Updated for 2017.
Recently an email from a top media site was shared with me:
“…we would really rather not edit the links in our author bios to “follows” from “nofollow.” With the number of contributed articles (and articles, period) that we publish every day, we are leaking SEO authority with every “follow” link we allow.”
At the time I saw this email I was surprised, I had thought that the notion that outbound linking “leaks” link juice from a site had died a deserved death many years ago.
To understand the reasoning behind this, it’s helpful to understand that each site is assigned a certain amount of SEO authority that flows from the home page through first the links on the home page and then through out the rest of the site. So does make some logical sense that you are losing SEO authority when you link out to external site.
However most SEOs believe this is a myth.
An outbound link is a link that links outside of your domain to an external site. When a visitor clicks on an outbound link, they will leave your site, this is why some websites open external links in a new browser window. Conversely inbound links (often referred to as backlinks) are incoming links from other sites to yours.
There are mixed opinions on whether an outbound link is good for SEO. Many sites (like the site above) take the paranoid approach to prevent their SEO authority from “leaking out”. However many SEOs believe that linking out to relevant high authority sites helps your site by establishing trust and giving Google a relevancy signal.
And keep in mind Google was created with the idea that web pages would cite references just like an academic paper would. So some outbound links on a quality site are actually expected.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s check in with the experts.
Several of the Moz Search Ranking Factors Studies have found a positive correlation between the # of external links and higher rankings.
And this 2008 blog post from the Google Webmaster Central blog suggests that “thoughtful outbound links can help your credibility”.
Think of it this way, if the site owner is someone you would enjoy having a cup of coffee with, then why wouldn’t you link to their site if they have content useful for your readers?
Sometimes you can overthink these things.
The best way I can explain this is by using this post as an example.
Above, I’ve made a statement: that outbound links when done correctly are helpful for SEO. And then I’ve cited two authorities in the SEO space, Moz and Google, to back up my statement by linking out to the relevant pages.
If Google and Moz are not considered authorities in the SEO space, then I don’t know who is.
First let’s define anchor text, which is the clickable words used in the link. Rich anchor text is link anchor text that matches a popular search phrase. For example “car insurance quotes”.
We’ve all seen low quality site stuffed with keyword phrases that are also links. No one enjoys reading that stuff.
Natural outbound links typically use the following link anchor text:
If your content reads easily and the link anchor text doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb then you’ve accomplished your goal.
Your pages should have at most a handful of outbound links; there’s no hard and fast rule, but in the SEO site audits that I do, I look closely at pages that have more than 10 outbound links as a potential problem.
You want to avoid pages that look like “link farms”, which is a page full of external links with little to no content. Resource pages with a lot of these links have their place but be sure that these links are truly useful to your site’s visitors and add content that explains why the links are useful.
When can outbound links on your site harm your site’s SEO performance? When you are linking to spammy sites.
When you hand create external links, you are likely to pick your targets wisely. But what if the links are created by visitors to your site (also called user generated outbound links) and the targets are not what you would have picked?
A classic case of this are blog comments. Unfortunately most blog comments are spam and placed there for the sole intention of getting a link to a dubious site.
This is why most blogs “nofollow” links in comments. What this means is that the rel nofollow tag (not visible to the reader unless certain plugins are installed into the browser) is added to the link code telling Google that you do not “vouch” for the target site.
Also you need to nofollow paid links to stay compliant with Google’s guidelines. A paid link is any link that creates or represent a financial benefit for you, such as affiliate links. Sponsored links should be nofollow’ed as well.
When guest posting became popular as a SEO tactic, we started seeing low quality sites adopt the practice. In fact some sites that accepted guest posts were really just article directories in disguise.
This led to the famous “stick a fork in it, guest blogging is done” Matt Cutts 2014 post.
This post, which seemed to trash one of the few legitimate link building tactics left to SEOs, sent shock waves through the industry. However instead of putting in place more stringent vetting for guest posts and diversifying inbound marketing efforts, many sites just decided to add the nofollow tag to the outbound links in the post.
Our friend, the media site, may say that that their concern is the leakage of link juice (which hopefully we have established is a fallacy) – but I believe what is really going on here is a fear of having too many guest posts (and the accompanying bio outbound links) on their site.
Whether this fear is founded or not, I’ll leave for others to comment. It is true that any sort of detectable large scale pattern is not ideal for SEO (although there are sites that take many guest posts that do just fine). However if too many guest posts is really a concern, it would seem to me that just raising the bar would be the way to go.
Here’s what I suggest: accept only very high quality posts from site owners that you truly feel a relationship would be of benefit to you and that you could collaborate on other types of digital marketing.
And when it comes to the outbound links follow the best practices cited above, especially when it comes to the link anchor text. If you want to be extra safe, only link out in the author’s bio and avoid having any outbound links in the body of the post.
Kathy Alice Brown is a SEO expert specializing in Technical SEO and Content. In her spare time she loves to get outside.