A lot of advice has been written over the years telling you to never link out, and horde all the link juice for yourself. I disagree. You should link out as much and as often as you can, within reason. Here’s why.
Reasons to Link Out
Last month's column discussed the ins and outs of PageRank. One point was that it’s a zero sum game: by linking out, your site loses what the target site gains. If you think strictly in terms of PageRank, it follows that by linking out you are actually damaging your site's ranking ability.
However, Google has plenty of other link-based algorithms in addition to PageRank itself. They don't talk about them much (other than to say that they use more than 400 ranking factors), but by looking at correlation data, reading patents and white papers, and other forms of research, it's possible to roughly work out a lot of what they're doing.
One of those factors is a "trust rank," which looks both at the links both entering and leaving your site.
The idea of examining trust (or "non-spaminess") through links was first introduced by Yahoo, and it is now believed that Google uses this as well.
The principle works by marking certain seed sites as 100 percent trusted, and working out how many link jumps away from one of those seeds your own site is: the further away you are, the lower the trust. They use your own outgoing and incoming links in this calculation (turns out that spammers don't link out to non-spam sites much!). So, that's one instant algorithmic benefit to linking out to good quality sites.
It also seems plausible that, as with regular site updates, Google also gives sites a bonus purely for the act of linking out. While they aren’t looking for "good net citizens" per se, they are looking for sites that will be most useful for their own users. I'd hazard a guess that sites that link out frequently to other relevant sites are deemed to be more useful by Google's all seeing eye than those that don't link out at all.
However, these factors pale in comparison to the social benefits of linking out. Being free with your outgoing links will benefit your own visitors, and, you never know, you might just get a few links in return.
How to Go About Linking Out
Just as you wouldn't want links to your own site stuffed away in some links page no one ever looks at, linking out doesn't mean going and creating a big list of links and putting them in some quiet corner of your site. It means linking out regularly from your core content.
Blogging, or otherwise regularly updating your site, is key to the success of any small business SEO campaign, and this is an ideal opportunity to get linking. For each piece of content you add to your site, make sure you add at least one relevant, good quality link (you might also want to create links to older posts or other internal content).
It also pays to have a strategy for selecting outgoing link targets. Searching Google for something relevant to your post every time is OK, but may lead to haphazard results (especially as Wikipedia comes top for so many informational queries -- and while Wikipedia is great, the chances of getting a link back are nil).
It is much better to tie your outgoing link strategy to the rest of your link building campaign (as, if you're doing SEO, you're also doing link building). This is just as simple as it sounds – all you need to do is link out to your existing link prospects before asking them to link to you.
However, as with all things in life, you only get by genuinely giving. Linking out to people just to try to manipulate them into linking back to you isn't going to work.
Your first criteria has always to be whether or not this link is relevant for your own visitors. Likewise, your own content has to be great – even if you've linked out to someone, they're only likely to link back if what they're seeing on your site is a good match for their own content (it's a favorite spam tactic to link out to dozens of sites from rubbish scraped content in order to try to get links back).
Tying up your outgoing link strategy with your link building has another obvious benefit, in that the criteria for selecting sites is the same for both:
- Highly trusted and non-spammy
- Regularly updated with good quality, relevant content
Lastly, linking out to bloggers is always a great idea. Blog software, such as WordPress, will usually give authors a notification when someone links to them (unlike other sites, where you have to go through your web stats to find incoming links), and bloggers are far more likely to link out in return.