Outbound Links and SEO: Linking Out is a Ranking Factor and Benefits Your Site
Do outbound links (also called outgoing links) matter for SEO (as in Search Engine Optimization)? Does Google count them to determine your website’s worth? These are common questions publishers ask themselves.
Finally Matt Cutts of Google has confirmed in 2009 that one of the most used SEO 2.0 techniques, linking out, is an important ranking factor. How important are outbound links and why? Read on to find out.
He explained it in the context of his admission that the SEO practice of using the “nofollow” attribute to hoard Google authority is futile.
The so called “advanced SEO” technique of “PageRank sculpting” has been disabled by Google long ago. You can stop using nofollow on internal links and ideally altogether.
Outbound Links vs Inbound Links
What are outbound links? Outgoing links lead from your website to other websites. In contrast inbound links – also called incoming links – are leading to your website from third party publications.
When I link to someone else it’s an outbound links from my perspective. From their perspective – the site I linked to – it’s an inbound link though.
What is the problem with outbound links? Why do I even cover them here? Let’s say that in recent decades, it started around 2000 and the trend is still strong
publishers are afraid to link out to other sites.
When in doubt they use the “nofollow” attribute on outbound links. This way they assume to protect their own site for SEO reasons. Does crediting sources or linking to more resources from third party sites hurt your site? Do outbound links harm your website?
This is completely illogical and based on an irrational fear. It also shows an utter lack of understanding of how the Web works since day one. The Web is made of links so when you don’t link out you fail at being part of the Web.
Up until 2009 many webmasters tried to do it that way. The technique to hoard website authority was called PageRank sculpting. Google embarrassed them one day out of the blue.
Why Listen to Matt Cutts this Time?
Matt Cutts of Google [Update: Mr. Cutts has left Google by now to work for the Pentagon on cyberwarfare.] was seldom relevant to the practice of modern SEO or SEO 2.0 – he mostly dealt with spammy old school SEO. In contrast SEO 1.0 practitioners follow his every move like some CIA spies.
I ignored “the head of Web Spam” most of the time unless some person I trusted linked out to him and made me read his blog.
I read the “nofollow is dead” posting which is of course called “PageRank sculpting” to hide the fact that Google admits its failure with the nofollow attribute.
Mr. Cutts attempted to ridicule the SEO industry by blaming it not to have noticed that nofollow has been abandoned a year ago.
Nobody even realized that it hurts your site since then to “PageRank sculpt” your internal links with the “nofollow attribute”.
PageRank Sculpting with nofollow Hurts You
Like in dictatorships (I lived in one for 10 years) you have to read between the lines when Google or Matt Cutts publish something on their blogs.
They always try not give away too much and to stay ambiguous enough not to get sued. That’s also the reason why Matt Cutts made the most important announcements on his private cat blog.
Now Mr. Cutts announced that using nofollow on your internal links actually hurts your site
It happened only after more than a week of wild speculation in the SEO sphere. The Google juice, authority or PageRank normal links carry just disappears when a link gets crippled with the so called nofollow attribute.
Until now webmasters assumed that it stays with the site, even that the remaining pages get more of it. The authority doesn’t get divided between the remaining pages though, it’s gone altogether. It literally evaporates.
Google’s nofollow Failed to End Spam
Also now it’s semi-official and pretty clear that nofollow is dead. Even though it seems Cutts just focuses on webmasters who got taken by surprise.
It’s indeed an admission that Google’s own initiative – when they introduced nofollow a few years ago in 2005, allegedly to combat spam – failed.
Spam still persists but nofollow actually made lots of sites partly or wholly inaccessible for Google’s spiders.
This way the nofollow initiative really hurt the backbone of the Web, the link, rendering large parts of the Google algorithm useless.
Google had to adapt a year earlier after the quality of results deteriorated too much. The widely implemented nofollow attribute actually undercut the Google ranking itself.
What Did Cutts Actually Say?
Now where’s the SEO 2.0 linking out part of it? Let’s dissect the answer where Cutts actually mentions it:
Q: Okay, but doesn’t this encourage me to link out less? Should I turn off comments on my blog?
A: I wouldn’t recommend closing comments in an attempt to “hoard” your PageRank. In the same way that Google trusts sites less when they link to spammy sites or bad neighborhoods, parts of our system encourage links to good sites.
Anticipating the obvious SEO reaction of people trying to keep their PageRank from “leaking” through the even “nofollowed” comments by removing the comment section altogether he tried to outline how much Google relies on outgoing links.
