Are outbound links a Google search ranking factor?

Are outbound links a Google search ranking factor?

You can’t throw a stone at SEO without bumping into the link generator.

Since the early days of Google, links have been – and always have been – an integral part of search optimization.

But what about outbound links?

These are the links in your content (the source) that point to a different website (the target).

But are outbound links actually a ranking factor?

Claim: outbound links as ranking factor

Google sees links from one site to another as a form of endorsement.

When one site cites another via a link, there is a fairly good chance that they are doing so because they believe the content they are linking to is reputable, reliable and trustworthy.

Is this always the case? number.

As long as there have been search engines and links, marketers have been trying to find ways to engage with Google’s perception of what linking actually means.

We know that when a site links to you, it can help improve your search rankings.

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But what about linking to another website – can that help your site rank higher, too?

The SEO industry has never come to a complete consensus on whether external links are a direct ranking factor in the Google algorithm.

Many believe that outbound links are not a ranking factor at all and have no SEO benefit to the linking party (the source).

However, some believe that who you are connecting to is a signal that can help with your own rankings, as well as which page got your link.

Evidence of outbound links as a ranking factor

Google’s John Mueller addressed this very question in his inaugural Ask Google Webmasters video in July 2019. He said:

“Linking to other websites is a great way to provide value to users. Often times, links help users discover more, see your sources, and better understand how relevant your content is to the questions asked.”

In the same video, Mueller warns that the reasoning behind the link is important — and Google is very good at spotting bad links.

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It calls reciprocal links, paid links, and user-generated comments as the types of links that Google may consider to be of questionable quality. For these links you should use rel = “nofollow.”

Check out Julie Joyce’s guide, When to Use Nofollow on Links and When Not to Use it, to learn more about it.

In short, Google wants to see outbound links that indicate you think the page you’re linking to is a great match for users.

Therefore, we know that the user experience and the value provided to the searchers/visitors of the site are the top priorities of Google.

As Muller said, outbound links are a great way to provide value to users.

Plus, we have a bunch of other SEO professionals and blogs that say things like:

  • “…Valuable outbound authority links are part of what Google loves Let’s see as part of the latest Google Panda update.”
  • “By committing to some of the Follow best practices when optimizing outbound links – you may see an impact On your back and your arrangement.”

Some even specify what you need to do for outbound links to “work” and recommend including at least two or three for each piece of content.

(I don’t link to these sources because I don’t want to give them our credibility. See how that works? A suggestion in 2021 that a certain density of outbound links is the magic of SEO makes as much as 7% keyword density improvement).

Aside from industry chatter, Reboot’s Shay Aharoni ran a small experiment in 2016 where his team created 10 completely new sites with articles of “similar structures and text length” to test whether outbound links affect ranking.

The study got little attention after approval from Rand Fishkinwho said

“This study of outbound links affecting rankings is as close to ‘proof’ as it is in the SEO world…”

Half of the sites contained three links – one each to the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Genome Research. Two used the name of the institution as the body text; The body of the third was the fully formed test subject word “phylandocic”.

Another artificial control word, “ancludixis”, was placed in the unlinked content so that they could determine if the anchor text was a ranking factor. All scopes were purchased at the same time, and none were optimized for “phylandocic”.

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The study declares:

“The results are clear. Relevant outbound links to authoritative sites are taken into account in the algorithms and have a positive impact on rankings.”

The analysis goes on to say:

“The main thing to leave out from this test is that although we don’t know and haven’t proven how strong outgoing bonds are in the grand scheme of things, we have shown that they have a positive effect if used correctly.”

However, this evidence is not entirely convincing.

This is what we see in the results. The author notes that the graph shows the position of the sites in the ranking.

  • blue line = A site with an outbound link.
  • orange line = Site without outbound links.
Putting words in search orderScreenshot from Rebootonline.com, December 2021

As you can see, sites with outbound links are ranked in the top five Google results and those without them are ranked in the next five.

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Without seeing the content itself, it’s impossible to know if there are other factors at work.

But we do know that the artificial target keyword, ‘phylandocic’ has been used as anchor text at least once in every article. Did the ratings increase because it was body text, or just because the word appeared on the page?

