Crucial Things You Need To Know About External Links

Written by
Anastasia Osypenko
Reviewed by
Valerii Khomenko
May 26, 2023
16 min read

When creating content, it’s common to refer to a variety of sources to gain a full understanding of the subject. No matter the field or topic being addressed, there will be occassions where it becomes necessary to cite information from research studies or quote established figures. This is where external linking comes into play as part of your SEO strategy.

When is it necessary to link out? Can outbound links negatively influence rankings? How do you determine if a source can be considered credible? And how many outbound links should you place throughout your content piece?

In this article, we help you take your business to the next level by sharing some external linking best practices. We’ll also look into useful methods for finding, monitoring, and fixing external links.

What are external links?

An external link refers to any link that is present on your website and goes to another website. These links can be:

  • Placed in text, images, or buttons.
  • Attributed as either dofollow or nofollow, with the latter telling search engines not to vouch for the link (more on that later).
  • Visible or hidden from website visitors.

Naturally placed external links are usually underlined or marked by another color. On the screenshot below, you can see an example of an external link:

External link example

In the HTML code, a typical external link appears as follows:

Read our <a href="">recent post</a> to learn about the latest SEO trends.

In this example, the <a> tag represents an HTML tag for hyperlinks. The href is the attribute that specifies the link’s destination, and the “recent post” text serves as an anchor text that describes to readers what they will access by following the link. 

For now, let’s identify the pros and cons of using external links. We’ll look into how your business can benefit from incorporating them into your content and the potential risks associated with this strategy.

The benefits of using external links

  • Better user experience: This is more obvious. By including relevant links, you make it easier for readers to explore some materials they might be interested in and learn more about any details or facts mentioned by you. 
  • Enhanced credibility: For instance, if you make statements supported by statistics, website visitors are more likely to perceive this as the information they can trust, check, and refer to. 

To produce high-quality content that effectively incorporates external links, SE Ranking’s Content Marketing Tool is an invaluable resource. With this tool, website owners can optimize their content strategy by creating an anchor plan for their content that outlines the relevant links to be included in their articles. 

But how does a search engine perceive your website and the external links you use? Surprisingly, its perspective is a lot like that of a user’s. If you have limited knowledge about how to build external links for SEO, using the right approach can assist you in achieving the following:

  • Improving your website’s authority: If you incorporate useful outbound links into your content, search engines will recognize that you are providing additional value to your readers by directing them to credible sources. This can strengthen your website’s authority and increase its chances of ranking well in SERPs. To illustrate this point, a studying conducted by Reboot in 2016 (and then again in 2020) confirmed that relevant outbound links to authoritative sources have a positive impact on a website’s rankings.
  • Enhancing your website’s relevance: When it comes to content analysis, data supported by links to official research sources is not only valuable for users but is also taken into account by search engines. Incorporating external links that complement and expand upon your article’s content enables Google to better grasp the purpose and intent of your page. Doing this also significantly increases your chances of ranking for relevant queries and delivering the best solution to users’ requests.

When it comes to YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) topics, such as health, safety, finances, law, etc, Google places a premium on all content backed by reliable sources.

  • Boosting your reach and initiate link building relationships. Think of linking to another website as an opportunity to 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 the owners or representatives of their site and encourage them to include your article in their newsletters and social media. Or, if your site represents one of these apps, you can reach out to a media source that you found useful and references, and they might promote your product in response.

We sought input from several industry experts and incorporated their comments by including relevant links in our post on guest blogging. This resulted in some favorable feedback and shares:

Guest posting article sharing

The disadvantages of using external links

It’s only possible to benefit from external linking SEO if it’s done properly. This means that you must carefully evaluate both your content and the websites you’re linking to. So, how exactly can an outbound link cause you damage?

The largest risk associated with the incorrect use of external links is link spam, which involves manipulating search engines through artificial links. Link spamming can take various forms, including excessive link exchanges, automated link generation systems, or buying/selling links for ranking purposes. This method is considered to be a strictly black hat SEO technique. Google’s guidelines explicitly forbid making use of this approach since it can damage not just the linking website but also the linked one.

