Episode 61: Optimising internal links and content structure

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What's in this episode?

In this episode you will hear an Authoritas 'Tea Time SEO' recording of Mark Williams-Cook from Candour, Maret Reutelingsperger from Mobe Digital and Michael Stepney from Blue Array talking about internal link optimisation and content structure.

You'll find out how to best plans optimise your site with anchor text and a "hub and spoke" approach to content and hear the Q&A session at the end.

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MC: Welcome to episode 61 of the Search with Candour podcast! Recorded on Friday the 15th of May 2020, my name is Mark Williams-Cook and today we're going to be talking about optimising internal links and content structure.

So earlier in the week I did a session with Authoritas, I joined in on one of the Tea Time SEO sessions, which they're doing all throughout the week, they've got loads signed up and they're getting groups of people together to talk about various SEO subjects; short, sharp, tips and opening up QA. So I did a session earlier this week with Maret from Mobe Digital and Mike from Blue Array and we spoke about internal linking and content structure. It was a really great chat with those guys, there's some brilliant questions at the end, so I just want to share this recording with you. You can also get the video of this, if you want to see it because there's a few diagrams that go along with the talk and you can see them at and make sure you check out the other Authoritas Tea Time sessions.

JB: Hi, good afternoon everyone, thank you very much for coming today to the Authoritas Tea Time SEO. I'm SEO Jo Blogs and I'm joined here also by Carrie Shepherd from Authoritas. I hope everyone's brought their tea and cake today; so as you may be aware tea time SEO is - oh great, you have, perfect! - in just an opportunity for everyone just to take that break, connect with others and also learn something new. So we've been running for this for about seven weeks now and we're really pleased to have today with us three great speakers talking about something that we've had quite a lot of interest in - internal linking and content structure.

Oh hi Kirsten, Antoine, Fati from Authoritas and Anna, Lawrence - thank you all for joining. We will have some questions at the end, Kara will take the Q&A from everyone so please feel free to write any questions and chats in there. So thank you very much for our speakers for coming on today Mark, Maret, and Mike, and without further ado I will pass over to them to introduce themselves and also share their tips.

MC: Thank you, so my name's Mark and I've been doing SEO for about 16 years now and started with my own affiliate ad sites and getting them to rank. Currently I'm Digital Marketing Director at an agency called Candour, I've been on the agency side for 13 lovely, blissful, stress free years now and I also away from client work, I also really like building SEO tools. So at the moment hope to be seen is ours and ArdvarkSEO is an SEO plugin for a content management system called Statamic. I also organise a local SEO meetup here and we have our own SEO podcast, like so many people now as well called Search with Candour.

I was asked to add a fun fact to this slide and the only thing I could think of which is really different from SEO is that I'm a master scuba diver trainer, so I've got about a thousand hours now underwater.

MR: Amazing and that is 1000 hours underwater, that is fantastic and I also I actually have a question - how did you do in World Cup SEO tools?

MC: Yeah, I think we're through to the final, only because I hate losing and I put a link on the homepage of the tool for people to go and vote, which I don't think Google have done in their search console. Last time I logged in, I didn't see a link for them.

MR: They’re losing out then, suckers. Hi, my name is Maret, I am founder of Mobe digital and inbound marketing and SEO consultancy. My background in digital marketing is both as an in-house marketer and at digital agencies, which means that I can empathise with all sides of marketing. I love telling a brand story and as a fun fact, which was a surprise addition because this morning I've been for a run, so it seemed appropriate to add my fun fact as I run a lot which I hate all the way through until I'm done and the endorphins start kicking and that's me.

MS: Cool, hi everyone. Yeah thanks for having me on, great to be involved in this. My name is Mike and I guess similar to Mark, I've been in the industry for longer than I want to admit but also cut my teeth on a network of my own sites before that grew into an agency and I'm now joining the team at Blue Array, which is really exciting, really great things going on at blue array, I’m SEO director there - have strategic oversight of a bunch of the big brands within the agency. So yeah, my fun fact - I think when I started at Blue Array I put on my profile that I was planning to climb Kilimanjaro and yeah, with lockdown I think I'm hankering for some open spaces, so that's definitely gonna happen hopefully pretty soon.

MC: Cool, so I'll kick off. I've just got two tips that I really want to share about internal linking and content structure. The first is about distinguishing and separating your evergreen content from your news content. So evergreen content being the kind of content that stays relevant, hopefully forever, but at least a long time, whereas your news content is obviously more important when it is new because it’s news and secondly about consistent and planned approaches when it comes to internal anchor text.

