Are outbound links a Google search engine ranking factor?
Will adding more outbound links to your content help you rank higher in Google Search? Let’s look at the evidence.
You can’t throw a stone in SEO without hitting a link builder.
Since Google’s earliest days, links are – and have always 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?
Statement: Outbound links as a ranking factor
Google sees links from one site to another as a kind of approval.
When a site cites another site through a link, there is a pretty good chance that it will do so because it considers the content it links to be reputable, authoritative, and trustworthy.
Is that always the case? Not.
As long as there were search engines and links, marketers were trying to find ways to manipulate Google’s perception of what a link actually means.
But what about creating a link to another website – can it help your site to rank higher?
The SEO industry has never fully reached a consensus on whether outbound links are a direct ranking factor in Google’s algorithm.
Many believe that outbound links are not a ranking factor at all and have no SEO benefit for the linking party (source).
However, some people think that the link to whom you are linking is a signal that can help your ranking as well as the page that earned your link.
Evidence for outbound links as a ranking factor
John Mueller of Google addressed this issue in his inaugural Ask Google Webmasters video in July 2019. He said:
He calls reciprocal links, paid links, and user-generated comments as types of links that Google may see as of questionable quality. For these links, you should use rel = “nofollow.”
See Julie Joyce’s guide, When to use Nofollow on links and When not to, for more on this.
In short, Google wants to see outbound links to indicate that you think the page you’re linking to is a great fit for users.
So we know that user experience and value for search/site visitors is Google’s top priority.
As Mueller said, outbound links are a great way to add value to your users.
In addition, we have a bunch of other SEO and blogging professionals who say things like:
” Valuable outbound links are part of what Google likes to see as part of the recent Google Panda update.”
“By adhering to some of the best practices below when optimizing your outbound links – you could see an effect on your visibility and ranking.
Some even quantify what you need to do to get the outbound links to “work” and recommend including at least two or three on the content.
(I don’t link to those sources because I don’t want to lend them our credibility. See how it works. Suggesting in 2021 that a certain density of outbound links is SEO magic makes about as much sense as optimizing for a density of 7% keywords)
In addition to industry discussions, Reboot’s Shai Aharony did a small experiment in 2016, in which his team created 10 brand new sites with articles of “comparable structure and length” to test whether the outbound links influenced STANDINGS
Half of the sites contained three links – one to Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Genome Research Institute. Two used the name of the institution as the anchor text; the anchor text for the third was the full word made up of the “phylandocic” test subject.
Another invented control word, ‘ancludixis’, was placed in the disconnected content so that it could determine if the anchor text was a ranking factor. All domains were purchased at the same time and none were optimized for “phylandocic”.
Here’s what we see in the results. The author notes that the graph shows the position of the sites in the ranking.
Blueline = site with an outbound link.
Orange line = site without outbound links
Without seeing the content itself, it is impossible to know if there are other factors at work.
But we know that the invented keyword “phylandocic” was used as an anchor text at least once in each article. Did the ranking increase because it was anchored text or simply 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 invented word almost ensures that you will get the first 10 results with 10 articles
Evidence against outbound links as a ranking factor?
Outbound links can tell Google a lot of positive things about the site they are linking to – that they are considered authoritative and trustworthy, for example.
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 for searchers, and they tell us this in Google’s search quality guidelines.
Get the free SEJ Guide for Google E-A-T and SEO to learn more about it.
But Google also needs to keep in mind that there are a lot of ways in which links can be manipulated. They are a commodity that can be bought and sold.
People can exchange links for other links or anything of value to the parties involved – for a free product or discount on services, for example
The links may even be placed on a website without the knowledge of the owner/webmaster by code or URL injection.
There are a lot of different ways in which links can be played. Outbound links, in particular, are annoying as a search signal.
Couldn’t I link to a bunch of very authoritative and popular sites in my niche and that tells Google that I’m one of the cool kids too?
At some point, you could. This blog post sculpting PageRank by Matt Cutts reappeared in a 2019 Twitter conversation about the benefits of linking to authoritative content.
One user asked Mueller if the conclusion made in a chart quoting “more SEO experiments and studies” is true.
Despite the small print that clearly shows that the studies found a correlation and not causation, the song made a bold statement. And Mueller was clear in his answer:
Properly used, outbound links can tell Google things like:
- You know which people and websites in your industry are considered authoritative and trustworthy because you are an active member of the community.
- You did your homework and took the time to really understand the subject.
- You appreciate more perspectives and do your best to present correct and balanced information to your readers.
- You care about accuracy and it’s important for you to have the information you redistribute verified.
- You appreciate the readers’ trust and want to make sure they can verify your statements if they wish.
These are all quality indicators that can help Google understand how accurate, relevant, and authoritative content is.
But are the links themselves a ranking signal?
Outbound links as a ranking factor: our verdict?
Here’s what we know:
The presence of outgoing links, or lack thereof, is not in itself a ranking factor.
The words in the outbound anchor 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 high authority sites is not an indicator of the authority of the source page because it is too easy to play.
Your best strategy is to use outbound links the way Google intends to use them – to cite sources, to improve the user experience, and to support high-quality content.
Attempting to use them to whisper to Google about your authority or relevance may come back.
Excessive use of outbound links seems spam, in the same way, excessive use of any other optimization seems spam and could cause Google to ignore the entire page.
Outbound links may have been a ranking signal in the early 2000s. However, Google has so many more reliable and less noisy signals to consider today.
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