Google dismisses the idea that outgoing links are considered a direct ranking signal – but tests have proven otherwise.
Who should SEOs believe? Why should we link out at all?
When asked about the impact of outgoing links on “link juice,” Google’s John Mueller flatly ignored the question stating again that any advice containing the term “link juice” should not be taken seriously.
Thus, we have to research a little deeper and go back a few years to find out.
Incoming vs. outgoing links: Do they both matter?
So what’s the difference between outgoing (outbound) and. incoming (inbound) links?
This infographic by Morningscore explains it pretty well.
Most people in the SEO industry and beyond agree that links to your site alias incoming links, also called inbound links or backlinks, matter.
Inbound links are still an important ranking factor on Google.
While the search engine continuously adds other signals to refine results, the original Google algorithm is based on counting and assessing the value of incoming links.
More complex additions like the RankBrain algorithm or the concept of expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (E-A-T) ensure that only usable, credible and content-rich sites get ranked on top.
Yet the ranking itself still heavily relies on good old editorial links – those leading “back” to your site.
But what about outgoing links (i.e., links from your site to others)?
That has been an evergreen debate among SEO practitioners and marketers alike.
Let’s recap what we know about (outgoing) links first.
Mueller repeatedly said that they are not a direct ranking signal. Yet he and many SEOs still advocate linking out.
- One approach could be called the egoistic one. It assumes that you have to hoard the authority you get from other sites by way of links. Thus, linking out as rarely as possible in order not to lose that authority, link value or “equity”.
- The other approach (I abide by) is the rather altruistic one. It assumes that the web is built on links (hence hypertext as in hyperlinks) and the more you are interconnected with other sites – both ways – the better.
Why are SEO experts scared to link out?
Not only beginner-level SEOs are often literally scared to link out. Some experienced SEO experts are also not keen on risking their site authority on outgoing links. Why is that?
There are actually instances when Google penalizes sites for linking out or simply algorithmically reduces their ranking.
Here are a few examples.
Bad neighborhoods are often websites that are dealing either with adult subjects or gray areas like prescription-free drugs and gambling. They are also referred to as 3P (porn, pills and poker).
Other obvious examples are so-called “warez” or copyright infringement sites in general.
That said, even legit but low-quality sites you link to may have some detrimental impact.
Link schemes (i.e., reciprocal links, link farms)
“Link schemes” is a Google term describing all kinds of “unnatural” links meant to increase the chances of ranking on Google organically.
Reciprocal links (I link to you so that you link to me) or link farms (interlinked sites just created, acquired or paid for the links) are common examples.
Such links may get demoted by Google or lead to an “unnatural links” penalty.
Text link ads
Text link ads or in Google’s words “paid links” are links to other sites you have been paid for one way or another.
These payments can be sponsorships, donations or free products as well.
When in doubt, Google may penalize you for outbound links you have received some kind of remuneration for.
Google wants you to add the “sponsored” attribute to such links. The same procedure also applies to paid reviews you have been asked to place on your site.
User-generated content (UGC)
UGC are comments, forum entries or any type of submitted content without editorial oversight linking out to third-party sites – which are also risky.
Google advises you to use the “UGC” link attribute on such links. Check all contributions prior to publication ideally.
Guest posts, widgets, infographics, etc.
Over the years, Google has added a lot of common SEO techniques to the list of unnatural link practices. Some widely used link building techniques like guest posts, widgets and infographics were among them.
Thus, when you have some of those on your site, you are required to use the “nofollow” link attribute on outbound links associated with them.
Broken, or dead links that have been linked out to reputable resources, may overnight become hazardous to your site’s health.
It’s not just the SEO issues. You also risk your reputation when visitors end up on defunct sites, error pages or parked domains.
Monitor and fix broken or redirected links regularly. The latter ones can be even more harmful as deceptive sites won’t always send an error code but instead a “200” OK to fool you to link to them.
No wonder many SEO experts got more and more reserved when it comes to linking out. Some of them only link to Wikipedia or the like “for the potential SEO benefit of linking out.”
Others play it safe by adding “nofollow” to all outbound links even though Mueller also stated that there is no benefit in that either.
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What does Google say about the benefits of outgoing links?
Despite all the possible pitfalls (I didn’t even list all of them), there are also benefits to linking out – both for Google and also for the website owners who do it.
In 2019, Mueller published an actual video on linking out and why it matters. At 1:19, he specifically encouraged linking to other sites that “offer additional value and more context.”
Given Google’s increased focus on E-A-T criteria in the ranking algorithm, linking out to established sources and experts has additional benefits.
What does that mean specifically?
How do you prove authority? You literally add the author’s name and short bio, then link out to their website and social media accounts.
Anonymous posts by “admin” as the default author on WordPress are usually called or outsourced content that has no name attached to it.
Such content is, of course, far less convincing to potential readers and also Google algorithms.
Even accomplished experts usually rely on the work of others.
By citing and ideally quoting sources from scholars in academia, journalists and bloggers ensure their expertise is backed up by others.
Linking out to sources, especially highly credible ones like universities, government agencies or leading publications (think The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal), establishes credibility even if you’re not a world-renowned expert yourself yet.
No matter how extensively you cover a topic, there is always something to “read more” you haven’t mentioned. This goes beyond just crediting sources.
Assuming that you have satisfied the reader and they are still interested, you are welcome to add more resources on the subject matter to broaden the scope of your content.
Linking out to content that elaborates on some aspects you haven’t covered in-depth yet is a good idea to enhance a trustworthy article.
The web in general also benefits from sites actively linking out as sites devoid of outgoing links tend to become dead ends in the worst case.
Proving the direct SEO impact of outgoing links
Luckily, we don’t just have to rely on Google’s words.
