Have you implemented an internal linking strategy on your blog?
Or more importantly, have you considered the Google ranking impact that such a strategy could have?
This case study might well see you reconsidering your approach to internal linking.
When it comes to learning as much as possible about internet marketing, I must say that I get the most out of case studies.
I have found some brilliant ideas in list style posts but sometimes a long list of tips can be overwhelming.
So, rather than provide you with an exhaustive list of ideas about how to rank in Google, I’m sharing with you just one strategy I used in an experiment to see if I could rank a keyword on page 1 of Google.
If you have being trying for some time to improve the rankings of keywords that are sitting on page 3 or beyond, then this case study will be of interest to you.
An Internal Linking Experiment
One strategy that has often intrigued me is that of internal linking, and more specifically, the impact it can have on rankings.
I have thus been exploring whether or not internal links can be used to bump up a keyword’s position in Google.
Internal links, as the name suggests, are links that point to other pages on the same website or blog. Every time I write a new post, I usually link from it to previous posts that are relevant to the topic under discussion. Similarly, I go back to previous, related posts and add in-content links to the new post.
Thus, internal linking provides a great way to inter-connect relevant posts. As such, you can sustain a reader’s interest by encouraging him or her to branch out to other related content on your own blog.
In addition, internal links also allow search engines to traverse the inter-connected network of your site’s pages and find new pages to index.
The fact that some pages have a ‘better reputation’ (page authority) than others, means that link juice can be passed on to other pages. This is one explanation behind the ranking power of external backlinks.
But to what extent can the internal sharing of link juice promote search engine rankings, specifically Google rankings?
The Rationale Behind this Case Study
It is obvious that incoming links from other sites, external links, or at least the right kind of external links, can make a big difference to a site’s ability to rank.
If one is aiming to secure backlinks via natural means, then this can be especially time consuming. And by ‘natural means’, I am referring to links that come about because your content is so good that people simply want to link to it. However, natural link building strategies can take a long time to bear fruit.
There is no disputing the fact that more risky backlink strategies, those that are considered less than white-hat, are still able to have an impressive impact on the ranking of sites. Whilst it is to be expected that some of these strategies might work only until a future algorithm update catches up with them, they do appear to be producing results in the meantime.
However, if you can find safer ways to rank your sites, then not only can you sleep better at night but you shouldn’t need to be constantly looking for new ways to achieve and/or reclaim rankings.
What I really like about internal links is that we have 100% control over them:
- We can decide which pages to link to.
- We can easily find higher page authority (PA) pages to link from.
- We can at any time, change our mind and severe the link if need be or replace it with a more appropriate link.
- We can utilise keyword research to find relevant phrases that can be used as anchor text.
- There is no delay. As soon as we decide we want to link to a new post from a particular page, we can simply insert it and hit publish. It is done. There is no waiting to see if it ‘comes through’ like there is with a sought-after external link
So, given that internal links are so easy to set up, and so instantly made live, wouldn’t it be great if they could effect some improvement in rankings too?
Many a blogger debates this, but I haven’t seen a lot of case studies actually demonstrating, either way, the extent to which internal linking can have a ranking impact.
Correction Update: Since publishing this post, I have indeed come across another interesting case study on the ranking impact of internal links. This one, How to Get a Blog Post to Rank (Mini Case Study) is by Amanda Gant and was published late last year on Orbitmedia.com. Amanda outlines the 9 steps that were implemented and then discusses the impressive results achieved.
The Case Study Details
The type of internal links that I have focused on in this case study are context links, that is links from within a post’s content rather than site wide navigation links.
I like to incorporate internal links naturally within the flow of a sentence rather than writing “Click Here” whilst at the same time avoiding forced or over-used anchor text. For example, this post on blog promotion is linking to another page on my blog about how to get more blog traffic.
I don’t know how many times I have seen people posting on forums, such as WarriorForum, lamenting the fact that their targeted keywords continue to languish on pages 2, 3 or 4 of Google.
How can we improve the rankings of these keywords?
This dilemma is something that I can readily identify with. If you are trying to rank for a keyword and it is sitting on page 3 or 4 then it might as well be sitting on page 10 for all the traffic it will be attracting.
