As a knowledgeable and methodical webmaster, you know that optimizing your website is a constant effort and that the World Wide Web is always evolving. You may have spent several hours adding and updating Meta and titles tags, keyword-rich content, H1 header tags on top of pages, quality web content, alt tags for photos, and even building inbound links. One thing you’ve certainly learned through all of this is that in order to rise and remain at the top of SERPs — all is never enough.

Linking Out

Certainly one commonly overlooked, and sometimes feared, tactic is hosting external links to relevant websites within your own site’s content. You may already know that having authoritative sites that include a link back to your website can help generate traffic, leads, as well as increasing your rankings on SERPs. But, if we’re going back to basic, how exactly would linking out to other websites help you? And with the onslaught of websites that have fallen off the grid post-Google updates (Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird) for suspicion of trying to “game the system” – why on Earth would you want to risk having your website get penalized?

The answer is very simple: user experience. Search engines want you to provide relevant resources on your website that enhance your visitor’s experiences while surfing the web. Your dynamic content and lists of helpful resources will all add a great deal of value to your website in the eyes of your visitors…and the Googlebots.

So, how can you distinguish between “natural” and “spammy” external links? It all depends on what you feel is useful and relevant to your website’s categories and topics. For example, if your website is geared towards sports, it would make sense to link out to other authoritative and relevant sport sites and pages that can enhance your visitor’s experience; whereas including a link to a dentist’s office would seem out of place (unless somehow the connection is legitimate). Of course, you also want to protect your visitors from sites that involve online gambling, payday loans, pharmaceuticals, or adult-oriented content. For more information on Googlebots and how they ‘see’ your site, check out our creative video on How Google Crawls the Web.

External links can also come in several shapes and sizes. Surely one of the more well-known tactics is to develop useful content that contains natural links out to other related sources and websites. Accepting authoritative guest posts is also a way to keep your site updated with unique content. Other examples of external links can be found in:

  • Resource Lists
  • Unlinked Brand Mentions
  • Infographics
  • Press Releases
  • Blog Feeds
  • Scholarships
  • Other relevant News and Updates
Matt Cutts
Matt Cutts @mattcutts

Google’s head of Webspam team, Matt Cutts, continuously prompts webmasters to reevaluate the quality of their sites. However, Matt himself has admitted, “The web changes, it evolves; in particular, webpages that have gotten a lot bigger, there’s more rich media and so it’s not all that uncommon to have aggregators or various things that might have a lot more links.”

Now, let’s take a look at what some other industry experts are saying on this topic:

Expert Opinions

Rand Fishkin
Rand Fishkin @randfish

Even way back in August of 2008, a long-time proponent of link building, Rand Fishkin of Moz created a list of reasons webmasters should link out to other sites. His list included the notion that by not linking out to other relevant authoritative websites “you could be costing yourself a small fraction of potential link juice…Readers and web visitors can derive value from the links you point to, and they can help to prop up the credibility & association of your own site.”

The following year in February of 2009, Fishkin wrote, “I (and many other notable SEOs) have seen very compelling evidence to suggest that not only does linking out NOT harm a site’s rankings, it appears to carry some positive correlations with ranking, trust, etc. on both a page and domain-wide level.”

Now after several major and minor algorithmic updates and a recent suspected site penalty that Google placed on Moz in July of this year, Fishkin continued his support of external links by adding, “In terms of Google ruining natural linking, I suspect that’s an unintended side effect of their efforts here. They’re trying to do a good thing – to show which links are causing them not to trust websites. But when they mark editorial links as inorganic, they inadvertently scare site owners away from making positive contributions to the web with the accordingly correct citation of their work. That’s how you get a Google-shaped web, rather than a web-shaped Google.”

The SEO CompanyOther supporters of linking out to external sites, like UK-based The SEO Company, states, “We believe that linking to useful websites doesn’t ‘leak’ traffic – quite the opposite in fact. Offering useful links actually makes visitors more likely to return to see what other interesting websites they might find in the future, a model that sites such as Digg and Fark are built around.”

Elisa Gabbert
Elisa Gabbert @egabbert

Some experts don’t even see link building to be of any concern to Google in the near future. Earlier this year, well-known internet blogger and author Elisa Gabbert reasoned that “As people continue to find more creative ways to build links, Google will have to work harder to sort ‘good links’ from ‘bad links.’ And I predict that the next iteration of Google (or whatever search engine replaces it) won’t revolve around links – at the least, they’ll have a lot less weight in the algorithm as a ranking signal.”

James Agate
James Agate @jamesagate

A recent 2014 Link Building Survey conducted by James Agate of Skyrocket SEO clearly demonstrates that, despite all of the confusion, links still matter with link building yielding the highest percentage of monthly spend in the $10-$50k range; which is up more than triple the amount within this bracket from last year. Agate concludes, “the fact remains that if you want to score big with decent organic search visibility then you need links.”

Kaila Strong
Kaila Strong @cliquekaila

Want even more proof? Our own Kaila Strong, Senior Director of SEO Services, recently conducted a survey across several link builders in the industry on The Best Link I’ve Ever Built!. Based on the huge number of success stories, we can say with much certainty that link building is NOT dead!

Quality Checklist

Whether you stand on either side or somewhere in the middle, it’s still important to ensure that quality information is being provided on your website that is useful and beneficial to your visitors. Therefore, before linking to another website, you should consider the following list of qualifications:

  1. Is the link commercial in nature or does it offer a true benefit to your audience?
  2. Does the link make sense to you as a visitor to your own website?
  3. Is the other website relevant to the context of the proposed section or page?
  4. What is the current domain authority and page rank of the external website?
  5. What is the current domain authority and page rank of your website?
  6. Would you consider the other website to be “spammy” in nature? (Porn, Pills, Payday Loans, Online Gambling, etc.)
  7. Do you commonly link out to external websites like the one in question?
  8. Finally, does linking out increase engagement or interest from other participants and contributors?

Be the Authority

Overall, links are very important factors in keeping the World Wide Web spinning. The primary reason for offering external links on your site has always been, and always should be, for the benefit and knowledge of your visitors. The whole notion of hosting external links in order to improve your SEO efforts should not be the sole purpose of engaging in this tactic. Yes you should do everything to improve your rankings on SERPs so that your visibility improves for people to discover your site through organic searches. However, relevant external links should be done in conjunction with everything else you’re already doing to achieve the status of being considered a true authority in your subject and help generate traffic to your site. If a link in question passes your quality control process and you feel that it would make sense to include it on your site – simply add the link and start connecting your site to the vast world of the interwebs.