January 9, 2014: During a recent discussion with another marketing professional, KoMarketing’s decision to obtain a third-party quote and link back to the source was called into question. According to the individual, our motivation in doing so was “hard [for them] to view …as anything other an attempt to gather legit commentary from credible sources to boost [our] SEO.”
Boost our SEO by linking out? My reply was, “The content being written is meant to provide a valuable, comprehensive resource for our readership in a collaborative fashion. Hopefully the piece also provides good exposure for participants.”
The discussion begs the question: Does linking out to “credible” third-party sites positively boost SEO performance? No doubt inbound links from external sites can have SEO benefit, but would Google look at just your external links as a mechanism for boosting search relevance as well?
In my opinion, the answer is “No.” Linking to credible third-party sites will not directly boost SEO performance.
This isn’t to say there are not indirect benefits to outbound linking. After all, we use collaborative posts as a method of acquiring links on a regular basis. I’ll write more about this point shortly.
However, as I’ve dug deeper into this issue, I’ve discovered that several SEO practitioners (some whom I greatly respect) have indicated that there are indeed positive SEO benefits to outbound linking. Here are two such articles here and here.
All I can say is that I don’t believe these assumptions are based on empirical proof. I could be wrong. It’s possible that outbound linking provides a signal about the inferred “quality” of a network (as my colleague above inferred). But much like meta tags, it’s more of a clue and not necessarily a direct factor in establishing relevance.
I posted this question in a recent Google Webmaster Tools group. While the responses I received were somewhat colorful (as tends to be the case with online forums) they supported my assumption:
As a sidebar, while positive influence is highly unlikely, outbound linking to BAD sites (link schemers, selling links, etc.) could factor in negatively impacting your SEO performance. Google will send warnings to webmasters if they discover this.
The Indirect SEO Benefits of Linking to Credible Third-Party Websites
I firmly believe there may be positive, but indirect, SEO benefits to linking to credible third-party sites. Here are four SEO-centric reasons we link out to credible external sites:
- Provide awareness via link: Hopefully, because of either the traffic you send or the diligence of the site owner on the other end (of the link), they realize you linked to them and make it a point to evaluate your content and organization. At the very least, you’ve caught their attention and stand a chance of creating a bigger opportunity to network with them in the future.
- Improve chances of social sharing: When third-party site owners notice you’ve linked to them, hopefully they share the content in which they have been mentioned. These social signals could be seen as a positive factor in search ranking relevance (reference). At the least, you’re increasing your organization’s reach in various social media networks.
- Potentially acquire a link in exchange: The big win is when a third-party site owner decides to link back to the content you wrote, or, even better, something else your organization has done because they took the time to review the existing content on your site. This is obviously the most valuable SEO benefit in linking to credible third-party sources.
- Potentially acquire a link organically: A well-written, well-sourced piece of content should acquire links organically because of its intrinsic value. A good B2B content marketer should already be aware of this and reference applicable sources with content.
Don’t Link Out Just Because You Can Link Out
This blog post is not meant to infer a B2B marketer should randomly link to credible sites in the hopes that any of the four reasons above would happen. In the webmaster group discussion from earlier, “ets” probably offered the best advice for B2B marketers deciding whether or not to link out:
“If you’re writing a useful, scholarly article … you should instinctively link to the best sites you can to expand on your argument and provide extra useful info for your readers. That should be your only consideration. If a site is an excellent and useful extra for readers, make that link; if not, don’t.”
Makes a lot of sense. Add value for your readers first.
I feel for the individual referenced at the start of this post. Maybe they checked out my LinkedIn profile, saw I had background in SEO, which then conjured up some bad experience or misconception they held. At any rate, we didn’t use their reference and didn’t provide the link.
We used 10 other quotes and references to build a piece which has gained nearly a hundred social mentions to date, two dozen inbound links (and counting), and possibly bridged a few bigger business opportunities as well.
So yeah, I guess that person was right.
The links did boost our SEO.
But not because we simply added links to credible sources. It was because we wrote a great piece of collaborative content that was well received by our target audience online.
I reached out to a colleague, Bill Slawski (credited in one of the links above) who keeps track of search engine patents on his blog, SEO by the Sea. Bill pointed me to this post written in November 2012: Does Google Use Reachability Scores in Ranking Resources?
The basic premise is that Google might look at external links on a web page determine a “reachability score”. From the post, “Search rankings might be promoted (boosted) or demoted in search results for a query based upon that reachability score calculated based upon a number of different factors.”
Some of the concepts associated with this patent are discussed in detail in AJ Kohn’s post, “Time to Long Click“, a highly recommended read for B2B online marketers involved in SEO and the validation of site usability.
This is the only empirical evidence I’ve seen that might support the notion that external linking could boost SEO performance. But it’s still indirect. There are several additional factors that could be involved in reachability scoring, and those factors would impact scoring over time.
Regardless, super appreciated of Bill providing further insight!