Links are a delightful, unique feature of digital publishing. Used carefully, they let you give your reader a choose-your-own-adventure book’s worth of value in a 500-word article.
But used too often, they pockmark your copy with underlined text and overwhelm your readers with a cognitive load like the Scarecrow pointing and turning every which way, trying to direct Dorothy to the Emerald City.
Avoid this by knowing — and letting your readers know — exactly why you include every link in a piece.
Here’s a quick guide: If you’re not linking for one of these four reasons, you probably don’t need a link.
1. Search Engine Optimization
Links are the “web” of the World Wide Web. They tie this whole thing together. Those ties tell Google (and, if you want to reach another 17 people, Bing and Yahoo!) what your site is about and how authoritative it is.
Use links and their anchor text (the hyperlinked words) to let Google know your site’s expertise. For example, if you want to be known for the world’s best blueberry pie recipe, hyperlink the phrase “blueberry pie recipe” in any article you write back to an article featuring your blueberry pie recipe.
2. Information and Resources
Does the reader need more information than you can include in this piece? A link can fill in the blanks.
Just use it wisely. Use the anchor text to let the reader know why the link is there. The hyperlinked words should be super-relevant to the content on the other side of that link. If you’re sending them away from your site, let them know by naming the destination in or near the anchor text.
3. Call to Action
Do you want readers specifically to click on a link? Maybe it’s an affiliate link, a link to something you’re promoting or another useful article.
Make CTAs clear, but not too salesy. Whether you’re selling something or not, pushy language (e.g., “click here now!”) reeks of salesmanship, and your online audience is wary. Instead, use anchor text and natural language to let readers know the value that lies on the other side of the link: “You can learn more in our ultimate guide to baking blueberry pies.”
(Pop quiz: Based on the SEO tip above, can you name the anchor text in that example?)
Citing a source of information is the most common reason you’ll link away from your site — and it’s the one I see done badly most often.
For example, if you write, “According to a report by the ‘Blueberry Times Tribune,’ 80 percent of eaters prefer blueberry pies to any other method of consumption,” don’t hyperlink “prefer blueberry pies.” That anchor text tells search engines you believe the “Blueberry Times Tribune” is a greater authority in blueberry pies than you — and doesn’t let your reader know they’re leaving your site.
Instead, hyperlink “report by the ‘Blueberry Times Tribune,’ which tells readers exactly where they’re going and what they’ll get there without ceding your link power to the Tribune.
Or, you can cite a source text without linking to it — print has done this forever. But you give up a chance to add value for your readers. Linking to sources lets them learn more and check your work, so if you can do it without compromising the article’s goals, do it.
Dana Sitar has been writing and editing for online audiences for eight years, including bylines at Slate, the New York Times and HuffPost. She’ll present “Beyond SEO: How to Use Links for Style and Clarity” at the ACES 2019 conference. Read her tips on the craft of writing for digital media and download her free ebook at danasitar.com.