In this article, we’re going to deep dive into a key component of SEO and link building – outbound links. We’ll discuss what they are and how its prudent use can boost your SEO initiative. In the end, we discuss the role they play in the overall context of a healthy link profile.
Outbound links, by definition, are links on your website that redirect a user to a page other than your own. Simply put, they are links placed on your website for sending a user to another website.
Almost any decent website worth its salt will contain outbound links.
Moreover, the total number of outbound links on your website (and how you use them) has a direct correlation with your site’s overall ranking. Let’s find out how.
Types of Outbound Links
Broadly speaking, there are 2 categories of outbound links:
- nofollow link
- dofollow link
These two can be grouped under ‘normal’ (dofollow) and ‘abnormal’ (nofollow) outbound links. What does that mean?
Normal (dofollow) links are naturally occurring outbound links. All you have to do is add a link on your webpage and it automatically turns into a dofollow link by default. There are no changes involved in the code itself – every link by default is a dofollow link.
Ideally, each link in its natural state should be a dofollow link. It sends a signal to Google PageRank that the targeted link is supposed to be ‘followed’.
A nofollow link, on the other hand, is an abnormal outbound link. It’s not the default state of a natural link. You have to alter the code by adding a rel=”nofollow” tag inside it. It sends a signal to Google PageRank to ‘not follow’ the link by blocking its flow.
Pro-tip: How to find out if a backlink you received is nofollow or dofollow?
Just right-click on the particular hyperlink in Chrome and click on ‘Inspect’ (Ctrl+Shift+I in Windows Chrome). If you are able to see the rel=”nofollow” tag once you enter the console, it means it’s an abnormal/nofollow link. If there’s nothing, it means the link is a dofollow link by default.
How to check a nofollow link via Inspect mode. Credits: WPBeginner
To gain more clarity on how these two outbound links differ with respect to code changes, here’s an example of how a dofollow link appears in Inspect mode:
<a href=”http://www.linkody.com“>Link Building Strategy</a>
In case the webmaster decides to change the dofollow link to nofollow, a separate rel=“nofollow” attribute is added, which looks something like this:
<a href=”http://www.linkody.com rel=“nofollow”>Link Building Strategy</a>
Difference between dofollow & nofollow links
As a general practice, we prefer giving out dofollow outbound links if we’re linking an external source of information on our page. Why?
- If I am writing on a specific topic and including an external link there, I am crediting the respective website as an authority on that topic. I would want my users to be redirected to that page in case they wish to refer to the original source.
- Doing this also sends a signal to Google to mark that page as a specialist when it comes to that topic. This improves the ranking of that website in the long run.
- If the external website specializes in that domain, giving them credit for the same is the only right thing to do.
- It’s a great way to start building relationships as the owner of the external website will appreciate that you gave them a link. They might link back to you, thus kickstarting further engagement.
Changing the default link by specifically adding a no-follow tag makes no sense. The external webpage receives no benefits with respect to DA – although any traffic redirected from there is legitimate and a bonus. Additionally, PageRank might deduct some points from your webpage as well.
It’s simple – give out dofollow links if the website deserves it.
Google September 2019 Update: The Evolving Nature of Nofollow Links
In a blog post on September 10, 2019, Google announced 2 new link attributes (along with a modification to the nofollow attribute) to identify the nature of individual links in a more cohesive manner. Here’s a quick summary of the new attributes announced in the September 2019 update:
- rel=”sponsored”: For identifying links created as a part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements
- rel=”ugc”: The UGC (User Generated Content) attribute value is for links within comments, forum posts, etc. .
- rel=”nofollow”: If you want to link to a page while not endorsing the same or
In a departure from its previous approach, wherein Google would simply block all nofollow links from Pagerank, all the 3 attributes mentioned above will be treated as ‘hints’. It will analyze a host of related factors along with these attributes to conclude whether or not to include these links in Search results.
According to Google:
“Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”
For the purpose of crawling and indexing, nofollow will become a hint starting from March 1, 2020.
The Impact of Outbound Links
You now know how Google is relentless in its approach to put user concerns and search intent over anything else. And you know what is an outbound link. You have been recommended countless times to include outbound links in your content.
