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 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