Friday, May 6, 2016

Outbound Links: Good SEO

Last week we spoke about the popular SEO belief that "backlinks"--links from another website to your website--boost search rankings. Though this practice is generally accepted as bullet-proof in many SEO circles, Google has warned that deliberately trying to "acquire" backlinks can "do more hard than good."

As we noted, Google's Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, advises websites to avoid link-building.

"We do use links as part of our algorithm," Mueller states, "but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site than it actually helps."

That said, Google rarely distinguishes parts of its algorithm, so Mueller's admission that the search engine does "use links as part of the algorithm" was telling. His quote, after all, inferred that links are good, but only as part of a well-balanced website. This should not surprise anyone in the SEO community.

Photo Source: credible journalists cite sources--a "best practice," and natural form of outbound linking (more below).

However, Mueller's quote also pointed to a far more contentious notion. By not qualifying the nature of "links," he left his meaning open to interpretation. Did he mean inbound (backlinks) or outbound links? Mueller very likely did mean inbound links--but what of outbound links?

Can links to other sites increase your own site's rankings?

As we noted, this is a contentious topic in the SEO world. Writing over at KoMarketing, an online marketing firm, Derick Edmond answers with an emphatic "no" before making a distinction between the direct and indirect benefits of outbound links, which, he notes are evident.

(Edmond also added an "Author's Note," which links to an interesting, albeit complex, article on "short clicks" vs. "long clicks," and how Google doe not penalize sites for short clicks that result in a link to another site).

On the other hand, Edmond himself links to two articles by respected SEO writers who believe outbound links can have a direct benefit on rankings.

On Quick Sprout, the omnipresent SEO writer Neil Patel asks: "Did you know that an external link going out to these high authority sites can boost your SEO?"

"When search engines crawl your site, see a link and follow it to CNN or Huffington Post," Patel writes, "they weigh it as a positive. The trick is to find organic ways to link to these sites."

And on his blog, Michael Gray of SEO fame, wrote an article advocating outbound links: "By changing the outbound link policy," Gray writes, "I have been able to help many sites boost their rankings."

Our view dovetails with all three writers--at the very least, outbound links won't hurt your rankings. That is, if your outbound links are "organic," as Patel notes above, and not arbitrary.

This premise, of course, is at the heart of most SEO advice: Make it organic or "natural." As we advised last week, do not attempt any trick to acquire an audience; instead, create the best possible website, with the best possible information.

As Alex Stepman noted on LinkedIn this week:

"The goal of a good SEO firm is to deliver an optimized website with content tailored to a specific audience. When the two disciplines come together, all stakeholders benefit: the search engine, the website, and the user."

If your goal is to optimize user experience, and an outbound link will do so, then by all means create an outbound link. You only need to visit any number of respected sites, like The New York Times or The New Yorker, to see respected journalists linking to other sites.

Why do these journalists link out? Journalists often link out to cite sources; or to somehow improve the quality of information--in short, to create the most authentic experience possible.

To not link out, in fact, may be the very definition of an unnatural practice.

As Gray notes:

"Many of the poorly ranking websites that I am asked to fix share a common problem – they do not link out to any websites. Apparently, some people still think this is a terrible idea and go to extremes to never link out to anyone. Taking any idea to an extreme is generally never a good plan."

Should you create outbound links?

Yes, if you're discussing another's work. Yes, if the link is a natural part of your content. And yes, if you believe the link enhances the experience of your content.

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