Why though? How do you think incorporating outbound links in your post will impact you? Why should your content contain links for redirecting your users to another page? Didn’t you spend a superhuman amount of effort in bringing them to your page in the first place?
It’s not that simple. Granted, you spent a lot of resources to finally make that reader land on your page, but you are part of a web. It goes beyond what you think.
Let us find out how.
Let us see how placing due importance to naturally occurring outbound links will also deliver a positive impact on your website, and how it goes beyond just redirecting users from your page to someone else’s.
Google prides itself on prioritizing the user before anyone else. All its updates and policies are designed keeping user-friendliness in mind. In their bid to show relevant results for queries on their search engine, it relies on outbound links as a factor to identify the authority of a webpage.
If someone is an expert on, say, link-building, and you, along with a dozen others, are linking to that website in your content, it means Google will rank that page higher. And it also means that in the process, if you’re placing natural outbound links, Google considers your content to be meaningful as well. If you are continuously engaging in this practice while churning out high-quality content and securing organic backlinks, your overall domain authority (DA) will increase significantly.
You help Google, Google helps you
Placing outbound links to relevant content on your webpage enables Google to help the end-user access the information they’re looking for. It also goes a long way in enhancing the user experience. But how?
User Experience Enhancement
How many times did you Google a certain topic, only to land on a top-ranking page and then be redirected to another page from there? This redirect might or might not be related to the topic you were originally searching for – it all depends on the user intent.
Maybe you started off by looking up workout routines and were then redirected to a DIY indoor gym. Your original search term was not DIY inhouse gym. It was only when you landed on the first page, did you realize you now want to look up DIY gyms.
This is how outbound links work, and how they end up creating a value chain for users. It ensures that all users, depending on their intent, are able to land on unique pages – which might or might not be related to the original search term. This plays a key role in elevating the overall user experience while ensuring that the learning journey continues and is only limited by the intent of the user.
Correlation between Google Rankings and Links
Guess what? Enhancing user experience is not the only benefit there is. For the longest time, everyone wanted to understand the relationship between Google rankings and outbound links.
Rebootline did a fantastic study back in 2016 (and revalidated in 2019) wherein they took a made-up word which was unknown to Google and without any results in SERPs. While the hypothesis, methodology and execution of the study are too exhaustive for this article, the conclusion was clear: “Outgoing relevant links to authoritative sites are considered in the algorithms and do have a positive impact on rankings.”
According to a study by Moz, there’s a direct correlation between links and Google rankings.
It’s clear. While outbound linking cannot be the only weapon in your arsenal, a prudent use of the same will definitely help in positively impacting Google rankings.
Anchor Text Of Outbound Links
The anchor text plays a huge role in letting the search engine (and readers) identify the target website linked to your content. Let us give you an example wherein you’re writing the following on your website:
“A key component of a robust SEO strategy is to identify the best SEO tool for your needs.”
If you have a blog on, say, 70 Best SEO Tools, what would you prefer to be your anchor text – “best SEO tools” or “SEO tools for your needs”?
If you opt for the first option, you’d be guilty of keyword-rich anchor text. This simply means using the primary keyword as an anchor text for an article targeting that same keyword.
For instance, the post on 70 Best SEO Tools has “best SEO tools” as its primary keyword. If you are able to extract a backlink from another website wherein the anchor text is “best SEO tools” as well, it’s more or less the same as stuffing your content with that keyword. In our opinion, it’s best if you are able to avoid or minimize the usage of keyword-rich anchor text.
This also applies to outbound links and the anchor text you use on them.
On the flip side, if you retain the same anchor text but instead link to a non-relevant page not related to SEO tools (or even SEO), Google will identify the misaligned relationship and potentially penalize you. For Google, this translates to nothing but spammy link-building under black-hat SEO.
Aligning the anchor text with the target page will help the search engine identify sources of accurate knowledge pertaining to niche topics. Not only will the users be redirected to authoritative sites, your own content will also be marked as trustworthy and legitimate.
There’s a direct correlation between outbound links and the trust users place in your website.
