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Outbound Links and SEO: Does Linking Out Affect SEO?

John Koinange

John Koinange is a digital marketing associate and regular contributor for the Lockedown SEO blog. His work has appeared in numerous online publications.

You may have heard outbound links can weaken your SEO, but linking to authoritative pages can be a positive SEO signal.

It’s important to understand that the topics of outbound links in SEO seems to generate some division of opinion. Some people discourage linking to other websites because it may take users away from your site, or increase bounce rate.

Though some SEO practitioners may disagree on the importance of outgoing links, we recommend that you use them, when it makes sense.

Before we examine the matter in depth, let’s talk about what outbound links are, and the role they play in SEO.

What are Outbound Links?

Outbound links are hyperlinks on your website that link to another website.

Search engines use incoming links as an indication of how popular or respected a web page might be. It is difficult to manipulate different content creators on respected websites to link to a piece of content. Search engine algorithms tend to favor web pages that receive many links from other websites, particularly from authoritative websites.

Internal vs External Links

Links are separated into two main categories: internal and external links.

Internal links

An internal link goes from one page of a website to another page on the same website. When a person clicks on the link, the user navigates to a different page but on the same website.

Internal links help search engine crawlers like Googlebot and Bingbot discover, or “crawl” pages on your website. Additionally, internal links provide a navigation pathway for site users. By using internal links, you can create a better user experience.

External links

External links point from one website to another.

An external link can be an outbound or inbound link.

Inbound Links

Inbound links point from another website to your website.

When another website has an external link that links to your site, it is known as a back link. These are inbound links to your website.

Always remember to follow Google webmaster guidelines and use SEO best practices to acquire backlinks to avoid algorithmic or manual penalties.

Outbound Links

When you link from your site to another website, these are known as outbound links.

Links from your site should be “follow” links unless they fit one of these criteria:

  • Affiliate links, where the linking site receives compensation if the user clicking the link makes a purchase from the linked site.
  • Paid or sponsored links, where the linked site is paying for placement.
  • Social media or other low barrier-to-entry sites, where creating a page is quick and free. These are almost always nofollow links.
  • Links created by embedded widgets or templates. These should be nofollow links.
  • Any other link where compensation or money is changing hands.

Google has guidelines for these types of links and they should either be rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored", depending on the situation.

Followed links (rel="follow" or no rel attribute in the link) are believed to pass higher quality signals to Google and other search engines.

In short, if you trust a website, and you aren’t receiving money or other compensation for the link, use followed outbound links.

Why Should You Use Outbound Links?

Linking to authoritative resources that supply additional information about your content is a plus, because it adds extra context.

Adding Value and Context

When you link to additional resources in your content, it allows site visitors to browse those pages, and get more context for the points you are making. This adds value to your content, and can help readers get a fuller picture. Don’t be hesitant to link to other resources, it can let users find out more data about the topic you are covering.

Building Trust, Proving Facts

Linking to reliable sources proves that you are “showing your work” and not making up opinions. Outbound links to well-researched reports can reinforce that data that your web page is claiming. Facts and information is corroborated by the reference material to which your article is linking.

Quality Rating and E-A-T

Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) are mentioned in several sections in the Google Quality Rater Guidelines. These guidelines are used by contractors hired by Google, who evaluate different search results according to specific criteria. This feedback is delivered to Google engineers, who make adjustments to the ranking algorithm on a continuous basis. The goal is to deliver the best possible search results using algorithmic processes and machine learning.

The Google Quality Rater Guidelines states that:

High E-A-T news articles should be produced with journalistic professionalism—they should contain factually accurate content presented in a way that helps users achieve a better understanding of events. High E-A-T news sources typically have published established editorial policies and robust review processes.

The rating guidelines also state:

The quality of the MC (main content) is one of the most important criteria in Page Quality rating, and informs t he E-A-T of the page. For all types of webpages, creating high quality MC takes a significant amount of at l east one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill. For news articles and information pages, high quality MC must be factually accurate for the
topic and must be supported by expert consensus where such consensus exists.

Did you catch that?

The information you present on a topic must be “factually correct for the topic” and “supported by expert consensus where such consensus exists”.

By linking to consensus material, that is well-respected, well-researched, and authoritative, it makes it easier for Google to make the connection between your content and the “high quality” status that trustworthy sites demonstrate.

By backing up your assertions with empirical data, it may be a signal that some effort has been put into the research and creation of your content.

Do Outbound Links Affect SEO?

