Outbound Links: Do They Affect SEO?

Erika Varagouli

Nov 25, 202010 min read
Do Outbound Links Affect SEO?

Many of us are aware that internal links are the secret weapon of many SEOs and that they can help to supercharge organic rankings and visibility. However, we rarely see recommendations to optimize outbound links.

Optimizing outbound links is one of the link building tactics the industry is split on; some believe they are an essential consideration, while others do not. The reality is that we should be paying attention to how we are linking out from our content and that there could be more to consider than we often do.

And in this guide, we will teach you everything that you need to know about outbound links, specifically looking at:

We will take a dive deep into how SEOs should be thinking about outbound links, debunk some of the common myths and even share our top tips for outbound linking best practice. But, let's start with the basics first. 

Outbound links are links that point from your website to another.

They are often used within content to add more context and to link a reader to another source that will add additional and important information to the topic at hand.

Some refer to outbound links as 'authority links,' which is a concept that comes from the fact that writers often use outbound links to back up information in their articles and link out to authoritative sources.

If you are responsible for creating content as part of your marketing efforts, there is a very good chance that you are also responsible for any outbound links that sit within these pieces.

Outbound links are not solely the same as external links, yet they fall under this categorization. 

The term external links can refer to:

  • Backlinks (inbound links), which are links from other websites to yours.
  • Outbound links, which are links from your website to someone else's. 

It is easy to confuse these, and the reality is that an outbound link from one website is a backlink for another. 

Internal links are simply links that exist between two pages on the same website. These links help to build topical authority, distribute PageRank, and improve rankings and organic visibility.

If you are not already thinking about how you can use outbound links within your content, you should be.

While they are not the first thing most SEOs think about when auditing their sites and planning successful strategies, there are reasons why they should receive more attention.

Strengthen Topical Signals and Add Depth

Linking out to relevant content helps to strengthen the topical signals of your web pages and helps to add context for Google to understand your site better.

Outbound links can help demonstrate the depth of the topic that you are writing about and can point readers to further resources that they can use to learn more about certain concepts. This is especially important when writing about complex topics that may take more explaining to understand what is being referenced fully.

Outbound links are a vital part of naturally writing great content and adding depth; do not be afraid to use these where necessary and when it makes sense to do so.

Adding Value

You are not going to cause problems by linking out, despite what some common myths might have you think (we will touch on those shortly). Use them to enhance your content, add depth to the topic, and strengthen topical signals.

Google's John Mueller stated in one of the search engine's explainer videos that:

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.

— John Mueller, Google

Build Your Reader's Trust

Remember being told in school or college that you must back up quotes, facts, and statistics with sources?

When writing on the web, outbound links are how you should reference your sources. This is something that Google employees themselves have confirmed on multiple occasions.

If you are citing a source (person or research), link out to the information mention. This way, you build the trust of your readers by referencing your sources and presenting them to your audience. This to visit and understand themselves if they wish to do so.

In a world where fake news is sadly all too common, citing your sources has never been more important. Just be sure to check that you are using the most authoritative version, if at all possible. 

It is easy to come across a fact, statistic, or a quote on a site and be quick to reference that as the source, but often that is being cited from somewhere else.

Always use the original version when you can do so, to add that extra layer of trust. 

You have probably heard a lot about EAT, the expertise, authority, and trustworthiness of a web page. 
There is evidence to suggest that outbound links help to demonstrate expertise as an author by linking to authoritative sources.

Someone who is not an expert in their field would be unlikely to know the right sources to cite in the same way as someone truly experienced would. In a post on the Google Search Central blog in August 2019, there was a reference to citing sources concerning expertise, mentioned as a question to ask yourself when analyzing your content:

Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?

— Google Webmaster Blog

If Google sees clear citing of sources as evidence of expertise, you would be crazy to overlook the importance of outbound links.

Whether or not outbound links affect your site's organic search rankings is a topic that has been debated by SEOs for a long time.

There is no getting away from the fact that linking out to authoritative sources can help to give context to your content and can also help users to trust your website's pages. 

As well as the fact that unnatural outbound links can harm your website's performance.

But some SEOs believe that outbound links can have a more significant impact than most would find, and this study from Reboot Online claims that "external links remain a ranking factor and good SEO best practice."

The study states:

The main thing to take away from this test is that although we don’t know and have not proved how powerful outgoing links are in the grand scheme of things, we have proved they do have a positive impact if used correctly.
More importantly, we disproved the old myth of Pagerank retention which in my opinion has done nothing but harm to the internet as a whole as webmasters try to keep the ‘link juice’ in house slowly eroding the building blocks of the web.

— Reboot Online

It is safe to say that, while there is no confirmation on the specific extent of the impact that outbound links can have on a site's visibility, they are something that SEOs should be paying more attention to. 

There is often talk that outbound links should not be used and that doing so can negatively affect your own organic performance.