The crucial part is “parts of our system encourage links to good sites” of course.
You can’t trust Cutts to give away everything he knows here so let’s read between the lines: only “Parts of our system” “encourage” linking out.
This is basically redundant. You don’t need to emphasize that only parts do. Google has more than 200 ranking signals.
We know that the Google algo is not wholly based on linking out so it must be just parts. Why does he say it then?
The Private Blog Facade
You could argue that he was just to busy to formulate it perfectly but I don’t believe that. As I understand it, Matt Cutts was the public face of Google.
His “private” blog was not private at all, it was part of his assignment to deal with the public.
Also I don’t believe that no lawyers proof read such important posts. It took Cutts several days to reply to the rumors about PageRank sculpting being dropped.
This way he had enough time for the team of Google lawyers to analyze every syllable and only allow a bullet-proof version to be published.
Call me a “conspiracy theorist” like Cutts already did referring also to other privacy advocates.
Then I call you naive: How do you think a humongous corporation like Google will deal with a public where million dollar lawsuits can arise from every simple quote?
It’s as Official As it Can Get
Also stating “parts of our system” means that it’s an official Google announcement, otherwise he could say parts of “Google’s system”. By “ours” he surely doesn’t mean himself and his cats.
Cutts attempts to downplay the role of linking out while in reality acknowledging that it’s a major ranking factor.
Why is it a major ranking factor? He compares it to linking out to bad neighborhoods. What does this mean?
We know for a while already that linking out to low quality, spammy or even adult sites can hurt your ranking in Google considerably.
The best demonstration of this “unnatural links penalty” is when Google notices that your blog has been hacked and you link to spammy sites because of this.
You can lose your ranking in the Google results almost completely. Website owners are scared of such “manual action“.
Google’s Algorithm Relies on Links
Now you might argue that by talking about bad neighborhoods previously Google already told us about the importance of the correct was to link out.
Now the difference is that he told us to link out to good resources and that it will improve our ranking.
Again, why is linking out to good resources a major ranking factor? Well, go figure:
The Web and Google’s algorithm are still based on links, the more links the better.
Since the early 2000’s people increasingly attempted to keep PageRank on their sites thus not linking out anywhere unless they get something out of it.
Due to this stinginess and selfishness Google can’t determine the quality of sites based on the incoming links anymore.
When everybody keeps their link juice for themselves and most sites become dead end sites that don’t link out to others the whole structure of the Web gets degraded. Why would try to encourage that?
The only logical assumption is that healthy quality websites credit their sources and that linking out is a positive feature of any quality site.
Linking out is Good for You
The more you link out to good resources the more you help Google to identify them. So Google identifies you as a new tenant of the good neighborhood.
After a while the old neighbors start linking out to you and by then you got accepted as an authority site.
When you don’t link out, you’re an outcast. Google treats you accordingly.
Thus linking out actually improves your ranking instead of hurting you by “PageRank leaking” as many SEO 1.0 conservatives fear.
Using nofollow on your comments is now worse than ever, it now hurts both your site and the websites of your commenters.
Spread link love now! Comment on my blog, add links to your opinion on that topic! Stop using nofollow for the time being!
Do Outbound Links Benefit Your Site?
In recent years a SEO study or rather test has shown twice – in 2016 and then again in 2020 – that oubound links benefits your site.
In essence they have set up 10 news sites featuring a made up keyphrase that didn’t exist before.
Then they added outgoing links to authority sites (universities etc.) to 5 of those while the remaining 5 were dead end sites with similar content but no outbound links.
The outcome after a few months could not be clearer: out of the 10 sites the linking out sites ranked in the top 5 while the dead end sites were in the remaining positions (6 to 10):
Ever since Matt Cutts has confirmed that Google considers linking out to be a ranking factor John Mueller, another Google spokesperson, has claimed that it isn’t a few times.
Although I usually tend to trust John who still works at Google after what seems to be like 15 or more years, in this case I would be cautious.
John is focusing on helping webmasters and he does that as long as it does not hurt Google’s business model. In this case his public task seems to be conflicting with his internal role at Google.
In short he is meant to tell people to do what Google wants them to.
It does not make sense to make people believe that linking out is not desirable.
Both users and Google need those links to determine the true authority of websites. That should be clear enough even though some bloggers at Search Engine Journal claim the opposite.
Hoarding authority, link juice or PageRank hurts everybody. Without links dead end sites are not even part of the World Wide Web, as the Web is made of hypertext or links. They are just publicly available documents.
Google is not as keen on linking out in recent years, trying to keep users on Google itself instead, often by copying third party content.
