Anastasia Osypenko
Dec 18, 2020 | 23 min read

When working on your content, you probably read a lot of resources to understand the subject matter and see what others have to say about it. Regardless of your niche and the topics you cover, you are likely to refer to some facts and studies or quote someone. This is when the question of external linking comes to the surface. When do you absolutely need to link out? Can outbound links harm your rankings? How to learn if the source is credible? How many links are too many? These and other questions have evoked many myths about the impact outgoing links have on SEO. Let’s get all of it straightened out.

In this article, we’ll review how outbound links influence search engine rankings and how to link out to the right sources in the most beneficial way.

What is an external link?

Any link that is present on your website and goes to another website is an outbound, or external, link. These links can be:

  • placed in text, images, or buttons
  • attributed as dofollow or nofollow, with the latter telling search engines not to vouch for the link (more of that later)
  • visible or hidden from website visitors

Naturally placed external links are usually underlined or marked by another color.

Examples of external links on a page

In the HTML code, a link looks like this:

Read our <a href="http://www.yoursite.com/post">recent post</a> to learn about the latest SEO trends.

Here, <a> is an HTML tag for hyperlinks, href is an attribute specifying the link’s destination, and “recent post” is an anchor text describing to readers what they will open if they follow the link. We will explain other technicalities such as additional link attributes a bit later.

For now, let’s discover how vital external linking is for SEO. Learn what you should do to boost your website’s rankings with the help of outbound links and what you shouldn’t do to avoid any damage.

How external links influence your SEO?

It’s more obvious how external links help user experience: by including relevant links, you make it easier for readers to explore some materials they might be interested in and learn more about some details or facts you mention. With outbound links you also build credibility: for instance, if you make statements which involve statistics, website visitors might want to feel that this is information they can trust, check, and refer to. 

But how much different is the search engine’s perspective on your website and the external links you use? In fact, it’s in many ways similar to a user’s view. Linking out to other sites can help you:

  • Boost your reach and initiate link building relationships. When you link out to another website, it’s an opportunity to reach out to them and establish potential link building relationships. For example, if you’re writing a blog post on top productivity apps and include links to each of them, you can contact their sites’ owners or representatives and encourage them to include your article in their newsletters and social media. Or, if your site represents such an app, you can reach out to a media source you found useful and referred to, and they might promote your product in response.

We’ve asked several industry experts to provide their comments and linked to them in our post on guest blogging—and got some favorable feedback and shares:

  • Add value to your website. Among other things, search engines consider what websites link to you and what sources you link out to. This is how search engines learn how authoritative your website is. And the more they trust your content, the more likely you are to rank well. 
  • Improve your rankings. While there’s no documented correlation between high rankings and external linking, the latter has always been included in the lists of top ranking factors. Reboot’s study conducted in 2016 and then again in 2020 confirmed that relevant outbound links to authoritative sources positively impact website’s rankings.

When outbound links negatively affect your SEO?

Certainly, you can reap the benefits of external linking only if it’s properly done—that is, if you evaluate carefully what you include in your content and always check the websites you’re linking out to. So, in what cases can an outbound link cause you damage?

  • When you link out to spammy sites. Websites crowded with links and ads are not friendly to users and are not considered valuable by Google and other search engines. 
  • When there are too many links. We will discuss this issue in more detail further; to put it simply, if a web page is riddled with links, it’s not helpful for readers and not good for your SEO.
  • When you’re involved in excessive link exchange. Back in the day, backlink networks helped websites quickly gain authority regardless of the quality of their content and structure. But after Google introduced their Panda update in 2011, the mutual linking schemes ceased to exist. Immoderate linking is identified as a harmful link scheme so don’t put any links just for the sake of cross-linking.

What makes a helpful external link?

There are two principles that make outbound links effective: first, the source has to be credible, and second, it has to be relevant to the content of the page you put the link in. Let’s review these two principles more closely. 

