Internal in-content linking practices have remained the same for the past twenty years, which is strange because Google has gone through dramatic changes within the last ten years and even more so in the past five. It may be time to consider freshening up internal linking strategies so that they more closely align with how Google understands and ranks webpages.

Standard Internal Linking Practices

I want to make clear that I’m not saying that this is the way to do internal linking and everyone’s wrong. What I am doing is pointing out a disconnect in how internal linking is done and how Google understands content and to keep an open mind by considering your own way to do internal linking with this knowledge in mind.

Raise your hand if this is you:

An SEO is writing or updating content and comes across a keyword phrase that’s a match for the keywords targeted by an inner page, so those words get turned into anchor text.

Okay, you can put your hand down. 🙂

I expect that there will be a lot of hands raised and that’s okay because it’s how everybody does it.

As an example, I visited a so-called “white hat” website that offers an SEO-related service and in an article about a sub-topic of “internal linking” they link to another page about What Is Internal Linking using the anchor text “internal linking.”

The target page is an exact match for the two-word phrase targeted by the second page. The standard practice is if you find a keyword match for another internal page then turn it into an anchor text to the target page, right?

But it’s not right.

The sentence containing that anchor text and the paragraph that contains it are about the importance of internal linking for getting internal pages indexed and ranked. The target page is an explainer about is a general page about What Is Internal Linking.

If you think like an SEO then there’s nothing wrong with that link because the anchor text matches the target keyword of the second page.

But if you think like a site visitor who is reading the first page then what is the chance that the reader will stop reading and click the link to learn about What Is Internal Linking?

Quite likely it would be zero percent of readers would click on the link because the link is not contextually relevant.

What Does A Machine Think About It?

To see what a machine thought about that sentence I copied it asked ChatGPT:

ChatGPT replied:

“The sentence highlights the critical role of internal linking in SEO strategies.”

I then asked ChatGPT to summarize the paragraph in fifteen words or less and it responded:

“Internal linking is crucial for website indexing and ranking, with link context being particularly important.”

The context of both the sentence and the paragraph is the importance of internal links but not What Is Internal Linking.

The irony of the above example is that I pulled it from a webpage that was on the topic of the importance of context for internal linking, which shows how deeply engrained the idea is that the only context needed for an internal link is the anchor text.

But that’s not how Google understands context.

The takeaway is that for an internal link to be contextual, it’s important to consider the meaning of the sentence and the paragraph in which it exists.

What Internal Linking Is Not

There are decades-old precepts about internal linking that are commonly accepted as canonical without sufficient critical examination.

Here are a few examples:

  • Put your internal links closer to the top of the webpage.
  • Internal links are for helping other pages rank well.
  • Internal links are for helping other pages get indexed.
  • Use keyword-rich anchor text but make them look natural.
  • Internal linking is important for Google.
  • Add internal links to your most important webpage on a topic from all of the subtopic pages.

What’s missing from the above commonly accepted ideas about internal linking is that none of that has anything to do with the site visitors that are reading the content.

Those ideas aren’t even connected to how Google analyzes and understands webpages and as a consequence they’re not really what internal linking should be about. So before identifying a modern way to link internally that is in line with the modern search engine it’s useful to understand how Google is understanding webpages.

Taxonomy Of Topics In Webpage Content

A taxonomy is a way of classifying something and every well organized webpage can be subdivided into an overall topic and the subtopics beneath it, one flowing into the other so that the overall topic describes what all the subtopics as a group are about and also each subtopic describes an aspect of the main topic in what can be called a Taxonomy of Topics, the hidden structure within the content.

A webpage is called unstructured data. But in order to make sense of it Google has to impose some structure on it. So a webpage is divided into sections like the header, navigation, main content, sidebar and footer.

Google’s Martin Splitt went further and said that the main content is analyzed for the Centerpiece Annotation, a description of what the topic is about, explaining:

“That’s just us analyzing the content and… we have a thing called the Centerpiece Annotation, for instance, and there’s a few other annotations that we have where we look at the semantic content, as well as potentially the layout tree.

But fundamentally we can read that from the content structure in HTML already and figure out so “Oh! This looks like from all the natural language processing that we did on this entire text content here that we got, it looks like this is primarily about topic A, dog food.”

The centerpiece annotation is Google’s estimation of what the content is about and it identifies it by reading it from the Content Structure.

It is that content structure that can be called the Taxonomy of Topics, where a page of content is planned and created according to a topic and the subtopics.

Semantic Content Structure And Internal Links

Content has a hidden semantic structure that can be referred to as the Taxonomy of Topics.

A well constructed webpage has an overall structure that generally looks like this:

Introductory paragraph that introduces the main topic  -Subtopic 1 (a content block)  -Subtopic 2 (a content block)  -Subtopic 3 (a content block) Ending paragraph that wraps everything up

Subtopics actually have their own hierarchy as well, like this:

Subtopic 1  -Paragraph A  -Paragraph B  -Paragraph C

And each paragraph also has their own hierarchy like this:

Paragraph A -Sentence 1 -Sentence 2 -Sentence 3 -Sentence 4

The above outline is an example of how unstructured data like a webpage has a hidden structure that can help a machine understand it better by labeling it with a Centerpiece Annotation, for example.

Given that Google views content as a series of topics and subtopics that are organized in a “content structure” with headings (H1, H2) demarcating each block of content, doesn’t it make sense to also consider internal linking in the same way?

For example, my links to the Taxonomy of Topics article and the source of the Martin Splitt quote are contextually relevant and many readers of this article may likely to follow those links because they expand on the content in an interesting way, they are… contextually relevant.

And being contextually relevant, in my opinion it’s likely that Google will also find the topic matter of the the linked pages to also be relevant.

I didn’t link them to get them crawled or for ranking purposes either. I linked to them because they’re useful to readers and expand on the surrounding content in which those links are embedded.

Semantic Relevance And Contextual Internal Links

For more than ten years I’ve been encouraging the SEO industry to let go of their keywords and start thinking in terms of topics and it’s great to finally see more of the industry finally get it and start thinking about content in terms of what it means at the semantic level.

Now take the next step and let go of that “keyword-targeted” mindset and apply that understanding to internal links. Doing so makes sense for SEO and also for readers. In my 25 years of hands-on experience with SEO, I can say with confidence that the most future-proofed SEO strategy is one that thinks about the impact to site visitors because that’s how Google is looking at pages, too.

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