Explaining SEO to clients can be a tedious and long winded task. After all, that’s why they hired you, right? You’re the expert: they want you to do whatever it takes to improve their business. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of explaining some concepts of inner site linking to a client.

I consider this one of the most complex topics in SEO, because it really gets at the heart of onsite optimization, asking questions like: “Where does my ranking potential come from and where is it going?” “Is inner site linking a zero sum game?” and “Are there superior site link structures that can efficiently and naturally spread ranking potential to the right pages?”

Be brave as you approach this topic. It is not for the faint of heart, but I will try and make it simple enough for beginner SEO’s and clients to follow. I also want to make this post deep enough for advanced SEO’s to take away valuable and cutting edge insights.

First of all, what is inner site linking (or internal link building)? Simply put, inner site linking is the process of connecting your website pages strategically and efficiently. You create links for navigation and to optimize the flow of ranking potential throughout the site. The distinction between efficient linking and strategic linking is critical.

In this context, take efficient to mean a highly organized user experience (I include search engine crawlers here as well, since they are merely robotic visitors). Strategic inner site linking simply means utilizing all your resources for boosting rankings, and we’ll explore these subdivisions in detail.

Internal site linking is a strategy SEO’s use to pass authority from one page to another, ultimately boosting ranking potential. Note that, when I talk about inner site links, I’m only talking about links within the content of a page, not navigation links or footer links.

I want to quickly touch on user experience optimization, since that is becoming increasingly important for rankings. Google already analyzes things like ads above the fold to determine whether a site has a good UX, and it is only a matter of time before they start implementing more complex algorithms to measure a user based website. This may already be a factor in rankings, for all we know (recall that Google’s ranking algorithm is completely “Black Box”).

As a general rule of thumb, keep every page within three clicks of any other page. This makes navigation much easier for users, and also ensures that your whole website is indexed every time a crawler enters your site. A couple of observations arise from this: first, you should not link in a closed loop. In other words, if a crawler enters your site through an external backlink, it should be able to eventually reach every page on your site.

Another rule is to limit your site to three levels of depth and only provide navigation to the second level with the navigation bar. Additionally, each level should be accessible from every other level. Say we have pages A, B, and C. These pages are on different levels of the site; levels are shown within a URL as www.example.com/level1/level2/level3/ etc.

Let’s say Page A is on the first folder level of the site, B is on the second level, and Page C is on the deepest level which is three deep. You would want to link Pages A, B, and C together so that A could be accessed through some pages on levels 2 and 3, B can be accessed from levels 1 and 3, and C can be accessed through levels 1 and 2.

Finally, onsite optimization experts have asked the question of what the maximum number of links you can have on a page are. There is no actual guideline in place any more, as seen from Matt Cutts’ video here.

However, Google has also stated that they may take manual action against link profiles that appear spammy. Does this apply to inner site links? This is a question that has yet to be answered.

There is a strong argument to the effect that the fewer inner site links you have per page the better, since too many links will spread your link juice too thin to be effective (I expound on this below).

Strategy: Linking to Utilize Ranking Potential

If used correctly, inner site links can be used to boost a site’s rankings. Now, this section is highly theoretical and can advance very quickly, so I’m only going to scratch the surface. My theory of onpage links may differ from that of the majority of the SEO industry in some ways. Most of the opinions I put forth in this section are highly theoretical, but are the products of observation.

Before we talk about how to sculpt your site to maximize rankings, we have to discussion how ranking potential is passed through links. As you know, each page has a set amount of ranking potential (PageRank, Page Authority, etc. are two common measures. There is some debate as to the relevance of PageRank, however) and only a fraction of that can be passed through links.

We must settle the question of how much ranking juice can be passed through links. First, I think it is clear that a page cannot lend all of it’s ranking potential to another page through links. If that were true, you could provide a full range of SEO and backlinking services to a page and never allow it to rank.

Instead, I tend to think that there is a set percent of total PageRank that can be passed along through links. Second, I do not think each link passes the same amount of ranking juice. In many illustrations, SEOs show that a page with three links passes 33% juice through each. I think this is a misconception.

Google may value links with HTML markup more highly, links to relevant pages may be more valuable (since the purpose of linking and search engines is to provide pathways to highly relevant content), placement within the content of the page, and other factors may affect the percent of possible ranking juice is passed.

Strategies That Don’t Work

An older strategy for optimizing inner site links was nofollowing several of your links to really concentrate the juice where it counts. This is an outdated link strategy: Google divides up the link juice among the total number of links on a page and then passes them where the follow says to pass it or not pass it. You can read more about this on Matt Cutt’s article about PageRank sculpting.

Another strategy that doesn’t work is linking in loops. Many SEOs talk about building silos on your website. This might sound all fancy and technical, but many of the resource I’ve seen have not evaluated their strategies in light of how PageRank is actually passed. In other words, the fancy flowcharts and diagrams aren’t as logical as they seem when you evaluate them.

The most common mistake I’ve seen among these silo tutorials is linking pages in a loop. You can see this in the illustration below. Theoretically, you could build up PageRank by looping your pages like this, but Google has programmed in a decay factor so this won’t be pronounced.

Secondly, Google doesn’t count multiple links to the same page as multiple upvotes. In other words, having Google cycle through your site multiple times won’t help rank your pages. In fact, under this assumption, linking in loops only diminishes your potential because you could be sending the looped juice elsewhere.

Strategies That Win

Before we begin this section, you must understand that the only winning strategies in Google’s mind (or chipset, if you would like to be more factual) are natural ones. This means that a useable linking interface should be your top priority, ensuring each page is accessible by humans and bots.

Your second priority should be guiding users to relevant content. In other words, don’t create a link structure unless it actually seeks to guide users to relevant and related info.

With that in mind, I think the best way forward is through:

1. Creating a blog with several overarching topics

2. Visualizing your link structure and planning a link structure to send juice to the top levels of your site

3. Building posts under each topic and linking them back to your main blog post on this topic, or your related service page

4. Ensuring that every page is linked to and links to somewhere

5. Adapt as necessary, keeping in mind that adding a single page could change everything

Once you have set up your strategy, it’s time to figure out exactly how to link up your posts to maximize potential. You’ll need to know how to effectively use anchor text, where to place your links within the content of a page, and how to show Google that your content and links are creating a chain of relevancy.

A word of caution is in order here: while you want link maps to cover every page on the site, you don’t want to spread your site’s juice too thin. It’s best to keep your pages as few steps away as you can so as to concentrate your power. As long as you are building your structure purposefully and logically, you won’t run into any trouble! I’ve included an example structure below:

internal link building inner site linking