There’s a reason why reciprocal link schemes are dangerous (if you don’t know what you’re doing). Imagine a user who is going through the content on your website. While the actual content is benefiting him, there’s an outbound link wherein he’s redirected to a spam-filled website that has nothing to do with your niche.
Game over. Even though your content was engaging, the user will associate your website with spam because he was redirected to a spammy website due to an outbound link on the webpage. This is why sourcing organic and naturally-occurring links relevant to your existing content is the only way to satisfy both users and Google.
On the flip side, if there are no outbound links, the readers engagement might decrease This can end up hurting your search rankings, since user behavior is also a ranking factor.
It’s alright if you’re writing an opinion piece, but if you’re writing fact-based guides/tutorials/reports without any outbound links, the user will have no way to know if the information therein is genuine or not. If there are ample citations and outbound links to legitimate websites, your own legitimacy goes up as well.
It’s immature to believe that you can somehow compile ALL the relevant information on a topic in a single webpage. And to be honest, the user is only looking for a part of the solution anyway.
And that’s okay.
If you’re able to link the user to authoritative and related content from your page, the users will attach a certain level of legitimacy to your brand. They’ll know that you are not providing the end-to-end solution, and mostly they will be ok with it. Therefore, readers often look forward to legitimate links that direct them to an additional resource that helps them.
This will enrich the overall user experience. They’ll come back to your website for more high-quality content (even if the content is not yours).
How many outbound links are too many?
Can you remember a time when you stumbled across a webpage littered with outbound links?
It’s quite likely that you don’t see them that often.
This is because such webpages are penalized by Google. Having the ideal number of outbound links plays a key role in determining whether you have an overall healthy link profile or not.
Credits: Neil Patel
But the question is, how do you decide how many outbound links are too many on any given webpage? Where do you stop?
Let’s find out.
100 Outbound Links – Fact or Myth?
When someone asks how many outbound links should ideally be there on a webpage, “100” often pops up now and then. Where did this figure come from?
Well, blame it on none other than Google. The magical figure of 100 outbound links was validated by Google for years in their guidelines. Matt Cutts, in a post in 2009, said:
“Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number (fewer than 100).”
That being said, 100 links was considered to be a rule of thumb rather than a mandatory requirement. It did not mean that Google would remove or de-index pages which had more than 100 outbound links. But after Matt’s 2009 comments, Google dropped the figure of “100” from their guidelines.
How did that impact the number of outbound links?
In multiple Webmaster forum threads, the SEO community came to the conclusion that the 100-links limit is just a suggestion, and that are hundreds of pages containing links more than that which have not been penalized by Google. Staying loyal to the users, Google has always been more interested in where the links redirect the users to, rather than just the volume of links.
Additionally, there’s no sense in having a blanket cap of “100” across the entire web. You can’t really put a 600-word article and a 20,000-word post on the same pedestal when it comes to deciding how many outbound links should they both have.
If a webpage contains dozens (or hundreds) of outbound links, the maths is simple – the actual PageRank of that page will be divided between all those links. Each page is going to bag a very tiny amount of rank power anyway.
What’s the final number of outbound links?
While the 100-link limit is an outdated number, it’s still a good rule of thumb for content creators and webmasters. That being said, do remember that there’s no official cap when it comes to the number of outbound links on a webpage.
Now that you know that Google is more concerned with factors other than just the volume of outbound links, what are those factors? Let’s analyze the most significant ones individually.
How relevant is the linking site?
In another bid to combat reciprocal linking and link farms, the relevancy of a site linking to you plays a huge role in building your overall link profile. If, for instance, Positronix Electronics gets a backlink from, say, a blog on archeology, there’s no relevance there. But if the backlink comes from a giant in the electronics domain, then that’s a game-changer.
If your outbound link is redirecting to a domain not even remotely related to your niche, Google will have no option but to mark that as spam. And we don’t want that, do we?
How relevant is the context?
There are multiple layers when it comes to Google deeming links and content to be ‘relevant’. Links occurring naturally are just that – organically flowing into your content.
What does this mean?
The anchor text is not the only tool to assess the relevance of the link. The algorithm will detect if there’s a connection between the webpage being linked out to, the anchor text, the line/paragraph in which the anchor text lies, your own internal web page on which you have given the outbound link…
You get the picture, right?
