To link or not to link—that is the question. What should you link to in your blog posts? How many outbound links should you have? When and why should you use outbound links?
We’ll answer those questions today, using posts about the month’s most-blogged-about stories to illustrate good linking strategies. The top ten stories of the last month, according to Regator.com’s blogosphere trends were: 1. Thanksgiving, 2. Midterm Election, 3. TSA, 4. Black Friday, 5. Korea, 6. WikiLeaks, 7. Sarah Palin, 8. Harry Potter, 9. Kanye West, and 10. Call of Duty. Let’s look at how a few bloggers used links to improve their posts about these stories…
1. Build relationships and community.
When bloggers in a particular niche link to one another, it shows mutual respect and helps build the community around that niche. Don’t immediately reject the idea of linking to blogs you consider to be your competition. Showing that you’re reading a competitor’s blog (especially if you take the extra step to leave thoughtful comments there) can be the start of great relationship that has advantages for you, the other blogger, your readers, and the community as a whole. Make your content as useful as possible.
Example: Serious Eats links to a number of food blogs in “Weekend Cook and Tell Round Up: Thanksgiving Leftover Derby.”
2. Give credit where credit is due.
One of the most common reasons to include outbound links in your posts is to provide references for facts, or as a hat-tip to a source that brought a particular fact or story to your attention. You will not always be the original source for the information you blog about. Providing links to your sources makes your content seem more credible, shows your appreciation of the work done by your source, and lets readers know that you’ve done your research—if the sources are credible. Remember: quality counts and linking to a site or article does, in some ways, imply endorsement.
Example: Despite its humorous tone, Cracked’s “6 Things You Won’t Believe Can Brainwash You On Election Day” links show that the information for this post came from reputable, trusted sources such as MIT, ScienceDaily, California Institute of Technology, and others.
3. Don’t go overboard.
You can have too much of a good thing. While relevant links can help with SEO, Google’s own webmaster guidelines advise you to “keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.” What’s the cutoff between reasonable and unreasonable? No one knows for sure. The safe bet is to use outbound links when they are relevant and add something to your post and not to use them gratuitously to attempt to improve your SEO. Think of them as part of your content. And when it comes to link exchange schemes, just say no. Outbound links to scammy, spammy, or low-quality sites do you more harm than good for a number of reasons.
Example: Death and Taxes’ “Harvard Law Students Sue TSA” provides only enough links to give relevant back-story and additional information to benefit the readers.
4. Recognize guest posters or image sources.
No budget for guest bloggers or photography? You may find that a link to a writer’s blog or photographer’s flickr page can serve as compensation, particularly if your blog is popular. Try allowing guest posters to include a very brief bio with links at the bottom of their guest posts and look for Creative Commons images that are free to use with attribution.
Example: Business Insider’s “Window Shoppers Dominated Black Friday” provides a link to the photographer’s flickr page below the image as required by that photo’s Creative Commons license.
5. Provide a deeper understanding of your topic.
Use links to provide back-story, additional information, or context for your post, but don’t rely on links to the point that your post can’t stand on its own. Links should let readers who are particularly interested delve a bit deeper but shouldn’t be vital to a reader’s understanding of your post.
Example: Danger Room “Howitzers Fire, Jets Ready After North Korea Shells South” links to posts about relevant history, articles from Korean newspapers, and the Wikipedia pages about a particular weapon, among other things. Each link gives the reader an opportunity to learn more but none is required to grasp the post.
6. Support your opinion.
Your opinions are (hopefully) based on facts and knowledge that you’ve picked up about a given subject. Being opinionated on your blog is a good thing but presenting your opinions without any sort of support is likely to cause some readers to question your ideas. Use links to share information and facts to back up your claims.
Example: Valleywag’s “Amazon.com Evicts Wikileaks. Who’s Next?” takes the position that Amazon’s eviction of Wikileaks was inappropriate and uses a number of pertinent links to support that opinion.
7. Know that it’s okay not to link.
A number of studies have shown that simply including links in text, regardless of whether they are actually clicked, reduced comprehension and slows reading time. The theory is that each time you see a hyperlink, your brain takes a moment to assess the situation. Click or move on? Each of those small decisions disrupts your train of thought enough to break your concentration.
Example: Los Angeles Times’ Show Tracker’s blog presents “Decoding ‘Sarah Palin‘s Alaska’: Top 3 lessons from the debut episode” in simple black and white with no links, making for a quick, distraction-free read.
8. Promote your older posts and keep readers on your site for longer.
Linking to other posts on your own blog can increase your page views, help with SEO, and make you a better resource for your readers. Feature related links at the bottom of each post or intersperse links to older posts within the text when relevant.
Example: MTV Movies Blog has written about each of the Harry Potter movies and, because it stands to reason that if you’re taking the time to read one post about Harry Potter, you might be interested in other posts about Harry Potter, the blog linked back to its previous posts on the franchise in “Which ‘Harry Potter‘ Film Is Your Favorite So Far?”
9. Bring information together.
Occasionally, you may want to quote extensively from a source or bring a number of opinions on a given issue or story together for your readers. Linking back to the original source when quoting or doing round-ups pays respect to the original author’s work and lets your readers read more from the story you’re quoting. Just remember that a link does not give you license to plagiarize.
Example: Idolator’s “Review Revue: Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’” rounds up a number of reviews of Kanye West’s new album, each with a link.
10. Use good anchor text.
Anchor text is the visible, clickable text of the link you’re sharing. For the purposes of search engine rankings as well as readability, it’s best to avoid anchor text such as “click here,” “this,” or other non-descriptive text when possible. Imagine that the reader can see only the anchor text; would he or she still have an idea of where you’re sending them? If not, rethink that particular text.
Example: GamesBeat’s “Call of Duty Black Ops Sells $650M in five days” has very specific anchor text that lets readers know exactly where they’re headed when they click.
What’s your linking strategy? Please share your thoughts in the comments!