But much of this is just hearsay, backed by outdated approaches and misconceptions. That said, we must debunk these common myths and give you the insights you need to understand whether or not there is any truth in these.

There is an age-old myth in SEO that linking out may harm your website's search engine rankings by diluting your site's PageRank. This is based around outdated thinking that outbound links act as a 'PageRank leak.'

But let's not forget that PageRank is based upon that exact concept of linking out from one web page to another; it is the foundation that Google is based upon.

That said, many publishers (and other content creators) often avoid linking out for the simple reason that Google has been known to hand out a manual action penalty for "unnatural links from your site." This has evoked fear amongst publishers, and there is a misconception that the safest thing to do is not link out.

But in most instances, this is taken massively out of context; Google was only referring to those participating in link schemes. Google references this action and says that if they have "detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links on your site."

They also go on to claim that this penalty only applies to those who are "buying links or participating in link schemes in order to manipulate PageRank is a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines."

For the vast majority of content creators, outbound links should be used to cite sources without any worry or concern, and avoiding them altogether is not the right course of action to take.

Just be sure to carefully choose who you link out to and make sure that the link adds value. 

The other common myth is that all outbound links on your site should use the rel="nofollow" attribute. This is something else that stems from the fact that Google has been known to penalize sites for unnatural outbound links.

Google is not penalizing sites for linking out to sources. But these manual actions exist to help keep the web clean.

If a site is seen to be selling links to other websites or is suffering from problems where user-generated content (usually comments) are resulting in backlink spam (placing unnatural outbound links), these actions may happen.

A link out to another website should be placed editorially because the author of the content wanted to cite a source or help a reader to navigate somewhere else on the web. For this reason, most outbound links do not need to use the rel= "nofollow" attribute.

But as simple rules:

  • rel= "nofollow" should be used when links are not editorially placed and are the result of sponsorships, advertisements, or user-generated content (UGC) in comments and forums.
  • rel= "sponsored" can be used as an alternative to rel='nofollow" when a link has been paid for via advertising or sponsorship.
  • rel= "ugc" can be used as an alternative to rel='nofollow" when a link comes from user-generated content. 

CheiRank vs. PageRank

There is a good chance that you are aware of PageRank.

And while Google's authority metric for web pages has not been publicly updated since 2013, it is still very much used. 

But maybe you are not so familiar with CheiRank and are wondering what it is? While PageRank is all about inbound links, Cheirank is all about outbound links.

SEMrush columnist Kevin Indig breaks this down in easier-to-understand terms:

CheiRank measures the importance of a page based on its outgoing links. It is an inverse PageRank: it’s a concept that describes how communicative a node is within a corpus. Let me translate into English.
If the idea of PageRank is to measure the “strength” of incoming links to a page, the idea of CheiRank is to measure the strength of outgoing links from a page.

— Kevin Indig

It is a complex concept to get your head around, but one that further backs up the importance of considering how you link out. 

After reading about the importance of outbound links, it is clear that you need to be thinking about them when creating content. 
But what are the best practices that you should be adhering to when linking out from your site to others?

Carefully Consider Where You are Linking Out To

Do not just link out for the sake of doing so.

Links in your content should not look natural; they should be natural. 

Outbound links should be used to either cite your sources or to allow your readers to navigate to a website that you reference. It is important that you consider carefully the sites that you link out to, and whether or not they are trustworthy sources. 

If you find that you need to force links into your content, then you are likely approaching this in the wrong way. If you write naturally and note the sources that you use while researching topics and concepts, it will often be the case that links make sense.

If you do not trust the site you are linking out to, it is probably best not to do so.

John Mu Tweet about outgoing links

Use rel="nofollow" (or rel="sponsored" or rel="ugc") Where Necessary

There is nothing wrong with monetizing your website or blog by selling text (or banner) advertisements or even accepting payment for sponsored posts.

Influencer marketing is a big business right now, and many brands are enjoying huge sales from the referral traffic that is being sent from other people promoting their products and services. 

The main point to note here is that these links are not being sold to build links or improve organic rankings. If you accept payment for links, accept gifts in return for a link, or allow users to leave comments or forum posts, be sure to use the right attribute. 

You can refresh your memory by reading our guide on using these attributes.

You can identify potential issues with your site's outbound links using the SEMrush Site Audit Tool, the main one of these being those that have had the rel= "nofollow" attribute. 

Run your domain through the tool, and you can see a list of outgoing links that have had the nofollow attribute used.

You can then double-check that these are right to use this attribute and that you are not using this sitewide.

SEMrush Outbound Link Issues Site Audit Tool

Outbound links often are not given the credit that they deserve. However, you might now consider them a little more carefully when you are determining how you link out, who you link out to, and whether or not you use the rel= "nofollow' attribute. 

Author Photo
I create local and global content marketing strategies here at Semrush. I started my career as a journalist, but gradually the world of SEO and content marketing won me over. I am obsessed with creating content people love, Nick Cave, and Italian films. Fueled by caffeine.