Google categorically states that outbound linking does not yield any ranking advantage. Their stance is that linking to an authoritative domain is not necessarily a factor in SEO. Their official line is it neither hurts your SEO nor confers any advantage.

Anecdotally, our advice is, take note of how your competitors are utilizing outbound links and follow suit.

From our client history, we believe that outbound links can bring out the context of your content while simultaneously building trust with the target audience. It cannot hurt, and in very specific cases, it might help incrementally. Linking to well-researched, in-depth studies on authoritative domains is the way to go if you are using outbound links.

Best Practices for Outbound Links

Linking out to quality resources is a good practice.

When a website contains high-quality, relevant content and then references other trusted websites to reinforce data in a web page, that’s a good practice. Google representatives state that this does not add negative or positive ranking signals. (Though, most SEOs, including our team, will tell you anecdotally that linking to solidly researched resources is a good idea.)

Let me emphasize the seeming aloofness of outbound links, and how this contradicts some of the advice floating around online. Outbound links are good for context and validation, plus they improve user experience (UX) and optimize a site for organic search rankings.

By themselves, adding outbound links may not help a piece of content rank higher than an article which doesn’t incorporate outbound links. However, by investing in content that meets the search intent for a keyword set, it can help an article build a ranking advantage.

Pagesculpting Doesn’t Work in the 2020s

One of the outdated myths you might hear about outbound links is that it will “drain your link juice”. This comes from an outdated practice that was known as pagesculpting. This was something SEO practitioners did when search engines were not very sophisticated.

The common knowledge in the distant past was that incoming links to a page increased the “juice” on a page, and each followed link would “split” the “SEO juice” (or link equity, as people call it today) into equal portions. SEO professionals would add rel="nofollow" to any outbound links, and also to any internal links that they did not wish to pass “link juice”, PageRank, or link equity into.

Obviously, Google engineers noticed this trend many years ago, and this practice is now a “waste of time”, as Google rep John Mueller stated in 2019.

 Hello John Mueller, should I use "nofollow" tag for internal Pagerank Sculpting? As I know, it doesn't work. Do you have any kind of suggestion? #seo #google

If it doesn't work, don't use it :). In general, I think it's a waste of time to do that. In practice, people waste their time on it anyway.

What Does Google Say About Outbound Links?

If you want to hear it straight from the source, here’s what Google representative John Mueller said in a 2019 Google Webmaster Central video:

Does linking to other websites help or hurt SEO?

Well linking to other websites is a great way to provide value to your users. Often times links help users to find out more to check out your sources and to better understand how your content is relevant to the questions that they have.

I would watch out for a few types of links though. In particular if you’re linking out to a site because of an arrangement, like you linked to me and I’ll link to you. Or because it’s an advertisement or if it’s being done in your site’s comments and you’re not really sure how good those links are.

In all of these situations your pages aren’t linking out because you think the other page is a great match for users. For these kinds of links we recommend using the rel nofollow link attribute. I added a link with more information on that below in the description.

In the most common cases however if you’re linking out naturally from your content to other sites that offer additional value and more context. Then that’s fine and there’s nothing special that you need to do.

Google’s algorithm may see an outgoing link to an authoritative reference as a positive signal for SEO. For instance, if you link to a study that adds more context to an article, or references a statistic mentioned in a web page.

Where Google has an issue is when you are participating in a link scheme. When you have a reciprocal arrangement with cross-linking, that can be a risky maneuver.

The best advice is link to other sources when it makes sense for your page, and it adds value to your site users. Don’t use outbound links as an attempt to manipulate search rankings.

Final Summary

Outbound links do not add any negative SEO signals, as long as you are doing it naturally. In the past, people used black hat SEO practices such as spammy links or link wheels to manipulate the search algorithms. Today, search engines are more sophisticated, and can more easily detect blatant violations of the webmaster guidelines.

While Google states outbound links are not intrinsically good or bad for SEO, our advice is link out when it makes sense, especially if you are stating a strongly-held position. Keep in mind that outgoing links cannot harm your rankings unless you use uncouth methods and attempt to “game the system”.

When used to enhance content naturally, outbound links are a good user experience practice. Linking to good content should help your SEO.

Do You Need Help With SEO?

At Lockedown SEO, we are here to help you with all your SEO needs. We primarily focus on industrial and manufacturing companies. If you would like to contact us and see whether we’re a good fit, you can contact us here.

John Koinange

John Koinange is a digital marketing associate and regular contributor for the Lockedown SEO blog. His work has appeared in numerous online publications.

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