Just like PageRank flow through external links, from one site to another, so too does it flow through internal links within your site. I have seen truly astonishing ranking gains simply by optimizing this internal PageRank flow — though of course you have to have good external links first!
The key factor to optimizing your internal PageRank flow is to reduce the number of links on your page as much as possible, while at the same time making sure you link to your most important pages from your global navigation. By having those links in your global navigation, you’re ensuring that you’re flowing PageRank from every single page of your site to the pages that you want to rank.
This is one of the reasons that you want to have a hierarchical site structure: your most important pages (the ones you want to rank for the most important keywords) are in the top tier in your global navigation; the next most important go a tier down and are linked to from those top tier pages, etc.
There is no golden number of links that you should have on any given page. You want only as many as you need, and no more. Most sites struggle to have fewer than 100 links and something near that 200 links is about right for a lot of sites; most sites with 500 or more links per page definitely have far too many.
Sources of Link Bloat
One of the most common culprits for link bloat is the footer. This is the least visited section of your site, and it tends to accumulate all kinds of junk links that don’t really need to be there. Sure, your site might need to have an About Us and a section about your awards, and your founders, and job openings — but those do not all need to be separate links on every single page of your site. Consider instead having the same list of text but making it all a single link that leads to an About Us page that then links out to each individual section.
Global navigation, usually the navigation up at the top of the site with dropdowns, is another common culprit. Your global navigation should link to most important keyword pages (which should usually be the pages most people are looking for anyway). In a broader sense, however, your global navigation should be used for navigation. I know that sounds obvious, but this is actually a common problem area.
Navigation vs Discovery
A typical mistake that even experienced site merchandisers do is try to boost flagging pages or products by linking to them in the global nav. The hope is that more people will see the link, and then go visit the page. What they are doing is using the global navigation for discovery instead of navigation. They aren’t trying to help someone get where they want to go: instead they’re trying to interrupt someone’s trip and convince them to go somewhere else.
I once worked on one of the largest ecommerce sites on the internet that had this issue. Over time various category managers tried to boost their categories by inserting more and more links into the global navigation drop-down menus. Many of these links appeared several different places in the global navigation.
When the Taxonomist at the company finally did a comprehensive review, he found that many of these links were generating only 50 clicks per month — this in a site with millions of visits a day. And one of those 50 clicks per month links was in the global navigation five different times, while links attracting hundreds of thousands or millions of clicks were there only once.
Navigation is not the place for discovery. If left unchecked, it makes your site increasingly difficult to navigate, harming your user experience… and of course also hurting your SEO, because now your PageRank is divided by all those useless links.
At Wayfair we once removed over 150 links from the dop-down navigation as part of an authority flow optimization. We not only saw big improvements in SEO traffic, but an A/B test showed that the new navigation improved conversion rate, and reduced usage of the internal search. Showing fewer navigation options actually made it easier to navigate the site!
There’s nothing wrong with incorporating discovery into your site, but it’s usually better done through ad blocks (where you put your own attractive ads) and it should almost never be done as a global navigation item. This can also help you to really think about whether the ad needs to be on every page of the entire site, or if it’s more appropriate to only certain sections.
SEO vs Usability
Some of the hardest decisions in site navigation is the balance between SEO and usability. Ultimately you are going to have to link to pages with zero SEO benefit: you need a link to your Contact page; you need to link to your shopping cart or RFQ form, etc. But try to be disciplined about restricting links to pages without SEO value to pages that you really do need.
In the end, usability should usually win over SEO. After all, one of the key tenants is Do You Deserve to Rank? You need a great site, and that means a site designed for people, not only for Google. But good usability is like a good break-up: you got to be brutally honest about which links you really need in there.
Which Links to Obsess About
As a general rule of thumb, you should not worry about links in the actual content of your pages. Put links there when they’re useful to users and don’t worry too much about authority flow. Unless you have a truly insane number of links regularly appearing in your content — for example if you have inane rules like “link to at least five pages from the content” — focus your attention elsewhere.
You should be obsessive about two areas of links:
- Global Navigation Links: anything in your header, footer, and left/right nav. WordPress sites will find common culprits in tag clouds, archives, theme links, credit links (also a good way for hackers to identify your site) etc.
- Template Level Links: If you have page types that have their own sub-navigation (like facets on product listing pages, or sub-menus)
Not only should you obsess about every single link appearing in these areas (keeping in mind: user first), but you should revisit them at least every six months. I’ve found that optimizing authority flow is like a game of whack-a-mole: you knock ’em down, but pretty soon a whole bunch more links are popping up.
A Link Calculator Tool
How many links do you have on your pages? Probably a lot more than you really think. You can use the handy Link Calculator tool to quickly get a count, and list, of every link on any page. This tool was built by my cunning engineering team at Wayfair and given to the public to use.