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Are Outbound Links a Google Search Ranking Factor?

Does adding more outbound links to your content help you rank higher in Google Search?Let's look at the evidence.

You can't throw rocks in SEO without hitting a link builder.

Links have been an integral part of search optimization since the early days of Google.

But what about outbound links?

These are links within your content (source) to other websites (target).

But are outbound links actually a ranking factor?

Disclaimer: Outbound Links as Ranking Factors

Google considers one website to link to another as an endorsement.

When a website refers to another website through a link, they are more likely to do so because they believe the content they are linking to is reputable, authoritative and trustworthy.

Is this always the case?No.

For as long as search engines and links have existed, marketers have struggled to find ways to manipulate Google's perception of what a link actually means.

We know that when a website links to you, it can help you improve your search rankings.

But what about when you link to another site – does that also help your site rank higher?

The SEO industry has never reached a complete consensus on whether outbound links are a direct ranking factor in Google's algorithm.

Many people believe that outbound links are not a ranking factor at all and have no SEO benefits for the linking party (source).

However, some people think that who you link to is a signal that can help your own rankings, as well as the pages you link to.

Evidence of outbound links as a ranking factor

Google's John Mueller addressed this question in the inaugural "Ask Google Webmaster" video in July 2019.他 说:

"Linking to other sites is a great way to provide value to users.Often, links help users learn more, see your sources, and better understand how your content relates to the issues they're having.

In the same video, Mueller warns that the reason behind the link matters — Google is very good at sniffing out bad links.

He noted that reciprocal links, paid links, and user-generated reviews are the types of links that Google might consider questionable quality.For these links, you should use rel="nofollow".

See Julie Joyce's guide on When to Use Nofollow on Links & When Not To for more information.

Simply put, Google wants to see outbound links that indicate that the page you're linking to is a good fit for the user.

Therefore, we know that user experience and value to searchers/site visitors are top priorities for Google.

As Mueller said, outbound links are a great way to provide value to users.

Plus, we have a bunch of other SEO pros and bloggers saying:

  • "...Valuable outbound authority links are the ones Google likes to seePart of the recent Google Panda update.
  • "Through theFollow some of these best practices when optimizing outbound links, you may seeImpact on your visibility and rankings.

Some even quantify what you need to do for outbound links that "work" and recommend at least two or three per piece of content.

(I'm not linking to these sources because I don't want them to be believed.See what's going on here?In 2021, suggesting a certain density of outbound links is SEO magic that makes as much sense as optimizing for a 7% keyword density.

In addition to industry chatter, Reboot's Shai Aharony ran a small experiment in 2016, where his team created 10 brand new websites with articles of "comparable structure and text length" to test whether outbound links had an impact ranking.

The research raised some eyebrows, endorsed by Rand Fishkin, who said:

"This study of outgoing links that influence rankings is as close to 'proof' as we get in the SEO world..."

Half of the sites contained three links – one each for Oxford, Cambridge and the Genome Institute.Both use the name of the institution as anchor text;The third anchor text is the completely made-up test keyword "phylandocic".

Another fictional control word, "ancludixis," was placed in unlinked content so they could determine whether anchor text was a factor in rankings.All domains were purchased at the same time, none were optimized for "physical".

The study states:

"The results were clear.Outgoing relevant links from authoritative sites are factored into the algorithm and do have a positive impact on rankings.

The analysis goes on to say:

"The main thing to take away from this test is that while we don't know and haven't proven how powerful outgoing links are in the grand scheme of things, we've shown that they do have a positive impact when used properly.

However, this evidence is not entirely convincing.

Here's what we see in the results.The authors note that the graph shows where a site is in the rankings.

  • blue line = Website with outgoing links.
  • orange line = Website with no outgoing links.

As you can see, sites with outbound links rank in the top five Google results, while those without outbound links rank in the next five.

Without looking at the content itself, it's impossible to know if other factors are at play.

But we do know that the fictitious target keyword "phylandocic" is used as anchor text at least once per article.Does it increase rankings because it's anchor text, or just because the word appears on the page?