This may explain that strange shift of public announcements. Google is facing an avalanche of lawsuits implying all kinds of non-competitive behavior.
One of the complaints is that Google keeps traffic for itself instead of focusing on outgoing links like in the past. The only logical explanation I can come up with is that Google wants to prove that everybody else is not linking out either so that they are well within the norm.
Updated: October 8th, 2021: added chapter about SEO study proving rankings go up due to outgoing links and some clarification on John Mueller’s claim that they don’t. Also explained what outbound links are.
Updated: March 27th, 2018: added some white space. Clarified some sentences and explained the example in simple language.
Updated: December 23rd, 2016: added line breaks for mobile readability. Fixed some typos. Improved wording. Added note of Cutts leaving Google and “unnatural links penalty” as it is now commonly called by Google.
Originally published: June 16th, 2009.
* (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons image by Nikolay Bachiyski
Great post and a good read!
I agree – and have believed for quite some time – that Google “likes” pages with outbound links to other quality sites…
It just doesn’t make sense that Google would penalize (via PR drain, etc) webpages that linked out to related sites, since they’d obviously contribute to and improve the reader experience.
And the ‘new’ no-follow policy – ie. no-follow links just dissolve PR juice, instead of concentrating it all to the do-follow links on the same page..?
If that’s the case, we may as well do-follow every link to our own site’s webpages (ie. contact, privacy) and then have a limited number of links on THOSE pages that lead back to only the important pages on the same site
ie. our money making pages so they might rank higher, and recent additions – to get them spidered faster – perhaps by embedding your RSS feed onto those pages.
My 2 cents. :)
I’ve always linked out to quality sites but I also use nofollow on internal links between unimportant pages.
Guess it’s time to change direction and remove all those nofollows… thanks for the advice.
Okay then what about Blogs, like Word Press, where their SEO was mangled in Google for the “duplicate content” problem. If they do the fix of “Nofollow” on Archives they get demoted in Page Rank. But if they don’t then they get slammed for duplicate content issues!
What’s the new fix for that? o.O This will hurt blogs in the long run unless that duplicate content issue is fixed.
The only problem with linking out from comments is the time it takes to moderate them.
I delete upwards of 50 comments per day that are human spam just for links.
This nofollow change doesn’t affect dofollow blogs, because they have already been linking out generously, but most bloggers can’t counteract the negative aspects and often give too much.
Very informative. Very interesting .. and somewhat very scary!
I bought into the pagerank sculpting fad and realised I could be hurting one of my hardest challenges to date: To get “music production” and “music producer” on the first page of Google.
Part of the reason I have done very well in the past – is because I followed strict SEO 1.0 methods.
None of the sites I’ve worked on linked out. And when they did – it was a nofollow.
If I am still to be good at this – I have to change my strategies very radically. Interesting blog, won’t stop reading now.
I think you, like many others have misinterpreted what Goog set out to achieve with no-follow.
Think of it as introduced to save themselves some money rather than modifying the way the web works.
Where was the saving? People running Adwords were able to game PR to give themselves greater revenue – let’s call it spamming for PR.
If they were successful in gaining links that passed PR they got more Adwords revenue – PR being an element Goog uses to establish value.
So, Goog introduced no-follow to stop this practice; and save themselves some money.
But then the mozzers of the world jumped on no-follow and used it for sculpting and other nonsense (rather than using robot text for the reason it was developed) and we get into lots of mindless stuff about how PR is passed around.
PR doesn’t matter to approx 95% of the people who worry about it.
But now, you’re saying that no-follow doesn’t work; I’d argue that it is – for Goog.
[…] SEO 2.0 | Matt Cutts Acknowledges SEO 2.0 Tactic of Linking Out as … […]
Get out your tinfoil hat!
Yeah, PageRank and link juice have been hot topics for years now. Personally I wouldn’t stress to much about any change in the NoFollow algorithm. Sadly what this will do is ensure that spam is more of a concern for everyone. Ultimately this will lead to a decrease in comments, not because spammers will ever give up but rather because those with high PR blogs will see that this could actually hurt their internal pages.
On the flip side, time for someone to change the nofollow default on most blog platforms to a script, or simply no links allowed?
I’m not totally shocked by this, but its good to see some detective work agreeing with my assumptions.
We know that linking out to quality sites with a good trust rank in google actually helps your site.
We also know that linking out to spammy sites (like when your site gets hacked and you get bombed with a hundred links to porn) hurts your site.