Before starting this experiment, I had a buyer keyword that had moved from position 75 in Google to 39 and then sat there for what seemed like forever. I had given up on this keyword, assuming it had performed as well as it was ever going to.
So, this presented a perfect challenge for me:
Could I take this languishing keyword of mine and use a persistent internal linking strategy to get it to page 1 of Google?
I love a challenge and even more, I love to record my findings and then see if the results can be repeated.
So here is what happened.
The Specifics of the Ranking Experiment
- The site is a relatively small instructional-type blog.
- The targeted keyword is a buyer keyword (product related)
- For obvious reasons, the actual keyword is not revealed in this post but the actions, progress and final results are. However, the keyword phrase takes the form of ‘product name’ + ‘review’.
- Search volume is very small but this is often typical of very specific buyer keywords. At the time of starting this experiment, it varied but was anywhere between 100 to 200 U.S.searches and 500 to 600 global searches per month.
- Keyword difficulty was gauged using 2 tools: Long Tail Pro and the Keyword Difficulty module of Rank Tracker.
- When I used Long Tail Pro to look at the competition for this keyword (the sites currently ranking in the top 10), I found:
- 7 sites with a Page Authority of less than 30
- 7 sites with a PR of 7.
However, as discussed in my competitive keywords study I haven’t found PR to be a very reliable metric.
- According to Rank Tracker the targeted keyword had an Overall Difficulty Score of 29.
I find that a score less than 30 is relatively easy to rank for. However, it is important to keep in mind that the review on this product was published more than a year before. Since that time, regardless of the low Difficulty Score, the keyword had at best only achieved a page 3, and sometimes 4, ranking.
- When I used Long Tail Pro to look at the competition for this keyword (the sites currently ranking in the top 10), I found:
- On day 1 of the experiment, the keyword was sitting at position 39 for the monthly average ranking according to Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) and postion 29 according to SmallSEOTools.
- I used the following tools in the case study:
So How Did This Ranking Experiment Go?
It should be noted that this was an experiment running in the background, if you like. In other words, it was not done in a hurry as you can see below. Internal links were added spasmodically whenever I took a break from other time-consuming projects.
Plus, in the beginning, I probably doubted that an internal linking strategy would have the results that it did. I had previously viewed internal linking mostly as a way of connecting to relevant content to keep the reader interested and as a way to make sure that bots would find new pages to index.
But I was pleasantly surprised.
An Overview of Ranking Results
Towards the end of this post, you can see a lengthy listing (Table 2) detailing:
- When internal links were added
- Any other activities that could have had an impact
- The Google Webmaster Tools (GMT) impressions and
- The keyword’s rank according to SmallSEOTools
- The keyword’s rank according to Google Webmaster Tools.
But, in case you don’t have time to wade through that rather lengthy listing, here is a brief summary of the main milestones achieved.
This table (Table 1) shows:
- The main ranking milestones according to SmallSEOTools
- The main ranking milestones according to Google Webmaster Tools.
- The cumulative number of internal links that have been added.
As you can see, the addition of internal links spanned a long period of time, not intentionally, but because of competing projects and possibly because at the time, I didn’t really expect to see the keyword rise up in the ranks in the way that it did.
Total Internal Links Added (Cumulative)
[1 external nofollow link]
Table 1: Summary of Ranking Results
As you can see, there was 1 external nofollow link added via a blog comment. However, the keyword had already achieved a top 10 ranking some time before this was added and it is debatable just how valuable, if at all, nofollow links in blog comments really are. But if I were doing this experiment again, and I plan to in another niche, then I would exclude all external link building to the targeted page so as to eliminate any possible contamination of results.
Top 10 Achieved
After 7 internal links had been added, the keyword appeared on page 1 for the first time. It had gone from position 29 (SmallSEOTools) to sitting in position 10. You can see this in the screenshot of July rankings below.
It took another 4 internal links, or 11 in total, to see the monthly average (as listed in GWT) reach position 10.
After another 3, for a total of 14 internal links, the keyword moved up into the top 5 and then to position 4 (as seen in the screenshot below of September rankings).
A Detailed Listing of Actions and Ranking Results
There were some tweaks and improvements done that could also have had an impact such as improving the load time of the review page. And these are listed in the Actions & Comments column below, along with ranking fluctuations experienced, and dates that internal links were added.
