprocal linking happens when two or more websites link to each other. It’s not unusual or unnatural to have reciprocal links, but Google’s Webmaster Guidelines warns against what it calls “excessive link exchanges.” Google penalizes scams like “link farms” that help website “unnaturally” gain authority and higher page rankings.
  • Top of Form and Bottom of Form: Except in rare circumstances, do send traffic away from your high-converting landing pages. Instead, write brief, compelling, benefits-oriented copy that will drive visitors to action.
  • Overdoing Outbound Links: Having too many links can confuse readers, especially when they are visually unappealing. Further, you can repeatedly send visitors away from your site, eventually causing them to abandon. Further, it can also look “spammy” to Google, reducing SEO value. So how many links are appropriate? This may vary on the type of article or industry. A B2B blog on a fairly general topic might support 5-10 links. A more technical article may require more outbound links to cite sources or point to more complete information. Articles like “50 Best Blog Posts” will naturally be expected to have at least 50 links. When deciding on the number of outbound links, consider page length, complexity, and your readers’ needs.

RELATED POST: Reduce Bounce Rates (Section 7)

A Few Common Questions About Outbound Links

What about linking to competitors’ websites?

Some content marketers fear losing potential leads by linking to competitors’ websites. Others, however, frequently link to them. When looking at the pros and cons, the pros clearly win the day:

CONS: You lose leads by sending them to your competitor.

PROS:

  • Like other outbound links, pointing to competitors sites supports relationship building and openly participating in the web community.
  • When you consider what will most help your reader as they explore a topic, you build trust and may encourage repeat visitors.
  • Linking to others in your space helps Google put your website in context and understand how to rank you.
  • In the spirit of partnership, linking out may even encourage backlinks from like-minded competitors.

Should my outbound link open a new window, a new tab, or neither?

This topic opens up a can of worms. A 2020 study by the Nielsen Norman Group (nnGroup) makes many valid (and proven) points. They state that, overall, “There is generally one good reason to open a page in a new window, and that is that the user will need to refer to that content to complete a task in another window.” They also bring up the fact that opening up new tabs makes life difficult for the growing army of mobile internet users and can lose users from your site—particularly because they can’t use the back-button to get back to your site.

At the same time, the experts from UX Movement state that “Links that take users to different websites should open in new tabs. Links that take users to a different on the same website should open in the same tab.” They continue by saying that opening external links in the same tab as your site results in inaccurate analytics and makes your users’ work harder and slower.

In the end, you’ll have to consider your audience, how they consume information, and other factors. As always, testing may be your best answer.

Conclusion: Outbound links are often not given enough credit.

Now that you understand more about outbound links, you likely agree that using them is more than worth your while. They help with SEO, your industry reputation, user experience on your site, and more. While there are some caveats about what to avoid, outbound links deserve their rightful place in your linking strategy.

You may be convinced of the value of outbound links but may be uncertain how to apply these guidelines to your website. The best advice is to create content using an experienced copywriter and content creator who can properly use outbound links to support your digital strategy.

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