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How Many External Links Should You Include in Articles?

You’ve read an article about external links, and you’re wondering how many external links you should include in all of your posts. Hang on and let’s discuss this strategy, and how it applies to magazine publishers, first.

In the book The Giving Tree, a young boy visits a tree and forms a relationship with it. At first he simply wants to swing on it’s branches, but as he gets older he becomes more materialistic. He asks the tree, which has grown fond of him, to turn its apples into money, it’s branches into a house, and its trunk into a boat. The tree obliges, but eventually becomes a stump.

If you’ve ever been on an external link-building regimen by your company, you might feeling like the stump in The Giving Tree after a lifetime of giving away apples and branches, trying to please. There is a lot of information about Google’s search signals online, and one of those, reported by SEO’s, is linking to external website. But are you giving away more than you’re getting?

Let’s take a short but sweet dive into the pros and cons of external linking. Here’s a summary: it’s mostly cons.

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We’ve always had a slightly kumbaya approach when it comes to social media. We’ll tell you to @ your competitors, tag and shout-out people from your articles, use popular hashtags and do what you can to associate other people and popular profiles with your social media posts. This can increase your exposure through retweets and shares.

In SEO, we’re more business-focused and a bit less kumbaya. And if you’re a legacy publisher with a high-reputation website, you may want to consider that mindset also. The theory is that linking externally to a high-ranking website will improve the search rankings of your article, because you somehow get credit from that external link, and also provide Google with a way to associate your content with a topic.

This may be wise for small websites with little to no reputation, but is it a good idea for magazine websites that already have high reputation?

This is something Google may very well want us to do, because it helps them index the web and associate content, but it doesn’t seem to be in our favor.

Should you link, and how many external links should you include?

Consider this: You’re trying to rank on an article on a recipe about blueberry crumble. You’re told that you need to link to five external sources, so you go ahead and make a list of related blueberry recipes on other high-ranking websites.

But could an external link be telling Google that you consider these other blueberry crumble recipes to be better, or have more authority than your own? And if you’re a high-reputation site, like most magazine websites are, won’t linking out to them actually cause them to rank better, rather than you? And to be fair, wouldn’t Google be able to associate this content with a topic by linking internally to your other blueberry-related recipes instead of externally?

When you follow the Mequoda Method, which follows the principles of ACEM (attract, capture, engage, monetize), it becomes much more difficult to “capture” an email address after you have “attracted” a new visitor, if you send people away. Sure, you can make sure the link opens in a new window, as all external links should, but how distracting is that from your primary goal of attracting traffic and then converting visitors into subscribers?

Given that our clients who follow the Mequoda Method see 70% or more of their website traffic from search—nearly none of whom are linking externally as a strategy—we can speak with some authority that external links aren’t a necessary component of your ongoing SEO editorial strategy.

Instead consider these best practices, and how forced external linking can go wrong

1. Include 3 internal links in every post, not external.

While external links have yet to prove they help SEO for legacy publishers, internal links have proven with consistency that they do. This has been a best practice of ours for several years since we’ve witnessed the increase of pagerank on articles that have more internal links pointing to them. If an article was about blueberry crumble, we would include at least three associate keywords like “blueberry crumb pie,” “blueberry crumble recipe” and “blueberry cobbler”, and then link those to related pages. The internal links help Google understand what your page is about, and it also helps the rank of the page you’re linking to by offering context. This offers the same benefits as external linking.

2. Link externally when you have a source.

Sometimes it’s necessary to seek outside expertise on a topic from another website, and in that case, you should link to your external source. Where this can go wrong is when you task an editor with including a mandatory 3 external links. Now the editor is forced to source more content and expertise from an external source, and suddenly you’re just a reporter on the facts instead of being the authority.

3. When linking externally, choose your links wisely.

Another issue that comes up when editors are forced to include mandatory external links for the sake of possible SEO, is that you may end up linking to exactly the pages you’re trying to rank against. If you were writing the article about blueberry crumble, you’re probably going to Google the term “blueberry crumble”. And since the “best” sources of this information should be on page one, you might choose all of your external links from this page. Now instead of helping SEO, you’ve just reinforced to Google that the results on page one are the best results on this topic, not yours.

In closing, if you are high-authority website with a lot of content, like most magazine websites are, internal links can offer you better SEO benefits that you can actually track. Asking editors to include external links as part of an SEO regimen can lead to giving away more than you receive. And while the boy from The Giving Tree did eventually come back as an old man and use the stump for shade, which made the tree happy, we think you’re better off as a full-grown Sequoia, thriving and growing every year.

If you’re looking for advice on how to transform your legacy publishing business into a multiplatform digital empire, let’s talk. To discuss how we can help you grow your audience, revenue and profits, schedule a free introductory conversation with Don Nicholas, our Chairman & CEO.

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One thought on “How Many External Links Should You Include in Articles?

  1. L.D. says:

    Great information and even though I am still in the early stages working to learn key methods I am already practicing that as an intentional strategy. There are no external links from my site or blog except to other courses, books, webinars and products that I personally own and sell. In the event I mention another site or resource in an article it will be just that – a mention – no link.

    On social media its a different story – since after all it is Social Media… so I will use numerous links and info graphics to ad value mainly and develop a little more recognition in the process.

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