Wondering what is an external link?
You’ve landed at the right place!
Here’s our beginner-friendly guide to external links, their types, examples & best practices to build authority & boost rankings.
In this guide, you will learn:
- What is an external link?
- When to add external links
- Types of external links
- How to add external links (best practices)
- Dofollow vs Nofollow links
- Google’s guidelines regarding external links
- Do external links harm SEO?
What is an External Link?
An external link or an outbound link is a hyperlink from your domain to another domain. For example, when you add links from your website to other sites, it is called external links.
Likewise, if a third-party website links to your website, it is called an external link or backlink from the third-party website.
Here’s a visual presentation of what an external link is.
Significance of external links for the web
From the beginning of Google, it was designed to have a huge database of pages that solves almost any queries of people.
This is why Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google) named their search engine ‘Google’ which comes from googol (or 10^100) and represents a huge number.
One of the challenges was to build a database of hundreds of millions of pages on the web.
To make the process easier, Google started using link graphs to crawl and index the web.
That means crawlers will start their crawling process from user-controlled sites (say Wikipedia, etc.) and surf the web using external links.
From one external link to another, web crawlers eventually can find millions of new pages on different topics every day.
In addition, it helps to improve search quality.
Here are the exact words from the founders of Google, found in the anatomy of a search engine:
“First, it makes use of the link structure of the Web to calculate a quality ranking for each web page.
This ranking is called PageRank and is described in detail on [Page 98]. Second, Google utilizes links to improve search results.”
From the perspectives of crawling or indexing new pages and improving the search results quality, external links play a significant role from the beginning of search engines.
In the current age of the web, external links are not only helpful to crawlers or bots. It also improves the user experience by adding content depth to a page.
Format of adding external links
You can add internal or external links to any page by following the code sample:
<a href="https://www.yourwebsite.com/">Anchor text from my website</a>
When to add external links?
External links might seem a direct SEO ranking factor. However, adding too many external links that add no value to the users can hint at Google about the website quality.
Here are some best practices for adding external links:
1. Add links to improve user experience
Adding links to related content that help readers to understand a topic in detail is a great way of improving your website’s credibility.
When you add external links to make the content more detailed and improve user experience, blog readers will get more value out of your blog.
This way my readers can associate my blog as a credible and useful source of information regarding blogging and SEO.
2. Justify your claim with reliable sources
Many times, we add statistics or data to complement our content or statement. In this case, always prefer to hyperlink to the original source of the data (research paper, survey results, quote, etc.).
In fact, Google’s quality raters guideline states that adding trustworthy and reliable external references is a sign of high-quality pages.
This year, I updated the SEO statistical research page where I added the original source of every mentioned data or statistic.
So readers can either verify any of the mentioned data points or learn more about a particular point in detail via external links.
3. Qualify your external links
Before adding any external links, you should qualify for the third-party website to assess the site’s quality and credibility.
To understand the website quality, ask the following questions:
- Does this website publish quality content consistently (check the latest blog articles and their quality)
- Is there any spammy content or illegal content available on the website?
- Are there enough pages linking to the website? (domain authority gives you a hint about this)
- Is this website related to your niche? (e.g. if you’re running a blog about dogs then generally it is not recommended to link to a website in the footwear niche since that would be unrelated)
Knowing these answers will help you easily understand whether the website is genuine and credible enough.
Otherwise, linking to spammy websites will degrade your overall website quality over time.
4. Optimize your link text for SEO
As I discussed at the beginning of the article, link graphs and link text both matter for search engines to understand the context of pages.
Additionally, they help the readers get a brief idea about the page they’re going to land on if they click on the link.
If you’re linking to other useful web pages and not using descriptive anchor text, you’re missing out on an opportunity.
Here are some examples of generic link text to avoid:
- Click here
- Learn more
- Find this
- Visit here, etc.
The better approach will be to use descriptive link text. Some examples:
Consider giving more context to users and crawlers about the link you’re adding.
Using relevant anchor text is one of the best on-page SEO techniques you could follow.
For example, in my listicle guide of top blogging tools, I have used descriptive anchor text to improve the CTR and give Google hints about the page pointed to via external links.
5. Open external links on a different tab
We have control over the links and how readers will visit the page. For example, you can make the external link open in a new tab, and add no-follow or any other rel attribute.
To gain control over user experience on your website, it is recommended to:
- Open the external link on a new tab
- Add required rel attributes (nofollow, sponsored, etc.)
More on the rel attribute is discussed in the later part of this guide.
Types of external links
Generally, the three most common types of external links are:
Now the question is when to add dofollow, nofollow, and sponsored links.
To understand this, let’s discuss each type of external link in detail.