Some SEOs have actively looked for an answer by simply testing whether there is a positive impact of outgoing links.
And there is!
Opinions are always to be considered with a grain of salt in the SEO world. Actual tests are often more reliable.
The people of Reboot Online, “a data-driven SEO company,” have tested the potential effect of outbound links or lack thereof – not just once, but twice (first in 2016 and again in 2020).
As we can see above, the test sites which included outgoing links outranked the “stingy” sites that did not contain outgoing links.
Even test results may be biased of course, as the testers expected a positive impact. Reboot Founder Shai Aharony explains his motivation as follows:
“I’m repeatedly astonished at the numerous times we come across the absurd and old fashioned belief that Pagerank should be religiously kept within the site and that any outgoing links are ‘diluting’ your site’s authority…”
While it’s hard to ensure that a test only checks a particular ranking factor or hypothesis, SEO experiments can often provide useful hints for your ongoing optimization efforts.
In this case, the test has been repeated so that we can be pretty sure that the results are valid.
Ideally, you also conduct your own tests of course but it’s not an easy feat given the complexity of the current Google ranking algorithm.
Why do outgoing links make sense beyond SEO considerations?
Beyond the more or less obvious benefits that even Google spokespeople mention, there are many “social SEO” aspects of outgoing links that can ultimately improve your rankings or at least help you to gain traction in other ways.
Even if you still frown upon linking out to other websites for fear of risking your organic reach, here are some direct benefits of outbound links to be aware of before giving them up completely.
First of all, when you link to someone – and usually there is a person who runs a website and who may notice – you are “getting out there.”
Especially when you’re new in a given niche, industry or market you want to “say hello” by acknowledging those who came before you.
When I started a new blog in the past, I would usually make a list of “the best blogs” covering the specific topic the blog was meant to be about.
As a welcome side effect, those lists not only would draw in other, already-established bloggers to my fairly new publication. They would usually also rank on top of Google for phrases like [(topic) blog].
Looking back at blogging about SEO for 15+ years I have to admit that many of my most valuable connections and often clients have been a direct result of my linking out to someone.
Of course, numerous links did not get noticed, have been ignored or were acknowledged without any significant reciprocation.
Yet those that did actually start a conversation and a process of relationship building have helped me a lot over the years.
This is especially important for “introverts” who usually don’t go to conferences, meetups or trade fairs.
Give and take
Once you link out you give the present of attention, appreciation and often support. Even if you disagree with what you link, the vote has been counted by Google.
We have been primed for mutual aid for literally millions of years so when you receive a gift from someone, you are usually likely to reciprocate sooner or later. At least you are much more open-minded to suggestions down the road.
Many people in the SEO industry reach out to a list of “100 prospects” and get a response rate of like 2%. Their main mistake is that they are contacting strangers out of the blue and asking for favors right away.
Even if you don’t enjoy socializing with like-minded individuals working in the same industry, you are thus motivated to be friendly and literally make friends or “build relationships.”
No single person or even entity is all-knowing. Even Google can’t answer all queries in a satisfactory way. Thus while creating content, we will always rely on other people’s expertise.
Even if you just rephrase it without directly quoting, you will probably not cover everything in as much depth as possible – so here comes the link.
You can simply link to other content without having to reinvent the wheel and can stand on the shoulders of giants. This is a much better user experience than letting the visitor hang and not being able to cover the topic extensively enough for every reader.
Let people read more elsewhere or check out the details you only mention without a lot of background.
Don’t be afraid that they will leave the site. They will be more likely to return given the positive user experience.
How to link out to make it count
Now that you are considering linking out for SEO or other benefits, you probably ask yourself how to link out to have a positive impact on your site. Follow these tips.
Do not add a ‘nofollow’ when you don’t have to
Some publishers and blogs add nofollow tags to all outgoing links in order to minimize any potential risks of linking out.
Yet, that’s like saying that all of your content is untrustworthy and lacks editorial control. Not only is there no gain from it, but there is also an additional risk of appearing low quality.
Make sure to treat each link individually. Add nofollow tags only when needed.
Editorial links should be treated accordingly – as proper links with no potentially discrediting attributes.
Check and update outgoing links regularly
Once you link out you vouch to some extent for the resource you link to. After all, you ensure the validity of the content you effectively recommend.
Even if you disagree with the information you link to, you at least assign enough importance to it to send your visitors that way. Thus, it’s also advisable to check such links on existing content regularly.
On WordPress, that task can be automated. Whenever a resource disappears, you have to unlink it or better replace it.
No tool can warn you when third-party resources become outdated. Thus, it’s a good idea to check manually and regularly so that you don’t link to something that has been debunked or updated by now.
Another common shortcut is just linking out to Wikipedia instead of taking the time and looking up actual sources. That’s almost like saying, “just Google it!”
Most people have searched for a topic to find you and they have probably seen the Wikipedia entry above your result as well.
They want to learn more, not just find out the basics like the definition of the keyword.
Link out for users first, for SEO benefits second
Make sure that the resource you link to offers some “additional value” for the reader. Do not just link out for SEO benefit.
When someone notices you and ideally shares your content or, in the best case, links back it’s a nice-to-have.
In the search industry, sometimes, it’s better to link to Google directly (even though they don’t notice or link back) than to a blog that only rehashes the news.
In other cases, Google has only cryptic announcements you need some explanations on so a third-party blog is better.
Mention experts by name and ‘ping’ them
When you link out to actual experts from your niche, industry or country you may benefit from their audiences noticing your content as well.
In the past, WordPress pings ensured that every linked blogger would notice in their comment section.
As that pingback and trackback features have been abused over the years, most blogs have deactivated that feature.
You have to notify people manually again, like in the good old days before blogs. Mention experts you included by name and tell them that you linked to their content (on social media or by mail).
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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