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Last updated: March 13, 2021
Backlinks are as old as the Internet. In fact, you can argue that backlinks are the foundation of the Internet. Outbound links hold the Internet together.
The algorithms of search engines have always relied heavily on the existence of backlinks. For a long time, backlinks were by far the most important ranking factor.
As such, it’s no surprise that backlinks have turned into a commodity. And because they are so important and valuable, a lot of bloggers and Internet marketers are hesitant to include outbound, external links in their content.
But that’s not the right mindset. Read on to learn more about the importance of outbound links in your content, not only from an SEO perspective, but also from a reader’s perspective.
What Are Outbound / Outgoing / External Links?
First let get the terminology right as there are various terms for backlinks being used.
The term outbound links I am referring to in this article are the links that exist within your content that point to external sources.
So this article is not about internal links, or external links coming in to your site. It’s about links you’re handing out to others.
Follow or Nofollow?
An outbound link can be marked as Do-follow or Nofollow. Technically, by marking an outgoing link as Nofollow, you’re telling the search engines to not take this link into account as a true backlink.
In other words, you don’t want the search engines to pass on any value via that link. The link only exists for the benefit of your readers.
The Nofollow Attribute
The Nofollow attribute was first introduced by Google in 2005. The purpose of the Nofollow attribute was to downgrade spam links such as blog comments. But since then, the Nofollow attribute has become a victim of its own success and has been heavily misused.
When Nofollow was introduced, a normal link was always follow. Nofollow was the exception. But because backlinks have become a bit of a commodity, many bloggers and webmasters are reluctant to include (follow) links in their content.
It’s like giving away expensive things. So they make their outbound links Nofollow. As a result, the Nofollow attribute is not the exception anymore. In fact, for many webmasters it has become the standard.
A link should, by default, always be follow. And it effectively is, because if you don’t add the Nofollow attribute, that outbound link is a follow link. And we really shouldn’t be adding the Nofollow attribute to an outbound link unless we have a valid reason to do so.
September 2019: Introduction of the Sponsored and UGC Attributes
Google has announced two new link attributes to identify outbound links that are sponsored (paid) or user-generated.
These attributes are “sponsored” and “ugc” respectively:
Recommended for links that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.
Recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.
This also means that the Nofollow attribute will not be treated as a directive anymore. Instead, the Nofollow attribute will now be treated as a hint.
Sounds incredibly vague, but what this essentially means is that Google can now, in some cases, decide to use a Nofollow link for ranking purposes.
- Keep using the Nofollow attribute where applicable (see below).
- No need to change any existing Nofollow links to Sponsored or UGC (unless you really want to).
- Use the Sponsored and UGC attributes for newly created links, where applicable.
When to Use the Nofollow Attribute?
Here is a list of situations where I would typically use the Nofollow attribute for an outbound link:
1. Affiliate and paid links
This is a no-brainer. Affiliate links deserve no credit. They are there for only one reason, to make sales. Google also doesn’t like it very much when your site is loaded with affiliate links.
In similar fashion, paid links should be marked as Nofollow otherwise you may risk a penalty from Google. So it’s best to mark them as Nofollow.
Update: you can now use the Sponsored attribute for affiliate and paid links.
2. Untrustworthy or spammy sites
Why would you link to a dodgy site in the first place? Good point, hardly ever happens, but if it does, I will always use the Nofollow attribute.
3. Too many links pointing to the same site
If you end up linking to one site more than once in your article, I would consider marking the second/third link as a Nofollow. One follow link to one domain is enough.
4. Blog comments
Outbound links don’t belong in comments in the first place, but if you do happen to approve a comment with a link in it, add the Nofollow attribute. Mind you though, most WordPress themes typically do this automatically, and they also often add the UGC attribute.
In other words, in most cases there’s no action required here.
5. Sites that already have gazillions of links
Sites like Wikipedia, no surprise, have a huge amount of backlinks. They really don’t need any more backlinks to maintain or increase their authority. You can certainly link to these big sites, but for me personally I find linking to a huge site like Wikipedia a bit unoriginal. It often feels like a default thing to do.
You’re looking for a site to link to in Google, and boom, Wikipedia pops up again. Let’s link to them. Sure, but why not look a bit further. Let’s face it, Wikipedia is not always the most reliable source. There are often many other reliable sources available that you can link to.
4 Reasons You Should Include Outbound Links
Here are 4 solid reasons why you should never hesitate to include outbound links in your content:
1. It’s the Right Thing to Do
Yes, that’s right. Linking out to other websites is in fact the right thing to do. It’s the foundation of the Internet. It’s how the Internet works. And there is really no need to undermine this concept without a valid reason.
By linking to other websites, you are actively participating in the success of the Internet community. Don’t turn your site into a self-sufficient island. Let’s all embrace the fact that the Internet is full of quality websites that complement one another.
Don’t ever be afraid to link out to other sites that provide valuable information that supports your own content. It’s good for you, it’s good for your readers, it’s good for the recipients of those backlinks, and it’s good for the Internet. Everyone is happy.
Oh and don’t worry about the Moz DA score of the site you’re linking to, it’s not all that accurate anymore. It sure is beneficial to link out to authoritative sites, but there are better ways to determine a site’s authority.
2. You Can Never Know Everything
This is so true. You will never know everything about the topics you’re writing about. Your knowledge comes from somewhere, and if there are any gaps in your knowledge, then you try to fill those gaps by finding that info elsewhere.
This is a very logical process, and whenever you find that piece of info elsewhere, you would typically give credit to that source. And by doing so, you’re telling the search engines that you’re actively supporting what you are writing about.
3. Context and Relevance
By linking out to other sites and also internally to other articles you have published, you are providing the search engines with proper context. You are essentially making it easier for the search engines to understand what your content is about.
Outbound links are typically used to point to related content, or content that supports what you are writing about. This makes your content more relevant. And with clear context and more relevance, your content is much more likely to rank higher in the SERPs.
Keep adding relevant outbound links to authoritative websites to support your content. It makes sense not only for your readers but also, more importantly, for Google.
4. Passive Outreach
Outreach to get backlinks is something that most bloggers and Internet marketers do not enjoy doing. And I am one of them. It feels a bit like begging, not to mention the fact that it’s very time consuming.
You can use outgoing links for outreach purposes as well, but without all the time wasting. A site that receives your outgoing link will take note if this. And if they like what they see, they will perhaps share your article on their social media channels. Or even better, they may link back to your site.
But you can also take it a step further and make it less passive. You can email site owners that you have just linked to, and make them aware of it. That increases the chances of your content being shared around.
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How to Use Outbound Links?
All the reasons above will ultimately help you rank higher in the SERPs. Linking out is an important on-page SEO element, and not doing this is a typical blogging mistake.
But you need to do it the right way.
Find a Balance
You need to find a good balance of external outbound links to a variety of websites. Don’t always link to the same website. You need to link to the best resource you can find on a certain topic where you want your readers to go to find more information.
Sure, this can be Wikipedia, but ultimately it can be any site that provides the best information. This can also be a direct competitor. That’s right, do not be afraid to link to a competitor if they are that perfect source.
Keep Things Natural
I often come across articles that have random Wikipedia links in them without any context. Don’t add outbound links for the sake of it.
The links need to make sense, they need to add value, they need to complement your own content. Keep things natural and don’t force outbound links into your articles.