Good links are the currency of the internet. Google is still by far the largest source of web traffic and still mainly ranks websites by counting links to them. Links are like votes for a page, and some votes count more than others. Just one link from an important website to a smaller one can be shockingly valuable. By strongly affecting what information can be found, linking may do more to make the world a better place than voting in elections (see my article Linking as Activism for more about the surprising political power of linking, when it’s done right).
But to be effective, links must also be sincere. Strange but true: Google has mysterious ways of detecting insincere and careless linking. They can’t read your mind, but they actually can tell when people are just cynically trading links for commercial gain, and they punish websites for it. So you really have to link like you mean it.
Link like you mean it
Here are a three key points about good linking practices that I find a lot of people aren't familiar with…
- Link with keywords! That is, the clickable text of the link should contain at least one relevant keyword. Better still if nearby text is also relevant.
- Link to pages that are of genuine interest to your readers — not just because you want a link back.
- Link to specific pages (www.site.com/neat-page.html), and not just the website home page (www.site.com).
So a good link to this page would look like this:
I found a nice little page about why and how to link. It’s a really clear description of linking basics that is surprisingly hard to find elsewhere.
The clickable text contains keywords. The surrounding text is ample and relevant. It’s a sincere recommendation. It links to a specific page.
Anatomy of a link
Most blogging software will make links for you, but if you want to build a link in HTML yourself — and many people still need to do that — this is what it actually looks like behind the scenes:
<a href="http://www.paulingraham.ca/why-and-how-to-link.html">how and why to link
The clickable text is bracketed by <a> and </a>, and the address goes inside the first one, labelled with href (hypertext reference). The famous http:// part is the address or URL (Universal Resource Locator) and basically means “this here address is a web page address” (as opposed to some other part of the internet).
Bad link examples
Literally thousands of people have published links to my articles online. Most of them have problems. The most common are:
- links to nowhere (broken address)
- links to pages that have nothing to do with the clickable text, especially…
- links to the home page after recommending something specific (and the specific link is missing)
- links to here or a page (meaningless clickable text)
- links with no explanation, recommendation, or context
- links on pages with low value and no text to support them
Go forth and link unto others as you would like other to link unto you. And link to this page so that they can learn how!
The worst of all
Sometimes people think more links is better, and so they try to do you a favour by publishing many links — for instance, by adding you to their blog sidebar. Unfortunately, these days such links are worthless or worse, because Google judges them to be “artificial.” Google may actually punishes publishers for mass-produced links — the friendly fire of modern SEO. At best, they simply ignore them.
Never ask permission to link (you don’t need to)
Good quality links are a valuable gift — a favour! Not only is asking permission to link to someone’s website unnecessary, it will betray your amusingly extreme naïveté of online publishing. No savvy publisher will take you seriously if you start with this question.
The question is obviously a friendly but confused attempt to do the right thing. However, citing someone’s work does not tread on their toes in any way. It is not an infringement of copyright, for instance. The only thing you would have to ask permission for is the re-publishing of someone’s actual content — not merely linking to it. See Linking Etiquette.