So I'd like to just sum it up by saying the blog is normally where evergreen content goes to die and by this I mean, I've worked with a lot of clients over the years where the approach just seems to be they have their website and when they make quote-unquote content, it goes on to the blog. So if we use an example, like we have an e-commerce site, say it's a like a car site or selling car parts, accessories, and we want to write an article which we would consider to be evergreen, something like ‘how to de-ice your car’ - so it's evergreen because fundamentally what you do to de-ice a car hopefully shouldn't change over the years and we put that on our blog and it ranks well, maybe for a few weeks or months, and what you'll tend to see is over an amount of time, those rankings may drop and this is normally due to the content falling down into this deep rabbit hole of the blog. So in a couple of years time, if you want to read that article you have to go to the blog, to the archives, to 2020, to March and then through the pagination to find it and as you can imagine, even as a user, that experience sucks, because you're not going to find that content in any logical way going through it and the same applies when you think about how search engines are working - whether you're thinking about random surfer models or reasonable surfer models, the search engines are going to think that that page itself is less important because it's buried down - it's got links from pages that aren't quite as important themselves.

So that's one reason why that happens and it I think it also leads into this fact where people update content, so it comes back onto their home page and it starts ranking again, so maybe they think it's fresh content, it was ranking, when actually it was more to do with where it was linked from on the site. So the point is that not all content is time-sensitive. So I always like to make this split in types of content, so time sensitive content stuff like if you have special deals for Black Friday, you've got new product released, you open a new premises, those things people care about when they're new and after a year, they probably don't care about so much, yet the evergreen is normally your other type of content - so like guides to de-icing car, what's the safe stopping distance, best car security systems, all those things are things we would hope to rank for in the long term.

So another structure we can use, which I think both Maret and Mike are going to talk about a bit more detail is this pillar or hub page approach which is rather than just chucking everything on the blog, you have a static section on your site that curates where this content is linked to from, and the advantage here is a few fold - so firstly from a kind of link point of view you're never more than a couple of clicks away from the homepage, but secondly, if we look at that kind of pillar page I've suggested there which would be something like a complete car maintenance guide, that in itself in terms of search intent is quite broad so if someone's searching for a car maintenance guide, there's a whole bunch of things they could be searching for, so you wouldn't expect maybe one small article to have the answer so building that kind of longer resource as well will attract more links which again puts you a single click away in terms of that content. so this structure really really works, there are ways around it without restructuring your whole site.

A good time to think about this as well is when you're doing site migrations, really great time to fix this problem and then site migrations can become more than just a damage mitigation exercise and can become an opportunity to get better rankings. So steps to clean up this content is categorise it into time-sensitive or evergreen, group the evergreen stuff together in clusters, which Maret and Mike might we'll talk a bit more about, move back up your search demand curve to intense that's broader for what you should be writing about for your pillar pages and if you don't have the time or resource to build pillar pages, you can get away with a nicely organised category page, but it won't work as well so you'll probably get less links.

So that's tip one, tip two is about anchor text on internal links. So a whole bunch of points about this and hopefully they'll come up on the slide in a second, thank you. So good anchor text is obviously helpful to your users, so again all of these tips that are thinking about your users as well, it's an accessibility thing for when a user looks at a link, they don't have to read the context around it to know where they're going. Obviously we had a penguin update, a long while ago, and that put a lot of fear into people about external backlinks and anchor text and Google have told us, a lot of times now, that we don't need to worry about over optimising our internal anchor text, you know descriptive internal angle text is good, it's helpful to users or helpful to search engines. It's really often missed in site briefs when we're building new sites and with content teams like telling them you know giving them a best practice for what they should be using in terms of anchor text. The really cool thing about it is you can move the needle quickly on big sites. Great way to do that is slight bulb release a newish feature called link Explorer, which gone to the next slide, it will show you a demo of it working and it will basically, once it’s crawled your site, show you all of the different URLs and all of the anchor text that goes to them. So this is what it looks like if you haven't used it before and if we go on one more, we'll see there's two specific things I like to do with this. One is you can search by target URL, so it might be one of your pillar pages or bit of evergreen content that you want to rank and you can see all of your internal links to that URL and really importantly, what anchor text you are using to make sure that you're using descriptive anchor text. The second check you can do is the other way around, which is where you can search for a specific anchor text and then see where they're linking, so you catch both ways.

So there's a whole list of checks that I like to go through with this anchor text. The first one being just making sure - I've got a list on the next slide, so if we move on, thank you - so have an immediate plan to tackle, like the click here type of anchor text because that's something I see on basically all sites, prioritizing kind of systemic or site wide occurrences of bad anchor text - so normally stuff in like navigation menus, reviewing anchor text to your key pages, spot checking anchor text - like I just showed you in the second example with Sitebulb - and making sure all of this doesn't happen again after you fixed it, which is going back to the content team and actually briefing them about, okay if we're talking about this, this is where we want to link to and keeping a main spreadsheet of all of that. So they're my two flowing through tips and I think we're over to Maret now to talk a bit more about hub and pillar pages.

MR: Yeah so I thought I'd share some thoughts on internal linking and I kind of want to take it a step back first to talk through why it's a good idea and then secondly why topic clusters or hub pages are great and you should definitely use them. So if we go to the next page and there's two main things to keep in mind with internal linking. so the first one is it shows the relationship between content, which is great for not just you know the old Google, but also for users.