Credibility and trust markers

How can you know when the website is spammy and when it is trustworthy besides just visiting it and evaluating how it looks like? You should check several parameters:

  • Domain authority. There are different metrics that evaluate domain quality and SE Ranking has its own—the Domain Trust score. It puts a domain on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100, and the bigger is the score, the higher the quality of the domain’s backlink profile. However, this metric can be manipulated so don’t rely solely on it without considering other factors.
  • Domain history. You can visit the Wayback Machine and check the domain’s archive to learn more about its early days and consistency throughout its history.
  • Website security. Ensure a source you’re going to quote uses a safe protocol and doesn’t have any security-related issues. To learn more, check our post on website security.
  • Anchor texts. Check what anchor text is used by sources linking out to a website you’re interested in. If you find anchor texts spammy or stuffed with commercial keywords or brand names, then it’s probably not your best choice. Use SE Ranking’s Backlink Checker to analyze anchor texts.
  • Keywords a website ranks for. It’s important to review what search queries your analyzed website is shown for. SE Ranking’s Competitive Analysis gives you a list of keywords a domain ranks for—analyze them for quality and relevancy to the industry. 
  • Balance between referring and linked domains. In the Competitive Analysis tool, you’ll see the number of referring domains. It’s a good idea to also check the number of linked domains, for example, in Ahrefs or another tool. If you spot a significant imbalance, it may be a sign of a low-quality source.
  • Quality of backlinks. Go through the top website’s backlinks to see if there aren’t any from spammy sources. For more details on backlink quality, read our post on key backlink parameters.
  • Geographical distribution of traffic. Learn which users from what locations account for a domain’s traffic. You can use tools like Similar Web to do so.
  • Top performing pages. Get to know a website better by checking which pages bring most traffic to it. SE Ranking’s Competitive Analysis has the Pages section that displays a full list of website’s URLs with the information on how much traffic they get and how many keywords they have.

When you’ve learned about all the credibility aspects of a given domain, check a specific page you want to refer to:

  • Quality of the content. This factor comes naturally as you’ve probably read through what you want to use in your content. Make sure the page tells exactly what you mean to indicate and follows Google’s EAT and YMYL criteria.
  • Page’s traffic and keywords. Check how much traffic a page gets and how relevant are the keywords it ranks for.
  • Actual presence in the search results. Input a keyword in the search box to learn if the page is actually understood correctly by search engines.

In the process of creating content, you will build a base of sources you trust but it never hurts to recheck every aspect not to end up making connections with an inappropriate website.

The importance of relevance

To assist searchers in the best way possible, search engines have learned to understand how different topics are connected to each other and have matured enough to distinguish irrelevant content that it is linked to. With that said, when you support some statement with an external link, it must be a source that is relevant to what your content is about. Comprehensive anchor texts also have to be relevant and help readers understand what they’ll get if they follow the link. We’ll discuss anchor text best practices later on.

Finally, you might consider referring to the most recent information as Google has a freshness algorithm that assesses how fresh a page is considering the overall volume of newly published content about a given topic.

Best practices of external linking 

We’ve shed some light on what outgoing links are and why you need them. Now, let’s move through all the stages of the linking process, making it clear what practices to follow and what mistakes to avoid.

How to search for external content to link out to

For a thoroughly researched article, searching for external links is never an issue, as they will most probably be naturally included. For example, you’re writing about the cost of software development and to support your statements, you look for salary statistics, which is an obvious factor. So it’s not about finding sources to link out to but rather about making sure they are relevant and credible.

On the other hand, writing about something you don’t need to consult with external sources on, you might feel that the article lacks some links. In this case, you can do extra research by exploring your niche and looking for pages that might contain something of value for your readers. But it should come naturally—there’s no point in adding outbound links just for the sake of linking.

If you’re at the initial research stage, you can explore potential topics and external websites to link to with the help of Google’s related operator. Search for pages semantically related to your domain or page by typing related:yousite.com.

Google's related operator

Another thing you can do to ensure you’re linking to an authoritative source is checking social media shares. There are numerous online tools available that allow you to check the number of shares a given URL has across a variety of social media channels. This can give an idea of how popular an external source is.

Is it bad to link to your competitors?

You may wonder if it’s bad to link out to your competitors. The short answer is no, but only if your readers will benefit from it. Exploring your niche and looking for topics worth covering, you learn what competitor websites have to say, how they structure their content, and what keywords they use. 

If your competitor just has a similar piece of content, you don’t need to cite it but rather write something better—do additional research and probably consult more external sources to provide readers with new insights. Although, if a competitor’s article speaks of some original research or survey, you can reference it for sure as you want your readers to get all the information they need. 

How many outbound links do you need?

When it comes to linking, there’s always a question of quantity and balance, in other words, a question of ‘how many external links are too many.’ But there’s no strict formula because what matters here is how naturally placed those links are and whether they provide additional value to readers. 

Even this study dedicated to finding the perfect number of outbound links per page doesn’t give a clear answer. A correlation has been spotted between the number of links and a page’s rankings with the median number being 19 but it’s hard to be sure that it’s the links that have brought the pages to the top.

