One of the primary principles of search engine optimization (SEO) is links = authority. If people link to your content, Google sees you as a credible source. This means you rank higher on the search engine results page, get more eyeballs on your content, and if you’re lucky—drive more traffic and conversions. 

Here’s the catch: link building is tough. According to Backlinko, 94 percent of the world’s content gets zero external links. If you aren’t an enterprise-sized company with best-in-class content, you probably fall into this category. If this sounds like you, don’t worry—there’s a solution. 

While internally linking to your own content doesn’t hold as much weight as others externally linking to your content, it can still pass link equity and improve your rankings. That is exactly what Michael Farr, SEO & analytics manager at ZoomInfo, set out to prove.

We’ll walk you through his process and SEO best practices for your own operation, including:

  • What “striking distance” keywords are 
  • The best methodology for internal linking  
  • How to monitor the impact of links 

The Hypothesis 

Farr conducted an experiment to determine the benefits of internal linking in an SEO-driven content strategy. 

The goal: Through internal linking, Farr aimed to increase ZoomInfo’s ranking for 10 keywords that were on the verge of breaking onto the first page of Google—or into the top five results. These are otherwise known as “striking distance keywords.”

He hypothesized that hyperlinking striking distance keywords would improve rankings for those keywords and their respective blogs. In other words, pages that have more internal links directed to them are seen as more important by Google, and therefore, we should be able to increase their rank—especially when these links come from highly visited pages, which pass more link equity.

The Test Methodology 

Step 1: Identify Striking Distance Keywords

Using SEMrush’s Organic Traffic Insights reporting feature (which shows all keywords you’re ranking for), Farr filtered out branded terms and then identified ones with at least 50 searches per month that were on—or close to—page one of Google. 

If you’re wondering how many keywords to identify, it depends on your bandwidth. Farr, for example, worked solo on this project. 

“For me, a dozen is manageable,” says Farr. “You also need to take into account all of the keywords that a page might rank for. Make sure the keywords you pick are worth targeting, and they don’t have just 10 searches a month.”

Relevance is a key factor here. You might rank for a keyword that has high search volume but isn’t that pertinent to your business. Ensure you’re targeting keywords you want your content to rank for.

Step 2: Find Content To Link From 

Farr used the site-specific search query on Google to identify content that mentioned the target keyword. To do this, plug in “site:[yourwebsite.com]” followed by the keyword into Google’s search engine. For example, if we were targeting the keyword account-based marketing, we would plug in “site:ZoomInfo.com account-based marketing,” and all organic results would be our pages that mention account-based marketing. Then, we would add internal links to those pages by hyperlinking mentions of account-based marketing with the article we want to rank for. 

Tip: When you use Google’s site-specific search query, the posts that pop up first are your highest authority pages. Start with those, because the higher quality the post is, the more equity it passes to the internal link. 

Step 3: Pay Attention to Anchor Text

Your anchor text (the hyperlinked copy that hosts your internal link) sends a small signal to Google on what that page is about. According to Farr, ensure your anchor text contains your keyword or a slight variation of it. If you link to an article too many times using the same phrasing, Google may start to view it as spam, which is why you should use synonyms or slight variations here and there. 

“Google’s algorithm is a secret—no one knows everything that goes into it,” says Farr. “But Google generally wants to see organic, natural-looking content. The theory is if there’s a bunch of links saying the same thing and all pointing to the same place, it doesn’t look natural, so there’s a potential Google will see it as robotic and not give it as much credit.” 

Step 4: Monitor Impact 

Farr monitored the progress of these keywords for a week. He created a campaign in SEMrush titled, “Striking Distance Keywords” and noted ranking movements in a spreadsheet before documenting final results.

“In SEMrush, I tagged the keywords so that I could go back and reference how they performed. I put them under two different tags. One tag is keyword targets, and the other tag is the specific date or month that I targeted them. That way if I ever want to look back, I can pull results easily,” says Farr.

The Results 

For one week, Farr targeted and monitored the following keyword groups and respective ranking posts with internal link optimization:

In just seven days, five terms increased in ranking. 

Interestingly, a much larger impact was observed in similar (but not directly targeted) keywords. For example, “basho email” overtook the top spot, and “cold email” jumped 32 spots.

“This corresponds to the idea that as you’re creating a logical network of links to different pages, Google gives you credit for being a good source for that type of content,” says Farr. “So as you improve your link network, you’re adding more pathways for Google to discover other pages.”

Using Google Analytics, we saw a mild week-over-week increase in pageviews on the blog: approximately 12.5 percent overall and 8.75 percent from organic search. 

Although rankings improved, the greatest impact was seen in the form of Google impressions. An impression occurs when your content appears on a search engine results page.  

“If your impressions are increasing, that shows Google is noticing you for being relevant to that term. It may not coincide with clicks yet because maybe your impression is on page two, three, or four where clicks are low, but it’s a good initial indicator that you’re headed in the right direction,” says Farr. 

The final verdict? Internal linking optimization positively impacts ranking and search visibility, including benefits to individual posts, as well as the site at large. Not to mention—it’s much cheaper than external link building. According to Siege Media, it often costs brands $1,000 or more to gain a quality link. Internal linking, on the other hand, is free of charge. 

Remember: SEO takes time. While seeing these results in just seven days is extremely promising—imagine what you can do in a month, six months, or a year.

“Develop a formula, a step-by-step process that you can follow all the time,” says Farr. “In our project management system, I have a template that I duplicate every month. It makes it less intimidating to do regularly because the process is already laid out—you just have to follow it.”

Internal linking can facilitate steady growth over time, and it’s an important aspect of a strong SEO/content strategy—but it shouldn’t be used in isolation. 

“I use it as part of a broader strategy where I also re-optimize existing content. I clean up the post first—re-optimize some of the headers or titles to make sure I’m targeting the best possible keywords—and then add the internal links,” says Farr. 

Use this internal linking strategy the next time you need a quick and easy content boost, and consider adding it as a cyclical part of your content re-optimization routine.

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