Internal linking is important for both user experience and search engine crawlers, to help them find relevant and important pages. Our SEO Office Hours recaps on internal linking topics cover queries including the importance of internal links for SEO, how anchor text is used as a ranking signal, and how Google handles internally linked parameter URLs for indexing.
For more on internal linking, check out: 5 Internal Linking Strategies to Boost SEO and Drive Organic Traffic
Use rel=”canonical” or robots.txt instead of nofollow tags for internal linking
A question was asked about whether it was appropriate to use the nofollow attribute on internal links to avoid unnecessary crawl requests for URLs that you don’t wish to be crawled or indexed.
John replied that it’s an option, but it doesn’t make much sense to do this for internal links. In most cases, it’s recommended to use the rel=canonical tag to point at the URLs you want to be indexed instead, or use the disallow directive in robots.txt for URLs you really don’t want to be crawled.
He suggested figuring out if there is a page you would prefer to have indexed and, in that case, use the canonical — or if it’s causing crawling problems, you could consider the robots.txt. He clarified that with the canonical, Google would first need to crawl the page, but over time would focus on the canonical URL instead and begin to use that primarily for crawling and indexing.
Internal links in the header and/or footer of a page are generally treated as equal to links in the body content
One user asked whether there’s a distinction between internal links that are placed in the main body of a webpage and those that are contained in the header or footer. John explained that Google tends not to differentiate based on the placement of a link on a page; an internal link is an internal link, no matter where on the page it is placed.
Google won’t understand a link in the footer as having less weight or view it as less useful than a link higher up on the page purely by virtue of it being placed in the footer. Mueller says that it is slightly different when Google considers the content or main text of a page, as they want to understand what the primary content is on a page. But for links, its placement or location on a given page does not tend to change Google’s view of it.
URL structure does not make a page appear closer to the homepage – Google looks at internal linking instead
Google uses internal linking rather than folder structure to understand how close a page is to the homepage. So if a particular URL includes many subdirectories (aka if a URL has many slashes in it) — or if it has only one — the site’s overall architecture would be viewed by Google based on the internal linking (rather basing this structural understanding on the URL’s format). Google Search cares much more about internal linking structures than folder or URL structures.
“Just looking at the number of slashes in a URL doesn’t tell us that this [page] is lower level or higher level [within the site]. It’s really, from the homepage, or from the primary page, how quickly can we reach that specific page?” said Mueller.
The ‘target’ attribute within links does not influence ranking
It was mentioned by John in this session that the target attribute within links is ignored by Google for ranking purposes, as it simply refers to how a link should be opened and Google only focuses on the href attribute. But if there is a blank href and a target attribute of ‘self’, then it’s likely that Google would drop the link because there is no destination if a link is pointing to itself.
Breadcrumb structured data is not a replacement for standard internal linking
Even if a site is marked up with the relevant breadcrumb schema, internal linking continues to be a key focus. URLs included within structured data aren’t treated in the same way as regular internal links, so it’s still critical to link to the most important pages on your site within the HTML.
Alt text associated with a linked image is treated the same as anchor text
A question was asked regarding an “a href” tag that contained anchor text and an image with alt text. Which one helps Google to better understand what the linked page is about? And does the order in which they occur within the tag matter? John replied that the order of these two elements within the tag would not matter. With just an image, it wouldn’t be as valuable as anchor text, but if alt text is associated with the image they would treat that the same as anchor text. It would be converted into text on the page and treated the same.
He did further clarify that this news shouldn’t mean that all visible text should be removed and alt text relied upon. But it should help to know that you’re not losing anything by including both. Other search engines may not see alt text and anchor text as equivalent and for accessibility and usability reasons it may make sense to have visible text there too.
Internal links on different parts of a page are viewed similarly for SEO
There’s not a quantifiable difference in how Google views internal links located on different parts of a page. For example, there is no significant contrast in how much value Google gives to internal links contained high up in your content vs. links within the page footer.
It’s different when it comes to the overall placement of content on a page because Google is trying to figure out what is uniquely important to a page’s overall content, but the location of links on a page does not make much of a difference in terms of how that internal linking is valued.
Speed up re-crawling of previously noindexed pages by temporarily linking to them on important pages
Temporarily internally linking to previously noindexed URLs on important pages (such as the homepage) can speed up recrawling of those URLs if crawling has slowed down due to the earlier presence of a noindex tag. The example given was of previously noindexed product pages and John’s suggestion was to link to them for a couple of weeks via a special product section on the homepage. Google will see the internal linking changes and then go and crawl those linked-to URLs. It helps to show they are important pages relative to the website. However, he also stated that if significant changes are made to internal linking, it can cause other parts of your site which are barely indexed to drop out of the index—this is why he suggests using these links as a temporary measure to get them recrawled at the regular rate, before changing it back.
To better control page indexing, use ‘noindex’ on pages rather than ‘nofollow’ tags on internal links
Adding rel=”nofollow” tags to internal links is not recommended as a way to control indexing. Instead, John suggests adding noindex tags to pages that you don’t want indexed, or removing internal links to them altogether.
How to encourage Google to recrawl ‘back in stock’ product pages with internal linking
For eCommerce websites, it’s recommended to keep URLs live when a product temporarily goes out of stock. To encourage re-crawling by search engines once the item is back in stock, John suggests only temporarily removing internal links to the product page while the product is out of stock and then re-linking to it once the item is back. Deliberate internal linking (such as including internal links from the homepage) can give Google the best opportunity of finding and recrawling the page quickly.