Obviously, 50+ links for an average-sized post is not a good idea. You should include as many links as a user can process while reading or scrolling through the page. Your niche also influences linking intensity: it makes more sense to cite data sources in a research-based article on tech and science than weigh down a product description post with links.  

Glance through your piece of content and try analyzing it from the perspective of a user who’s just gotten to this page to find helpful information. If external links distract readers, pushing them to leave your website or engage with your content less actively, then it’s obviously a problem. If they seem natural, there’s nothing to worry about. 

How to include external links in your content

We’ve argued that relevance is key in outbound linking. But there are certain rules beyond the issue of relevance that you should follow to make the most out of external links. First of all, there are clear purposes they should serve. Let us say that again, if a source that is being linked to doesn’t provide anything of interest to your target audience, you should avoid linking to it. 

You can use outbound links to:

  • back up any factual information
  • quote someone
  • give credit to sources you’ve used and found helpful

Where you can’t put an outbound link?

Certain segments of your web pages can’t have external links naturally placed in them:

  • Any navigational element: as the name suggests, they help users navigate through a website and serve for a seamless user experience so it’s rarely the case that you should navigate your visitors to an external source. Site navigation is where internal linking plays a vital role.
  • Elements hidden from users: hiding a link or a part of link text with the help of CSS may be considered deceptive by search engines.
  • Headings and first sentences: including a link in article headings or starting a paragraph with a link are not user-friendly practices.
  • Landing pages: when you’re trying to sell a product or service, you probably don’t want anything to push visitors away from what you’re offering. The only thing you can link to is a rating platform like Clutch that features your profile with reviews.

How to write and mark anchor text

Anchor text is how you describe an external link and how you fit it into the context of the sentence. It has to be clear anchor text related to what is contained on the page you’re referring to. The best practices include:

  • Being clear and using descriptive language. It’s important to indicate what the source you’re linking to features.

The example below shows a simple and natural way of backing a source that was used:

Example of clear anchor text

While the following example is a bit unclear about what’s waiting on the other end for users who follow the link: if it’s the study itself, it would be better to include the word “study” in the anchor text.

Example of unclear anchor text
  • Optimizing the length. As with the number of links, there’s no magic formula on the lengths of the anchor text. It’s crucial to keep it visually comprehensible and nondisruptive to the user experience. If you feel it’s absolutely necessary to include the whole phrase in the anchor text and it doesn’t look disturbing, do it like it’s done in the example below.
When anchor text is too long

If you’re using keywords in the anchor text, avoid keyword stuffing. You can go for one long-tail keyword to describe the link clearly.

  • Making anchor texts stand out. You should always visually accentuate links. Besides the default blue color or underlining, websites mark links in all kinds of ways. If it matches the visual style of your site, consider using some other color.
Marking external links with another color

However, don’t use the link color for non-linked text and if you underline links, don’t underline any other text. Since blue is common for links, don’t use it for non-link text even if you make links in another color. These simple rules will help you make everything obvious for visitors and not confuse them. 

  • Being consistent. On top of everything we’ve mentioned, it’s important to keep consistency in link behavior and appearance. If you underline external links, don’t make exceptions, and if you vote for short anchor texts, don’t randomly use unnecessarily long ones.

The myth about opening links in new tabs

Most guides on external linking will encourage you to make them available only in a new tab. It seems obvious as this way users won’t abandon your page while reading. However, it’s not that simple. Some user experience designers claim that it’s not reasonable to change the default link behavior, which is being opened in the same tab, and some SEO and marketing specialists support this idea.

From an accessibility standpoint, opening a new tab can damage user experience, especially if we’re taking mobile users into account. Plus, it may be a security vulnerability as the target=”_blank” attribute responsible for opening links in a new tab can negatively affect the site’s performance. 

If you do decide to add this attribute to the external links you use, make sure to follow the guidelines to prevent any security problems: add rel=”noopener” or rel=”noreferrer” to the external link code. However, if you use the rel=”noreferrer” and no additional referral tags, you won’t see the referral traffic from the link in Google Analytics. Some experts advise to warn users that a link will open in a new tab, for example, by indicating this inside of after an anchor text.

Warning that a link will open in a new tab

Attribute values of outbound links explained: Nofollow, Sponsored, UGC

In the HTML code, the rel attribute specifies a relationship between a page that contains a link and a page that is being linked out to. There are different values of the rel attribute but we’ll focus on those that help search engines understand the link. The difference between dofollow and nofollow links is the most important thing you should know but there are also additional attribute values for marking external links of specific type.

