One question that comes up every now and then about outbound links is, “Do they hurt your rankings?”
The question is based on the precept that linking is a zero-sum game. That is, if you have 1,000 inbound links and 1,000 outbound links then they’ll cancel each other out. That’s not true at all. If it were true then it would seem to reason that 2,000 outbound links versus 1,000 inbound links would hurt your search engine optimization and provide you with negative benefits. I don’t think it’s true at all.
Outbound links provide only one negative effect, that I’m aware of. I’m talking about healthy linking here, not linking out to bad neighborhoods and bad sites. If you link to good neighborhoods and good sites then the only real negative is you are providing exit holes for your traffic. That can be a negative, but it can also be a positive, or it could be neither.
Let’s examine this a little further. The search engines crawl the Web by links. That means if there is a website somewhere that has no inbound links to it at all then it will likely never be found by the search engines and therefore never indexed. That would be a bad thing (unless the webmaster wants it that way). So if you have a brand new website then and you want it to get crawled and indexed then you need to build at least one inbound link to it so the search engines will find it. But how does that relate to outbound linking?
Every link, inbound or outbound, has certain attributes that make it special. A link, for instance, is crawlable whereas normal text is not. In other words, search spiders can maneuver through them to another web page. As spiders do this they also analyze some of the data that they find related to those links and the pages that they are on.
Some of that data includes:
- Anchor text within the link
- Title attributes of the links
- The page and site authority of the linking page and website
- Age of the domain of the linking site
This is just a handful of data that the search spiders evaluate. But notice that age, authority, etc. of the site doing the linking is very important. It’s important to the site being linked to in terms of benefits received. But the linking site gets certain benefits as well. One of those benefits is that the search spiders recognize the relevance of the information between the linking site and the site being linked to as well as between the individual pages on those sites. By providing relevant links to other pages like yours you are actually helping yourself with link karma.
One way to imagine this is by examining a standalone site that has no outbound links. Maybe it has 100 inbounds and no outbounds, but the inbounds are all high value links. Those inbound links will be valuable, but they won’t help the standalone site be the best that it can be. However, a few outbound links to highly relevant and authoritative sites say to human and spider visitors that you are focused on providing great content. That helps your reputation. Let’s use an off line example to illustrate.
You’re a plumber in Smalltown USA. You do all sorts of things related to plumbing but you don’t do sump pumping. However, you know someone who does so any time you get a request for that kind of work you send them to the other guy, who also does a few things that you do so he is a competitor. Some of those customers might not come back because they’d rather do business with a sump pumper who can also fix toilets. But if you have a reputation for being the best toilet fixer in the city and send 5% of your sump pump requests across the street, some of them are going to come back to you when they need a toilet fixed. Why? It’s because of your reputation and because you are willing to send them to the best place that you know of that will help them solve the problem they have. That last part right there says a lot about your integrity. Online things work pretty much the same way and outbound links are your way of recommending those services and resources you don’t carry inhouse but that you recognize are high value. In short, outbound links have a way of coming back to reward you if you handle them with integrity and with regard to your search engine reputation.