This test is simply too small. The fact that there is no other content in the Google index about this artificial word pretty much guarantees that you will get top 10 results with 10 articles.

All other things being equal – and they seem to have taken steps to make all other things as equal as possible – it might just be a matter of the extra keyword that makes these articles more relevant to the query.

So does this actually prove anything about the value of outbound links as a direct ranking signal? number.

Evidence against external links as a ranking factor

Outbound links can tell Google a lot of positive things about the site the link is pointing to – for example, that it is considered authoritative and trustworthy.

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Or that the person who created the content is an expert in the field.

This is exactly what Google wants to see in the content it recommends as answers to searchers, and they tell us this with its Google Search Quality Raters Guidelines.

Get our free SEJ Guide to Google EAT & SEO to learn more about it.

But Google also has to take into account that there are a lot of ways links can be manipulated. It is a commodity that can be bought and sold.

People can exchange links with other links or for anything of value to interested parties – to get a free product or a discount on services, for example.

Links can even be placed on a website without the owner/webmaster knowing via code or entering a URL.

There are a lot of different ways links can be manipulated. Outbound links, in particular, are annoying as a search signal.

Can’t I just link to a bunch of very reliable and popular sites in my niche and that tells Google I’m one of the cool kids too?

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At some point, you can. This PageRank post appeared on sculpting by Matt Cutts in a 2019 Twitter conversation about the benefit of linking to authoritative content.

One user asked Mueller if the conclusion made in a graph referring to “multiple SEO trials and studies” was correct.

Despite the subtleties showing that the studies found an association rather than a causal relationship, the piece made a bold statement. Mueller was clear in his response:

This is where the aforementioned PageRank sculpting post comes in:

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But here’s the thing – Katz’s post is from 2009.

Research is constantly evolving. It is no “contradiction” that advice from that time would be different a decade later.

This issue arose in 2015 when Mueller answered a central webmaster viewer’s question about any potential benefits of linking to one’s trade association sites:

“We can say there is no SEO advantage to linking to anyone else’s site.”

And again in a 2016 video where Mueller is asked:

“External links from your pages to other sites – is that a ranking factor? What if they are nofollow?”

And he answered:

“In our view, external links to other sites – so links from your own site to other people’s sites – are not specifically a ranking factor.

But it can add value to your content, and therefore it can be relevant to our search. Whether they nofollow or not doesn’t really matter to us.”

Google Search Coordinator Danny Sullivan echoed this advice, that the value of outbound links is to users. This was in a 2019 thread of tweets, one of which advised that SEO professionals should consider it from a journalistic integrity perspective:

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And this is where outbound links really shine.

If outbound links are used appropriately, they can tell Google things like:

  • You are familiar with the people and websites in your field that are reliable and trustworthy because You are an active member of the community.
  • You have done your homework And invest time in really understanding the topic.
  • You value multiple points of view It makes every effort to provide fair and balanced information to the readers.
  • You care about accuracy It is important to you that the information you share is verified.
  • You value the trust of the readers And they want to make sure that they can verify your data if they choose to.

These are all indicators of quality that can help Google understand the accuracy, relevance and reliability of this piece of content.

But are the links themselves a ranking signal?

Outbound links as a ranking factor: our judgment

Are outbound links a Google search ranking factor?

Here’s what we know:

  • the presence or absence of outbound links, By itself, it is not a ranking factor.
  • The words in the outbound link text are used to help Google understand the content of the source page Just like any other word on the page. They are neither more nor less valuable.
  • Linking to higher authority websites is not indicative The authority of the source page because it is very easy to play with.

Your best strategy is to use outbound links the way Google intends to use them – to cite sources, improve your user experience, and as an endorsement of high-quality content.

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Attempting to use them to Google your authority or suitability may be counterproductive.

Overuse of outbound links looks spam in the same way that overuse of any other optimization seems to be spammy, and it can lead to Google ignoring the page altogether.

Outbound links may have been a ranking signal in the early 2000s. However, Google has a lot of less noisy reliable signals to consider today.


Featured image: Paolo Bobita / Search Engine Journal

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