Is Nofollow appropriate?

The nofollow value tells search engine robots not to follow the link, while dofollow, as its title suggests, does the opposite. The nofollowed link code will look like this:

There’s a <a href="https://site.com/page" rel="nofollow">different opinion</a> on the topic.

There’s a common belief that all external links should be attributed as nofollow not to damage the link equity. You still can find many guides that recommend using nofollow for outgoing links “for the sake of SEO.”

However, it doesn’t make much sense to make all the links nofollow. This attribute value was introduced by Google in 2005 as a reaction to aggressive link exchange and spam. Companies would pay to have links pointing out to them and users would leave comments with various links on reputable websites. These actions resulted in incorrect rankings and, consequently, new measures such as nofollow. Not long after its introduction, because of spammy edits, Wikipedia switched to nofollow only and many other major sites were reconsidering their attitude towards outbound links. 

But as indexation rules evolved, new rel attribute values were introduced for dealing with links to sources you don’t want to pass credit to. In 2019, specific values were created to mark sponsored or user-generated links. Furthermore, as there were too many nofollow links across the web, Google changed the rules and made nofollow a hint—not a directive—for crawling and indexing purposes starting from March, 2020.

When you naturally include external links, it means you’ve used them and you trust them. So it’s really pointless to use nofollow. Speaking of major websites prioritizing this attribute value, Patrick Stox claims that “If you can’t trust the people adding links to their articles, they shouldn’t be writing for you in the first place.” And as Bobby Holland puts it, nofollowing outbound links is “the equivalent of not adding any outbound links to your content.”

UGC and sponsored links

With all that in mind, when is it appropriate to nofollow a link? As we’ve mentioned, there are rel attribute values designed for sponsored and user-generated content. They both prevent search engines from following the link but it’s important to use them specifically instead of nofollow

  • UGC is intended for comments and forum posts. You can use UGC for links dropped in comments on your site, telling Google that it’s not your choice to endorse those sources. 
  • Sponsored should go with partner links: if it’s a paid link and you don’t mark it as sponsored, you might get a penalty from Google.

It’s important to use these attribute values and not just stick to nofollow as this way, you’ll be telling Google more about your website’s relation to the linked content.

Monitoring and fixing external links

Let’s say you’ve put your best efforts into creating valuable content and linking out to the best relevant sources. But the work with links is never final: it’s best to track them and fix those that break over time. 

You can use Google Analytics tracking scripts to see how much traffic you’re driving to the websites you’re linking to. This information can then be used to give you credibility and establish relationships with other sites for getting backlinks and guest post opportunities. To track your outgoing links, create triggers in Google Tag Manager and monitor what links your readers open.

It’s also important to regularly check if outbound links on your website are functioning properly. Broken links can damage both user experience and your site’s rankings. When crawlers stumble on too many 404 errors, the website’s authority drops in the eyes of search engines. In case of broken external links, you can reach out to sources you’ve referenced, replace links with up-to-date ones, or simply remove them.

SE Ranking’s Website Audit allows you to see all the problems there might be with links. The External Links section under the Issue Report will identify if there are any timed out links or if there are links without an anchor text so that you can check if everything is how you planned it to be. You can also review all the nofollow links and double-check if some of them have to be attributed as UGC or Sponsored. 

Links analysis in SE Ranking's Website Audit

For any issue identified by the system, you’ll get a full list of links you can export in .xls:

Links analysis in SE Ranking's Website Audit

To sum it up

By linking out to other websites, you work in the interest of your readers and help search engines connect relevant sources. The most important thing about external linking is that you don’t need to force anything into your content but use the most relevant and valuable information in the most natural way. When done properly, outbound linking will improve user experience and search engine rankings, making your website more credible and authoritative.

Let’s sum up the major principles of outbound linking:

  • The first thing to look for while linking out to a source is how relevant it is to your piece of content and how helpful it is for your audience.
  • Check several domain, traffic, and backlink parameters to learn if the external source is credible enough.
  • Make external links visually distinguishable and use descriptive anchor texts.
  • Use appropriate attribute values to mark different types of links and don’t stick to nofollow.

What has been your experience with external linking? Maybe, there’s something particular you’ve learned about linking to other websites and it differs from what we’ve discussed in the article? Share it in the comments section!

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6 comments
  1. I agree that links are not the most important ranking factor. High-quality content, great structure, indexation optimization are the most valuable ones. Only after these layers, you have to fuel your content with external links.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mat. We might say there are much more important things but after all, all your SEO efforts are connected and affect each other.

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