1. Dofollow External Links
A dofollow link is a type of link that allows search engines to crawl and pass PageRank as a vote of quality page. This helps to improve the page-level authority of the linked page.
Impact of using the dofollow link attribute:
- Search engines crawl the links and count them as a vote for quality page
- Gives search engines a hint to crawl and index the external page
- Passes PageRank to the external link (so, try not to link your competitors too often)
When to use the dofollow link attribute?
Make external links dofollow when the website is trustworthy and authoritative.
Here’s the format for using the dofollow attribute:
<p>My favorite horse is the <a href="https://horses.example.com/Palomino">palomino</a>.</p>
If you want to make any internal or external link do-follow, you do not need to add any rel attribute or select the type of link in WordPress.
Any link without a rel attribution will automatically be considered as a ‘dofollow link’. That means Google will crawl them and count them as a quality vote from your website.
2. Nofollow External Links
A nofollow link is a type of link that works as a hint for search engines to crawl, index, and eventually improve the ranking of the page.
In the past, Google never considered nofollow links for crawling and indexing. However, after updates in Google algorithm, it is official that nofollow links will work as a hint.
Here’s what Danny Sullivan of Google says on nofollow links:
“In the past, we just wouldn’t use the links at all. The change meant we’d consider them if there was some usefulness to be found, though the hint means aren’t likely to give them as much if any, weight.”
Impact of using the dofollow link attribute:
Search engines may crawl the links and consider them as a hint of quality
When to use the dofollow link attribute?
When you do not want to give any ranking credit or allow search engines to crawl or index the page from your website, use the nofollow link attribute.
To make any link nofollow, you just need to add the rel attribute, rel=”nofollow”.
Here’s the format for using the dofollow attribute:
<a rel=”nofollow” href=”https://cheese.example.com/Appenzeller_cheese”>Appenzeller</a>
3. Sponsored Links
A sponsored link is a link used by webmasters to declare that the external link is an advertisement or paid promotion. This also includes affiliate links.
Impact of using the sponsored link attribute:
- Search engines may crawl or index the external pages
- Sponsored links work as a hint by search engines
When to use sponsored link attribute
- If you’re adding external links related to any paid promotion, advertisement, or even affiliate purpose, then Google suggests using a sponsored link attribute.
To make any link sponsored, you just need to add the rel attribute, rel=”sponsored”.
Here’s the format of sponsored link attribute:
<a rel=”sponsored” href=”https://cheese.example.com/Appenzeller_cheese“>Appenzeller</a>
How to add an external link?
Since you already know the benefits of adding external links for user experience and SEO, let’s now understand the process of adding external links in HTML or WordPress.
1. Add external links using HTML
Adding hyperlinks in HTML is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is use the A href HTML opening (<a>) and closing tags (</a> ).
- Opening tag (<a>): means the start of the hyperlink
- Closing tag (</a>): means the end of the hyperlink
Now, to add an outbound link in HTML, you need to follow the below format:
<a href="Add your external link URL">Add your link text here</a>
<a href="https://www.digitalgyd.com/how-to-start-a-blog/">Start your blogging journey</a>
Note: you can use the above HTML structure to add internal or external links to your website. However, to make the link nofollow, dofollow, or sponsored, we will need to add a rel attribute (which I have discussed below).
2. Add external links on WordPress
If you’re using WordPress as your CMS platform then adding outbound links and adding rel attributes is easy to implement.
- Open your WordPress dashboard
- Edit the post or page where you want to add outbound links
- Now, select the text that you want to hyperlink.
- Click on the link icon and you will get the option to add an external link
- Add your external link and select the type of the link (nofollow, sponsored, etc.)
When you are using WordPress, you do not need to add any a href tags or rel attributes.
Just add your external link, select the type of the link and you’re all set.
Dofollow vs Nofollow external links
As a blogger or SEO professional, you should be aware of the difference between dofollow and nofollow links.
Additionally, knowing when to add the right rel attribute for SEO benefits and avoid manual link spam penalties, is also important.
Let us take a look at the key differences between dofollow vs nofollow links:
In simple words, dofollow links pass page authority and help improve the ranking on the external link page. When you add a dofollow link attribute to outbound links, it indicates Google to crawl the link and pass page authority from your web page.
On the other hand, nofollow links do not pass any page authority directly. However, Google clarifies that nofollow links can be seen as hints of quality.
2. Impact on SEO
Adding dofollow links positively impacts the page authority of the external page. In fact, getting a link from a highly authoritative site (say HubSpot) will add a lot of value to your search ranking performance.
For nofollow links, it doesn’t pass the page authority directly but Google may use it for crawling purposes.
3. Difference in format
In terms of HTML format, the difference between the dofollow and nofollow is the rel attribute.