This test is really too small.The fact that there is nothing else in Google's index for this fictional word almost guarantees you'll get the top 10 results for 10 articles.

All other things being equal - and it seems they do take steps to make all other things as equal as possible - it might just be a matter of the extra keyword mentions that make these articles more relevant to the query.

So, does this actually demonstrate the value of outbound links as a direct ranking signal?No.

Evidence against outbound links as a ranking factor

Outbound links can tell Google many positive things about the website the link points to – for example, that it is considered authoritative and trustworthy.

Alternatively, the person creating the content is an expert in the field.

That's exactly what Google wants to see in recommended content, and as an answer to searchers, they tell us this throughout Google's Search Quality Rating Guidelines.

Get the free SEJ guide to Google EAT and SEO to learn more.

But Google also has to take into account that there are many ways to manipulate links.They are a commodity that can be bought and sold.

People can exchange links for other links or anything of value to interested parties – for example, discounts on free products or services.

Links can even be placed on a website through code or URL injection without the owner/webmaster's knowledge.

There are many different ways to play with links.Outbound links, in particular, are troublesome as search signals.

Can't I link to a bunch of highly authoritative, popular sites in my niche and tell Google that I'm one of the cool kids too?

At some point, you can.This PageRank sculpture blog post by Matt Cutts resurfaced in a 2019 Twitter conversation about the benefits of linking to authoritative content.

One user asked Mueller whether the conclusions drawn in a chart citing "multiple SEO experiments and studies" were true.

Although the fine print makes it clear that the studies found correlation rather than causation, the article makes a bold claim.Mueller made it clear in his response:

Here's where the aforementioned PageRank sculpture post comes in:

But here's the thing - Katz's post is from 2009.

Search is constantly evolving.Ten years from now, it's not "contradictory" that the advice at the time would be different.

This question arose in 2015, when Mueller answered a Webmaster Central question about any potential benefits of linking to a trade association website:

"We would say there is no SEO benefit to linking to other people's sites.

In a 2016 video, Mueller was asked again:

“External links from your page to other sites – is this a ranking factor?What if they don't follow?

He replied:

"From our perspective, external links to other sites - and therefore links from your site to other people's sites - are not a specific ranking factor.

But it can bring value to your content, which in turn can be relevant to our searches.It doesn't matter to us whether they don't follow.

Google search liaison Danny Sullivan echoed this suggestion that the value of outbound links is in the user.This is in a series of tweets from 2019, one of which suggested that SEO professionals should consider them in terms of journalistic integrity:

This is where outbound links really shine.

When used properly, outbound links can tell Google the following:

  • You know which people and websites in your industry are considered authoritative and trustworthy,because you are an active member of the community.
  • you've done your homework, and put in the time to really understand the topic.
  • You value multiple perspectives, and do its best to provide fair and balanced information to readers.
  • you care about accuracy, it's important to you that the reshared information has been fact-checked.
  • You value your readers' trust, and want to make sure they can verify your statement if they choose to.

These are quality metrics that help Google understand how accurate, relevant, and authoritative that content is.

But are these links themselves ranking signals?

Outbound Links as a Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Here's what we know:

  • Presence or lack of outbound linksNot a ranking factor per se.
  • The words in the anchor text of outbound links are used to help Google understand the content of the source page, just like any other word on the page.Their value is neither high nor low.
  • Linking to high authority sites is notAn indicator of the authority of the source page because it is so easy to play with.

Your best strategy is to use outbound links the way Google wants them to be used – to cite sources, to improve user experience, and as an endorsement of high-quality content.

Trying to use them to whisper your authority or relevance on Google can be counterproductive.

Excessive use of outbound links looks spammy, just like overuse of any other optimization looks spam, it can cause Google to ignore the page entirely.

Outbound links may have been a ranking signal in the early 2000s.However, Google has a lot more reliable, less noisy signals to consider today.

Extended reading:

Are Nofollow Links a Google Ranking Factor?

Internal Linking as a Ranking Factor: What You Need to Know

Inbound Links as a Ranking Factor: What You Need to Know

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