Does cross-linking help SEO? Does it really?
July 19, 2019 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I edit content for a company's blog and continually run into misconceptions and strongly held beliefs that doing X, Y, or Z is "good for SEO" and finding actual evidence of this is difficult. Specifically, I'm trying to determine if there's any truth to the widespread idea that "cross-linking helps SEO." What happens next will shock you. Um, I mean, please read on for details.

So I edit (and write, but less relevant to the question) a variety of content written by folks that range from developers, field support or sales, product marketing, product management, communications, executives, and so on.

For various reasons, we're conservative about including links. This ranges from legal not wanting to link to certain material to folks wanting to slip in links that are less than professional, or just turning a piece of content into a linkfest where every other word is linked to something for no good reason.

Often removing links is met with "but it's good for SEO!" I don't claim to be an SEO expert, but I know that inbound links from relevant / authoritative sites can help with search ranking. I've seen some material that suggests if you have multiple domains that are related, cross-linking between them can be a strategy that helps boost ranking.

But most of what I've found suggests that just linking out to sites just to do it, even if they're related in topic, will not help us with ranking. It may help the outbound site, but not us.

What I'm looking for is some hard data or current references that will either dispute this belief, or show me the data and convince me we're doing it wrong. Obviously I want to get the most traffic possible, so if we do benefit from cross-linking I'd like to know about it.
posted by jzb to Technology (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think anyone but the google algorithm knows that.

Your best bet is to familiarize yourself with the best practices found at Google Webmaster Tools.

If you're using WordPress, the Yoast SEO plugin makes putting these best practices into use easy.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:36 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Google does incorporate outbound links and internal crosslinks into its rankings. Among other factors, this goes into the quality rating ascribed to pages and sites. Sites with lower quality ratings will rank lower, even if they have a lot of inbound links, because Google would rather show you a high quality page than a lesser-quality page. Here's some Google info about quality score as it relates to AdWords, but the same rating is used also in search rank. More. (See? Two outbound links right here in this comment, hopefully improving its quality.)
posted by beagle at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

As a long-time blogger -- I've been blogging since before "blog" was even a word -- and a curmudgeon, I have thoughts on this.

I don't know about SEO. I ignore it. But my business partner tells me that yes, cross-linking to your own stuff does seem to help SEO. When he has other people write for our site, he asks them to cross-link to three relevant articles.

I feel that's forced. I feel that all SEO plays are forced. Because I've been doing this a long time and because I'm a curmudgeon, I'd like to suggest an alternative: Link where and when (and to what) it makes sense to link. Forget about SEO. The best SEO is great content.

If an article doesn't seem to want links, then maybe it shouldn't have any. If it wants dozens of links, then maybe it should include dozens. It shouldn't be a game.

I'm working with a BIG company right now that provides three links (and only three) in their articles. This is stupid. As a result, they don't link to sources and additional info. This isn't helpful to the reader. It's only helpful to the company. It makes the web a worse place not a better one.

I realize I'm not doing a good job of answering your question and that this comment may get removed. I'm okay with that. Let's make the web useful again!
posted by jdroth at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2019 [13 favorites]

The SEO blogs I follow says it helps. They have "studies" that say so. But every SEO tactic comes and goes but the one thing that remains constant is that google is constantly tweaking and tuning. Write good content, get those quality, relevant inbound links, and don't stress the rest. Unless your business model depends on huge amounts of traffic via SEO optimizations, it's not worth trying to chase the trends.
posted by cgg at 12:40 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Although I tend to agree with humboldt32 (that noone but Google truly knows), here is the type of hard data study I think you are looking for.

This is a 2016 study from Reboot, a marketing agency, so take that FWIW. Their conclusion is that "Outgoing relevant links to authoritative sites are considered in the algorithms and do have a positive impact on rankings."

Having said that, my personal convictions are directly in line with jdroths. Forget about SEO and just use common sense.

It's all a continuum, and my pet peeve is actually larger organizations who completely ignore outbound hyperlinks, even when it makes perfect sense. The stink of dumping legacy press releases into a "blog post" format while ignoring the fundamental nature of how the web works is still strong in 2019.
posted by jeremias at 12:44 PM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the comments so far. I just want to respond to the recurring theme of "don't worry about SEO..."

1) That's not really an option for a lot of reasons. I do believe in putting out quality content above all else, but quality matters not a bit if nobody reads it.

2) While I would love to forget about SEO, the writers who keep shoving links into things and then complaining when they are removed certainly are not going to. If there's solid evidence one way or another (particularly against the practice) it would be really helpful. Folks convinced that links == SEO == profit aren't hearing the "just produce good content" in part because there's so much content marketing advice that emphasizes SEO...

/me returns to lurking and listening.
posted by jzb at 4:07 PM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

i can’t contribute any hard data, but i am a programmer at google, so i can contribute some perspective. opinions are my own, not google’s.

first off, i don’t think the kind of study you seek exists, at least not in the public domain. that’s because ranking recommendations for any modern search engine are essentially non-deterministic with respect to time — in other words, the way that pages are compared to each other is based on millions of inputs, and those inputs change all the time. the results you get might (read: will) vary based on factors like:

- where you are when you search
- what you’ve searched for in the past
- what time of day it is
- if you’re in a country which prohibits certain kinds of information
- who google thinks you are

on top of that, the exact importance of each of these inputs changes all the time, and in unexpected ways. even a small modification to the system (for example: “let’s give the system slightly more RAM”) can unintentionally change the results it produces, seemingly at random.

now, this isn’t to say that the results *are* random, because search engines are run by businesses which make money on the results. if more money can be made in a particular way, then a business would like to do it that way. so (rhetorically), what is the major way that those businesses make money? advertising revenue. if you’re paying google to promote a particular website, then they better show people that website, no? but if you aren’t paying google to promote a website, then it’s essentially a crapshoot.

as an addendum, consider this: suppose that “number of links” really was the most important factor in a website’s search ranking. then, web pages could affect their ranking by adding more links. but, that would (arguably) decrease the quality of the search results — a crap page with millions of links vs good page with zero links? that’s not good for business; search engine companies make less money if less people use the search engine, and less people use the search engine if it provides crap results. so, search engines have a vested interest in producing “quality” results, where quality is a subjective term influenced by subjective factors. if the public guesses those factors then the quality of the results tanks, because anyone can manipulate their web page to exhibit those factors, and they will do so to try and get ranked highest. so then it’s a game of cat and mouse — search engines coming up with ranking factors that are hard to exploit, and the public trying to guess and exploit those factors (e.g. SEO). since there are literally billions of dollars on the line, do you really think that “number of links” is the strong determining factor?

at the end of the day, i claim that nothing can tell you exactly how your page rank will fare over time, not even the people who work on google search. it would be like claiming that a tree will have exactly this number of leaves in a year — maybe it will, but not even the world leading tree experts would be confident in that claim. if you want to ensure that your page is seen, you’d have to pay search engines to show it. otherwise, your guess is as good as mine.
posted by =d.b= at 6:06 AM on July 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

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