It seems to me the algo will still require some way to determine the site owner can distinguish between the two; so nofollow is going to be required for some time to come until a better replacement for it can be found.
Its an interesting article!
Feel little bit shock!
You hit the nail on the head. Excellent analysis.
Wow what a post! Nice analysis!!
After reading espacially the last part of your post about why outlinking to quality sites can improve your ranking some pieces fell in place. It explains why some of the portal sites (? in dutch we call them startpages, like http://www.startpagina.nl), which are nothing more than a collection of outgoing links to quality and ‘good’ neighbourhood sites about a particular subject, sometimes rank that high. Allthough they hardly contain any content.
Should it be because of the many outlinks?
So everyone should make a links page and place a bunch a links to related and very well trusted sites?
That would be an easy way to improve rankings…
We shall be always vigilant in monitoring our website rank in google because there is a big possibility that our competitor is hiring some SEO just to link us in a low PR or Link farm site to have us punished by google robot.
I’ve come accross a blog that has a bunch of posts, each with a link to an authority site. This blog ranks #1 on google.co.uk for “debt relief order”. Outranking some established sites with the same keywords. Looks like this guy could be putting outbound links to use by linking to relevant and quality sites?
@Staysure: In this case it’s more of an “exact match” issue that is Google preferring domain names matching the search term exactly.
Of course the outgoing links might have additional positive impact here.
we all knew it anyways ;o)
and no, some seo’s did notice that nofollow was down …
Actually, I think, this at the same time encourages having a gazillion of internal linkage.
So if you have X points of juice, and you have 50 total links. So each of the “nofollowed” links lose you 1/50. Now if you had 200 links, you’d only lose 1/200 with each nofollowed link.
That post is EXPLOSIVE!!! You answered a lot of open ended questions I had about backlinks and all that. Thanks a lot. I’m going to make sure all my SEO buddies see this information too!
Excellent post. You know it’s odd but I had one site that didn’t move from 9th, then suddenly it jumped up the rankings to the top of page 1.
The only thing I’d done was to link out to a very good site, but I dismissed this as the cause because I didn’t think Google would reward you for linking out.
I’m off to make some links!
Well that’s a good news! So no need to put the “nofollow” attribute anymore. This can also mean that spammers might double their work since they will be getting a “dofollow” link all the time.
I never thought the nofollow attribute didn’t work. I wish google would release just a few little tricks to their ranking but that would make everything crazy.
Hmm…time to find some good sites to link to methinks.
I’ll be interested to see if linking out actually works. I plan to try this on a few web properties and see if they improve in rankings or not and will report back to this thread. I actually have a site that is penalized now due to over-optimization, so if I link out to authority sites, maybe they’ll remove the penalty?
What makes me, personally, very annoyed is that Matt Cutts was promoting the practice of page rank sculpting via the use of nofollow just days before turning around and saying that nofollow is now..well..dead.
Thank you,this is really informative though shocking news.
This makes perfect sense, an authority page naturally link to other quality pages with additional content as a service for the visitor. Unless your information is so comprehensive that no one else has something to add, which is very unlikely..
Thank you for this fabulous post.
I had been thinking about this for a while now. How So many sites use no follow now that it makes Google’s algorithm useless.
The smarter fix would be to design a way for the Googel Bot to simply detect links inside of comments, and just ignore those. Problem solved.
Not to mention, I don’t think Google even uses the same system for PR Link Juice anymore anyway. I’ve observed powerful results by simply using relevant links from relevant content to related content. No PR needed.
It is good that Matt acknowledges SEO 2.0
The ever changing world of SEO! It seems to me you need a research team of analysts just to keep up with the ever changing world of Google!
Once again Great Job!
Thak you very much. here is my 2 cents:
some time ago I got hacked…to some of my sites an ad block was inserted. That ad block contained links to 100’s of sites…so guess what? I got +1 PR on all hacked domains! Now your article explain it all! Thanks! Greetings from Toronto!
thank you, that was important news.. I was actually to remove my comment section but now.. I see I don’t have to
At our company we actually came to the same conclusion. It’s nice to see that there is a bunch of other experts and non-experts;) that think the same.
That’s a shocking news. Because of this new policy the blog which get more comments will be in trouble. I think it’s better to do all links dofollow. Of course blog owner has to fight against spammer. But I did not realized much that linking out to a quality site can improve ranking.
Thanks for sharing the article.
This is such a heated topic right now, but I came across your post and it gave me some much needed clarity with the entire thing.