In addition to SEO, link spam can also negatively impact user experience. It is not uncommon for users to encounter irrelevant or misleading links, or be directed to sites with low-quality content or ads. Experiences like this can frustrate the user, potentially damaging a website’s reputation and discouraging users from returning.

Google is also aware that purchasing and selling links is a common practice for online businesses. As long as these links are qualified with a rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute value (which is preferred by Google) to the a> tag, having such links does not violate the regulations of this search engine.

What makes an external link useful?

There are two principles that make outbound links effective.

First of all, the source has to be credible. Second, it has to be relevant to the content of the page that you’re putting the link in. Let’s review these two principles more closely. 

Credibility and trust markers

How can you determine whether a website is spammy or trustworthy beyond simply visiting it and evaluating how it looks? You should check several parameters to make an informed judgement:

  • Domain authority. There are different metrics for evaluating domain quality. SE Ranking has its own called the Domain Trust score, which puts a domain on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100. The bigger is the score, the higher the quality of the domain’s backlink profile. Unfortunately, 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 historical consistency.
  • Website security. Ensure that the source you’re going to quote uses a safe protocol and has no security-related issues. To learn more, check our post on website security.
  • Anchor texts. Examine the anchor texts used by sources linking to the website of interest. If you find any spammy anchor texts or ones that are stuffed with commercial keywords or brand names, then they probably are not your best choice. You’ll have much better luck best using SE Ranking’s tool to check backlinks and analyze anchor texts.
  • Keywords a website ranks for. If the website ranks well for relevant keywords, this indicates that it has authority and expertise in that area. Review the search queries for which the analyzed website appears. SE Ranking’s Competitive Analysis gives you a list of keywords a domain ranks for—analyze them for quality and relevance to the industry. 

For example, if you’re writing about healthy nutrition, discovering a website that ranks high for keywords like “nutrition tips” and “healthy diet,” indicates that the website is authoritative in that field. This helps maintain the quality and credibility of your content, while providing valuable resources to your readers.

On the other hand, if you encounter a website that ranks for irrelevant keywords, make sure to cross-check information from authoritative sources that specifically focus on your topic. Otherwise, relying solely on a website that ranks for irrelevant keywords may lead to inaccurate information and undermine the credibility of your own content.

Who are your closest rivals and how do they position themselves in search? It's time to find out.
  • Balance between referring and linked domains. In the Competitive Analysis tool, you’ll see the number of referring domains. It’s recommended to also check the number of linked domains. A significant imbalance could indicate a low-quality source.
  • Quality of backlinks. Go through the backlinks of the top website to ensure there are no links from spammy sources. For more details on backlink quality, read our post on key backlink parameters.
  • Geographical distribution of traffic. Determine the locations from which a domain’s traffic originates. Once again, you can use tools like SE Ranking’s Competitive Research to do so. Under the Overview tab, you’ll find the Traffic Distribution by Country report, which provides data on organic and paid traffic for each available region.
Traffic distribution by country report
  • Top performing pages. Get to know a website better by examining which pages bring in the most traffic. SE Ranking’s Competitive Analysis tool includes a Pages section, which displays a full list of website URLs along with information on traffic volume and keyword count.
Pages competitive analysis

When evaluating a specific page for reference, consider the:

  • Quality of the content. This factor comes naturally. After reading through the content you intend to use, make sure the page conveys your intended message and follows Google’s EAT and YMYL criteria.
  • Traffic and keyword relevance. Check how much traffic a page gets and how relevant the keywords it ranks for are.

When creating content, you will gradually build a base of sources that you trust, but it never hurts to recheck. Websites can change, so you want to make sure you’re never making connections with an inappropriate website.

The importance of relevance

To assist searchers in the best way possible, search engines have evolved to understand the connections between different topics. They have and have become adept at identifying any 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. 

You should also consider referring to updated information. Google has a freshness algorithm that assesses how fresh a page is. It does this by examining the overall volume of newly published content about a given topic.

Rel attributes of external links

To provide search engines with clear info about the external link’s purpose, the proper rel attribute must be used. This allows search engines to understand whether a link is sponsored, user-generated content, or not endorsed by the website owner. By assisting search engines in better comprehending the context and significance of the link, you can enhance your rankings in SERPs.

