One of the most overlooked aspects of a successful SEO campaign is aligning internal link connectivity with SEO best practices. In countless situations, great effort is expended to optimize page content, title tags, meta data, and external links, but little attention is paid to the site’s internal link structure.
While internal links may not count as much as external links (depending on who you ask), they are certainly a very important part of search engine algorithms.
Links = Votes
When we think about the effects of links on search rankings, it’s helpful to remember the analogy of "a link is a vote." In other words, if Page A links to Page B, Page A is voting that Page B is relevant to whatever words are used in the link text connecting the two pages. And the strength of the vote is determined by a number of factors including overall trust, PageRank, and the relevance of Page A to Page B (to name a few).
The more votes that Page B gets, the better opportunity it will have to rank for keywords it is relevant to. Therefore, the more internal links you have that point to any given page on your site, the better opportunity that page will have to rank highly for its targeted keywords.
So with this understanding, three of the most important internal "link structures" – any preset group of links that exists within a page template – are the global navigation template, the breadcrumb navigation, and "alternative link structures." Here’s why these three link structures are important, and tactics to optimize them.
1. The Global Navigation Template
The global navigation template (including the home page logo alt tag) is probably one of the most important elements of your site from an optimization standpoint, especially for large sites. That's because the more pages you have, the more votes that your template is providing for you.
Having the right keywords in place for your global navigation links is critical. It’s equally as important to ensure that these links are being indexed.
2. Breadcrumb Navigation
Breadcrumb navigation is another important internal link structure that can pay big dividends for SEO, especially for sub-pages that aren’t linked to from the global navigation template.
Links that appear in the global navigation template will usually occur in the source code before breadcrumb navigation links or links found in content. Therefore, the global navigation links will supersede the other links on the page (at least in Google). This is because only the first link found in the source code between Page A and Page B is counted by Google.
Check out First Link Checker for more information about this SEO principle or read this article. However, for any page that isn't linked to in the global navigation template (let's call it Page C), the breadcrumb navigation can provide keyword focused link connectivity from all pages that live below Page C in the site hierarchy.
Let’s use the following example to illustrate the point. Let's call Page A the homepage and Page B the category page which sells dog related products for a factious pet store web site. Page C will be the sub category of "Dog Food" and isn't linked to in the global navigation template.
It would be preferable for Page C to exist in the global navigation template, but let's say for illustration purposes, that it is not because of a design decision by our corporate staff (they didn't want to clutter the page with drop-down menus). After arguing unsuccessfully with those folks, we are stuck with no drop-down menus. Therefore the only page that currently links to the dog food page (Page C) in our example is the category page for dogs (Page B).
However, there are a number of pages below the dog food page that list all of the different types of dog food that we sell. We want to ensure that these product pages (pages D through J) link back to the main dog food page (Page C) so as to create as many relevant links as possible to that page.
The breadcrumb navigation found on those product pages provides that link connectivity because "Dog Food" – the name of the subcategory – would appear in the breadcrumb. Therefore, as a general rule, it is important to make sure that breadcrumb navigation link is keyword focused. For example, it should say "dog food" or "buy dog food" rather than "food".
Again, the primary benefit of the breadcrumb navigation from an SEO perspective will be to pages outside of the global navigation template.
3. Alternative Link Structures
Any set of links can exist somewhere on the page template that specifically targets a group of pages with relevant keyword phrases.
These types of structures can be another excellent vehicle for creating important link connectivity to high priority pages.
Most commonly this is the footer area or the right column of the page where you might have buckets for "Most Popular Pages," "Related Topics," or any number of subsets of links that are relevant to the users of that page.
Internal Link Connectivity Optimization
The primary purpose of all three types of these link structures is to aid users in finding information. By ensuring that the link text used in these structures is keyword focused, you help search engines determine relevancy and also aid users by using language that is consistent with how they search for information.
Keyword research isn’t SEO research. It's user research. SEO is infusing that user research into the content and structure of the site.
Both user experience and SEO are enhanced when keyword research is used to optimize internal link connectivity, which is why it's a very important piece of the SEO puzzle.