Points to Note:
- Rankings were not checked every day so in some cases, the SEO Tools ranking might have been checked while the GWT ranking was not and vice versa.
- Most internal links were added to posts but there were some pages in the mix.
- GWT in the table refers to Google Webmaster Tools.
Actions & Comments
|1||29||39||120||4||4 internal links from higher authority internal pages (all posts)|
|6||25||35||146||Updated content of the review post|
Removed site wide links pointing to the review page from header & sidebar
|8||29||35||162||1||Linked to review page from a new post|
|10||73||Perhaps removal of site wide links has had a negative impact but only short term.|
|11||72||Added phrase to paragraph 1 on review|
|20||23||34||202||1||Added some static code to home page and included a link to review from the home page|
|22||29||33||203||Edited review – added phrase to 1st sentence & to H2 heading, made some wording changes|
|46||29||32||245||Changed link’s anchor text on home page to “product phrase review”|
|50||86||36||222||Discovered very slow loading time of review, reduced size of images in post|
|119||14||16||182||1||Internal link from newly published post|
|Wow what happened? The keyword is nowhere to be found.|
|121||13||15||188||But the keyword back in the rankings the next day|
|123||10||14||210||First time on page 1 of Google|
|131||10||12||318||1||Internal link from newly published post|
|141||11||11||360||Just discovered that my internal link on day 119 was nofollow – fixed today|
|167||10||11||368||2||Linked from 2 older posts|
|169||8||10||393||1||Link added from newly published post|
|181||1||Added another internal link from older post|
|182||Moved an existing internal link towards the top of a page|
|183||8||8.8||487||1||Added internal link from an older post|
|188||11||Moved an existing internal link higher up on another previous page|
|189||11||8.7||1||Did add 1 external link from blog comment (not sure how much such links count)|
|202||7||9.1||Moving up in the rankings|
|203||8||9.1||643||Made 1 correction to an image on the review|
|207||5||8.8||665||Ranking in the top 5|
|215||4||7.8||709||Now position 4|
Table 2: Detailed Listing of Actions, Internal Links Added and Ranking Results
As well as tracking stats for the keyword position, I also tracked monthly clicks and found that they improved from zero to 9, to 35 and eventually to 47 per month.
Review Page Performance
In Google Webmaster Tools you can view Top Pages in addition to Top Queries. Unfortunately, page impressions weren’t recorded initially. However, they were tracked after day 100. From that point on, they were seen to improve from 2,099 to 3,343 per month.
Takeaways from this Internal Linking Experiment
As mentioned, in the beginning I didn’t really expect to be able to achieve page 1 ranking, let alone position 4. I did expect that there could be some improvement but not to this extent.
Had I realised in the beginning that this could be possible, I would have run the experiment in a more condensed mode. That is I wouldn’t have left such big gaps in time between adding internal links. I would have wanted to see how quickly page 1 ranking could have been achieved. Then the title of this post could have been ‘How I Achieved Page 1 Ranking in xx Days using Internal Linking‘.
So, from this experiment, it appears that internal linking, from within the content of a page, can significantly improve Google rankings.
Does it depend on competition?
Sure it does, as it does in the case of an external backlinking strategy!
I would always use either Long Tail Pro or Rank Tracker’s Overall Keyword Difficulty tool to check competition before spending time on targeting a given keyword.
But there are 2 major differences between internal and external links:
- You probably have a limited number of pages on your site that are relevant to link from. That is, just how many posts have you published that would make sense to link to the targeted review page?
- The idea behind the value of backlinks, is that they represent, or should represent, a vote of approval from an external source. If linking is akin to measuring how popular a site is, then, by comparison, internal links are a little like paying yourself a compliment. So, one would expect that white hat backlinks from outside sources would carry more ranking power.
However, I was very happy with the results! So much so, that I would now like to repeat this experiment with another keyword in another small niche. But as indicated above, this time it will be my goal to see how quickly I can take a keyword from page 3 or 4 and drive it up to page 1.
What are your experiences with internal linking? Have you tried an experiment along these lines? If so, I would love to hear of your results as well.
Featured Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
Top 10 image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net