For dofollow links, you do not need to add any rel attribute, whereas to indicate a link as nofollow, you need to add the rel=”nofollow” attribute.
What are google’s policies for external links?
Here are some official stands and policies from Google regarding external links.
1. Outbound links are good
External links in the first place are encouraged by Google as long as it improves the user experience and provides more value to the readers.
Google’s John Muller said in a video guide:
“Linking to other websites is a great way to provide value to your users. Often, links help users to find out more, to check out your sources, and to better understand how your content is relevant to the questions that they have.”
2. Trusted external references are a sign of expertise
In the latest version (July 28, 2022) of the Quality raters guidelines, there are many examples of high-quality page ratings.
One common trait between the high-rating pages is that all of them cite external references that are trusted and reliable. Also, this builds credibility in users’ eyes.
If you want to learn more, check out this example which is rated as a low-quality page because of the lack of references that support the claim.
3. Be strict about too much of paid links
One of the reasons to face a manual or algorithm penalty is excessive paid link promotion or link exchanges.
Google’s advanced AI mechanism can detect unnatural link patterns from a website.
Buying or selling links is against Google’s linking guidelines. So make sure you refrain from this or mark the sponsored links as rel=”sponsored” to let Google know that is a sponsored link.
4. Complement trusted external links with quality content
Linking to any website (without verifying their authority) is a dreaded blogging mistake to avoid.
During Google SEO office hours, John Muller was asked by a webmaster whether adding external links to authoritative sites helps in SEO.
In response, John Muller said that adding outbound links to higher-ranking pages and expecting it will be beneficial for SEO makes no sense.
Instead, he recommends creating high-quality content and referencing other related web pages to support the page content.
“Obviously, if you have good content within your website and part of that references existing other content then kind of that whole structure that makes a little bit more sense and means that your website overall is a good thing.
But just having a link to some authoritative page, that doesn’t change anything from our point of view.” – John Muller.
How many external links per page?
There’s no rule for number of links added to a page. You could add hundreds or skip adding any. However ideally, adding at least one or two links to high quality external sources boosts your content’s credibility.
Here are other factors you should consider when deciding the number of external links to be added to your page:
1. PageRank dilution
Adding too many external links (say 100+) will dilute the pageRank of your webpage. That means if a web page has got many quality backlinks over time and 100+ external links, you will miss the chance of passing the high PageRank from that page to another page of your website.
2. Impact on the user experience
When you add too many outbound links, it increases the probability of a reader leaving your website early.
Likewise, this may help readers to learn about a topic from different web pages but it may reduce your dwell time and degrade the user behavior signals from your site.
3. Qualifying external links
Adding too many external links without checking their website quality is a risky thing to do. Because if you consistently link to other low-quality, spammy or new websites then Google can rate your page quality as low to medium.
That means to avoid any negative impact on your website, you need to qualify for every external link on your website. And this task can be overwhelming when there are 100+ outbound links on a single page.
From my experience, I’d suggest adding external links to justify your claim, data, and statistics, or improving the user experience by giving options to learn a topic in depth.
Do external links harm SEO or the page’s authority?
There is no direct relationship between adding external links and the organic ranking of your website. However, if Google sees any unnatural external link pattern trying to game the algorithm, your website may see a penalty.
For example, Google’s link spam update was introduced on July 26, 2021, which aims to fight against any unnatural links.
According to Google’s guidelines, it is preferred to tag your external link properly to avoid negative impact.
- Adding any paid advertisements in your content? Use sponsored links
- Don’t want to associate your website with the external website but still want to add it to your content? Use no-follow links
Here are Google’s recommendations on low-quality guest posting for link building:
“When we detect sites engaging in either publishing or acquiring links with excessive sponsored and guest posting without proper link tags, algorithmic and manual actions may be applied, similar to affiliate links.”
In short: You should properly tag links with the right link attribute to help Google understand the outbound links.
Summary: External Links Guide
In summary, external links are references you cite from your website and thus pass page rank to those sites. This further helps them boost their credibility in the eyes of search engines and helps them rank better.
Just make sure you add links to sites that a reader would find valuable (about the topic they are currently reading) when they land on them.
If you still have any questions regarding what external links are or their usage, let me know in the comment.
FAQs on What Are External Links Best Practices
1. Is selling sponsored articles bad for SEO?
Sponsored articles aren’t bad for SEO. Just make sure either you don’t add external links to the sponsoring site or add “rel=”sponsored” tag to the external links to signify Google that you’ve been paid for the link.
2. What is an external link example?
A classic example of external link would be the links to sources at the bottom of a Wikipedia page.
3. Are external links good?
External links are good because that’s how search engines discover new pages and rank pages based on the number of citations (links) they receive. Links are amongst the top 3 ranking factors for web pages.