I’ve been analyzing links for months, finding that every backlink checker (including Yahoo! Site Explorer, Google’s link: command and Market Samurai) does indeed count links to my websites, even when they have the nofollow tag.
I had been curious about this for a long time, considering the way everyone described it’s nature (i.e. not passing PR), why this was happening.
Now, it all makes sense…
Thanks for the post!
An excellent post, I never really considered linking out, I may add a few links to authority sites and see what happens :-)
That’s true no follow is dead, but Mutt Cutt want blogger and webmasters to not set no follow tags
It’s good to see Google finally give credit where credit’s due. Thank you for referencing SEO 2.0
The smart people I talked to said link everywhere. First you look like a normal user and of course no follow will eventually die. I’ve noticed many blogs removing do follow in the last six months. This is the best news I have heard all year!
Very glad I discovered this site today – definately going into the bookmarks!
What I don’t understand is whether it’s better to have reciprocal links, or worse?
A reciprocal link implies that it might be a link exchange, right?
Best post I’ve read in the past two weeks and best news this week!
I’m a true believer that sistematically linking out to other topic related website with dofollow links improves your website’s credibility in SE’s eyes.
Outbound links are avoided for two main reasons, namely:
1. fear of loosing pagerank;
2. fear of becoming an overnight depositar of a tone of reciprocal links due to signes of appreciation from the linked-to websites.
To further incline the balace in favor to dofollow outbound links, consider the fact that Google doesn’t assign much trust to websites that have a consistent portfolio of nofollow outbound links and, I my opinion, for good reason.
Recently I made a post on my blog where I present some of the benefits your site will enjoy from consistently linking out to related quality content resources in your niche market. For those interested, here’s the link:
Hope it enriches your SEO perspective!
Interesting article. Did not know that having quality outbound links would help with google page ranking.
That’s a pretty interesting article
I will have to do my own tests now and see the results
Let’s see :)
I would be interested to know your thoughts on how this theory is holding up in the latest round of changes over at google? It seems that google will reward as it always says good sites that take care of themselves and give out good info and have good content, these changes you explain would fit with that assumption
thanks for the great read btw
For us ‘ordinary’ web users, all this SEO ninja stuff is sch a minefield.
It’s so difficult to keep on top of this industry and be confident that you’re not doing something that the big G will frown on.
I guess that’s why the top SEO gurus are so well paid!
Have some limited data which suggests outbound links on blogs are effective Simply allowed comments to build up on a blog post and took them out, a month later and there was a drop of two positions
What year does Matt Cutts explained this? 2009 or this year?
Still I believe that Google is using links for their algo. More links specially relevant links.:D
I just stumbled across this almost 2 year old article and found it to be very interesting. I know that with Propsblog, I was always very generous with outbound links, with this very idea in mind. After taking most of 2010 off from online marketing, I’m interested to see if there is more data on this.
Are you still having the same experience with outbound links helping your ranking?
As someone who has been through countless Google changes over the years, I would encourage everyone to make SEO decisions based on experiments and actual results vs. whatever Google happens to be saying at the time. Results speak for themselves and they always speak the truth!
This was nothing new for me. It was logical that linking out is part of good practise espcially if we were determined to fit in authority link network. However, people tend to link to wikipedia as the so called main authority. This helped wikipedia position over some more relevant websites.
I agree, link out to quality websites not just for Google but mostly because this reflects well on your site for your visitors. If you send your visitors to quality relevant sites, they will associate that site with you, and think of your site in a better light.
I believe linking out definitely has its benefits. One thing is for sure though, don’t always believe what Google tells tells you as they aren’t going to openly explain how their algorithm works!
I agree with Mark who posted earlier. You’ve really got to take this information with a pinch of salt, so to speak. Results speak volumes, so if it continues to work then why change?
It’s nice when someone like Matt Cutts acknowledges that a certain SEO tactic works, but for anyone that tests these tactics or has access to that kind of data already knows with a decent amount of certainty what does and doesn’t work. Linking out to authority sites has been an SEO factor for some time.
I have found by accident that linking out to quality sites does indeed help my rankings.
it’s always an interesting topic to discuss but i think the longer term SEO people out there are now quite clear that what Matt Cutts and Google say should always be taken onboard but you must rad between the lines sometimes there are not so clear cut with their statement and they state quite broad facts and statements basically keep the crowd interested but dont tell them everything
[…] part of their algorithm, Google uses your external links to weigh the relevance of your content, so if you are not linking out, you leave Google with only […]
I think you do have to do some external linking but not to the point that you are basically copying content from all over the web and not seen as a individual source.