The following are the most commonly used rel attributes for external links:

  1. rel=”sponsored”

The rel=”sponsored” attribute should be used (as its name suggests) to indicate that the link is part of sponsored or ad-related content. In other words, you must include this attribute in your link if you get paid for a link, whether it’s a sponsored, affiliate, or other paid link. Neglecting to label these links as sponsored may result in penalties.

While rel=”nofollow” can still be used for paid links, Google states that sponsored should be the “preferred” option for the external linking strategy. 

  1. rel=”ugc”

This attribute is used for user-generated content, such as comments and forum posts. It signifies that the linked content is not endorsed by the website owner and is generated by users. By using the rel=”ugc” attribute, search engines gain clarity regarding the website’s official content. This attribute also helps search engines better understand the context of the linked content.

  1. rel=”nofollow”

This attribute is used to indicate that the website owner does not endorse the linked content, and the link should not affect the linked website’s search ranking. Websites often use this attribute for links to untrusted or low-quality websites to prevent their website from being associated with spammy or harmful content. It’s important to note that search engines may still follow and crawl nofollow external links, but they will not pass any link equity to the linked website.

  1. Multiple values

Website owners are encouraged to include multiple rel attribute values for a single link to provide more context to search engines. For example, a link containing both sponsored and user-generated content can include the following rel attribute: rel=”sponsored ugc”. Attributes can be mentioned both in a space- or comma-separated list (e.g., rel=”sponsored, ugc”).

How to find external links?

Firstly, it is crucial to find all the outbound links on your site to identify any broken links. Broken links can damage both user experience and your site’s rankings. When crawlers stumble on an excessive amount of 404 errors, the website’s authority drops in the eyes of search engines.

If  broken external links are discovered, you have several options:

  • Reach out to sources you’ve referenced 
  • Replace links with up-to-date ones
  • Simply remove them

After you find external links, you can check each one manually or use an external link checker to identify any non-functional links. This process will help you maintain the quality of your website and ensure a smooth user experience.

Alternatively, you can conduct a technical SEO audit using SE Ranking’s Website Audit tool to find and examine external links that may be impacting your site’s performance and user experience. The External Links section under the Issue Report will identify if there are any timed-out links or if there are links without anchor texts, allowing you to ensure everything is as planned. You can also review all the nofollow links and double-check if some of them have to be attributed as UGC or Sponsored.

External links issue report

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

URLs with external links issues

You can also use this tool to analyze the external links of your competitors’ pages and gain valuable insights into their content strategy. By identifying the top pages that are being referenced by others, you can determine which sources are considered authoritative in your industry. This information can help you develop your content further by incorporating references to these sources, making your content even more useful and relevant to your audience.

Monitoring and fixing external links

By keeping your external links up-to-date and of high quality, you can improve your site’s user experience and SEO ranking. Monitoring and fixing external links is especially important because:

  • Websites can change their URLs, rewrite their content, or even shut down entirely. When this happens, any external links to that website will become broken or lead to irrelevant content, negatively impacting your site’s user experience and SEO. To avoid this problem, regularly check and update your external links.
  • Outbound links are a ranking factor for search engines. If you link to low-quality or spammy websites, it can harm your site’s reputation and SEO ranking. Always ensure the quality of your outbound links and that they lead to reputable and relevant websites.

To make the task of monitoring external links easier, there are several tools available, such as SE Ranking’s Webpage Monitor. This tool tracks the changes of all external links on your website and alerts you of any modifications, including URL changes or content updates. With this tool, you can easily fix any broken links and ensure your outbound links are relevant and of high quality.

To sum it up

By linking to other websites, you prioritize the interest of your readers and assist search engines in connecting relevant sources. The key aspect of external linking is to naturally incorporate the most relevant and valuable links into your content. When done properly, outbound linking will improve user experience and search engine rankings, making your website more credible and authoritative.

Tools like SE Ranking’s Website Audit provide you with a list of all external links (along with brief explanations of issues associated with them) and quick tips on how to address them. By following the suggested recommendations, you’ll be able to boost your website’s credibility and reputation, leading to increased traffic and conversions.

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