If you’ve addressed all these factors before providing an outbound link, there’d be no reason for Google to consider it as spam. If there’s a connection between all these factors, it contributes to the health of your link profile.
How compromised is the website?
In the digital world, you can never be too cautious. You might be the epitome of an organic website with legitimate outbound links, but how can be sure that there are no spammy pages linking to the websites you link to? Or maybe the website you link to links to irrelevant pages?
The algorithm will deem this to be at par with any other spammy behavior. Which is why you should do your homework.
Most people blatantly provide outbound links and are only too eager to accept inbound links, but make sure the concerned websites are legitimate on all counts.
Does it matter if outbound links are dofollow or nofollow?
A lot has changed after the September 2019 update. Earlier, giving out nofollow links meant you are telling Google to ‘block’ the link for the purpose of crawling and SEO. Post the September 2019 update, Google has shifted to a hint-based model wherein it’ll analyze a host of other factors before deciding whether to consider the link for ranking or not.
How will that impact your overall outbound link health profile?
Now that you have an option to classify sponsored and user-generated content using separate attributes, it’s up to Google to identify whether or not to include them in the search results or not. The deciding factor will be how these links are contributing to the overall relevance.
Coming back to the total volume of outbound links, only the final indexed results will tell you how many links have been classified as “nofollow”, and how many have been considered for Google Search.
When should outbound links be nofollow?
Like we mentioned above, nofollow links are not completely useless. They have their utility. Sure, they don’t contribute to the health of your link profile, but they can be leveraged elsewhere as well. Let’s discuss how.
- Paid links: If you’re engaging in link-building via paid links – knowingly or unknowingly – you run the risk of Google penalizing for the same. In such cases, it’s better to assign a nofollow link for such instances.
- Comment links: It’s a common practice by spammers to litter the comments on public portals with their links. If you’re actively monitoring your comments, you can remove such spam links. Failure to do so will invite a penalty. Alternatively, you can resort to a default nofollow for all links in the comments.
Adam White used nofollow links to boost traffic and documented his story
- User-generated content: If there’s a provision for guest posting or any other form of user-generated content on your website, you can leverage a nofollow policy to safeguard yourself from inadvertently endorsing their views and ideas.
- Embedding: Quite often, you wish to credit a brief excerpt from an otherwise not-so-relevant article. At the same time, you don’t want your users to go there since it’s not related to your niche. In such cases, you can opt for a nofollow link.
No paid links
It’s simple – if you’re going for paid links, you’re going to be marked as spam by Google without an afterthought.
In most cases, it’s blatantly obvious that the links are paid for. In such a scenario, the algorithm will outright detect the same and penalize you. That being said, the algorithm obviously can’t figure out if you reached out to someone in open communities (like Slack) for a link exchange, or bought dinner in exchange for a link.
If you’re careful enough to avoid detection, always remember that relevancy will forever remain the key.
So what is an outbound link? Outbound link is a key weapon in your SEO strategy.
But it’s important to use them prudently. Gone are the days when dofollow and nofollow were the only categories of outbound links. After the September 2019 update, Google has shifted from a ‘follow’ model to a ‘hint’ model. You now have the liberty to use “sponsored” and “ugc” attributes in addition to the existing nofollow and dofollow ones.
It’s your job as a caretaker of your website to use all these attributes by prioritizing the user’s intent and behavior over anything else. While the fact remains that inbound links play a greater role in SEO and Google ranking, don’t commit the mistake of overlooking outbound links altogether.
The September 2019 update also re-emphasizes the fact that Google is always in a continuous process to modify and upgrade its algorithm. You can spend countless days trying to find a loophole in the way Google approaches link-building, but if you’re not prioritizing the end-user in the way you generate and disseminate content, you’re not strategizing for the long term.
In the long run, relationship-building will transcend link-building. The question is, what’s your priority right now?
Got any further queries around what is an outbound link or link-building in general? Have a few concerns around the overall health of your link profile? Drop-in a comment below!
About the Author: Praneet Saxena is the Head of Content at Hiration – an AI-powered online resume builder and career services platform.