So for example if you're reading Mark’s article about de-icing your car, then the reader might be interested in other forms of maintenance they can do on the car themselves. So rather than just linking to the main pillar page or to the hub page, actually it's a good idea to have an organic progression to other types of maintenance someone might want to do on that car, after they've read this article. And the second one is, it helps to internally share the link equity of a website. So that means that if a page does well in search results, that will also increase the search visibility for other pages that is linking to as a result, so like a great internal linking structure can help your website become like a force majeure and you won't be able to stop it in the search results, as the pages help each other for increased search visibility and that's also why, in line with what Mark said, it is important to regularly audit the internal link on your website to ensure they are still pointing to live and relevant URLs and articles. Like Mark said, Sitebulb makes your life very easy in that way.

So, topic clusters - wait a minute, I got it wrong - topic clusters are not sh#t, they're THE sh#t. Topic clusters are the bomb maybe, that's what we'll go for. A topic cluster is basically a group of interlinked pages on the website which talk about different areas within the same topic. So if I show you that visually, you will see a pillar page at the centre and then all these nice little cluster pages, cluster content, around it. So this is what it looks like in a sort of perfect, little pretty, world, but in actual fact it looks more like this. So cluster pages can also link between each other essentially. Now, why are they so great? They've become more important, especially since some of Google's updates, because those updates have seen significant changes in search results as Google understands natural language better and really seeks out those websites with authority in that field or industry. So creating topic clusters helps search engines understand if your business or you, are an authority in that field. So essentially what you want to do is write really great content for your users and fulfill the intent that they are seeking, which will help your website rank higher and also help users get everything they need from your website. And I think Mike will go into this even deeper, so over to him.

MS: Yeah thanks guys. Yeah really great points, completely agree with all of that and yeah I guess my first tip, I just wanted to expand a little bit on those hub pages or pillar pages and how we can use all of the content or certainly all of the relevant content on our site to support those pages. and then the last two tips I'll go through quickly are confining and tapped opportunities for the internal links on your site and then the last one being the mighty breadcrumb.

So I guess as an as an overview really to reiterate what we're trying to do here is obviously help user navigate through the site easily, but also importantly we want to help the flow of PageRank through our site and obviously PageRank is still a really core metric for Google and whilst it's calculated across the web, people become obsessed with external links and often forget the fact that they apply just as much to internal links. I think the one difference that's so important is that we are actually in complete control of our internal links, so it's really important that we make sure we're using them. So yeah just to expand a little bit on Maret’s point about these hub pages, I think you've seen a very similar diagram here, but the bit I want to note is how some of the even more peripheral content can also help support this as long as it's relevant. So it's really looking into things like your blog articles, your new sections, how-to guides etc. What we're really doing is just trying to find that content that remains relevant for the user to help support us up through that architecture.

Now we're normally pretty good at the vertical linking, so at top down, but if you go on to the next slide, we'll see that these horizontal links become super important as they can go back up to that hub page. So as an agency we've seen that this can be some pretty juicy fruit. just One example of this is a client that was languishing on page 5, for a really strong search term ‘life insurance’ - so on the next slide you can see that that's a hundred thousands every search volume month, it's a really important search time for them and if we could get them on page one that would be hugely valuable, highly competitive of course as well. So they are a household brand, so it wasn't a case that we needed to look for too many external links, we already knew that the PageRank existed, it was the internal linking structures that were f hindering the site. So just as a broad overview; what we took on for those guys was we consolidated all of the appropriate content into that one really important hub page, making sure that we weren't competing within the architecture between the strong top page and then adding really robust internal linking structures from those related pages as Maret was pointing out.

But then also expanding on that and introducing new informational content, so to plug some of the gaps and this becomes really important when you think about how Google looks at your content and judges your content, because we would really want to make sure that we're including all the entities that you'd expect to see within that particular topic, so whether it's on page or whether it's through relationships to two other pieces of content. So yeah that really produced some great results, we did move very quickly from page five to page one, so yeah needless to say it was a success story, but amazing to see what these linking strategies can do and just with a little bit of improvement. Of course we need to remember that relevance is important here, we can have different silos within the site, but as long as we're applying the same strategy within each one of those, it can bring some really great results. Some quick ways of getting some of that relevant content out on the site, obviously you can use your internal Site Search, Search console is great, really crafty with Screaming Frog and other crawling software, but actually the site command, good old site command, is your friend and it can be quite easy to just pick relevant, even some of their buried contenders, as Mark says you know that can still be very valuable.

Cool. So then jumping ahead where it moves quite nicely onto how we identify the most valuable pages within our site. So, of course we're giving a bunch of external links points into various spaces on the site. Some of those pages can be actually quite untapped, we don't really know that they're getting as many links as they are, so utilising a tool like majestic or other backlink analysis tools can really help. So just putting your domain into that and ordering by the pages to see which ones are getting the highest links and some of those hidden gems within that space can be things like your branch finder, or store pages. Of course, for lots of reasons they get a lot of links, but we don't necessarily always do a very good job of linking back up through the hierarchy from those and that can be really useful for a user - you know if a user lands on that page, to know the products available on the moving on the site. So other pages that are great like things like delivery info, help pages, affiliate programs, tend to get a lot of links and then you know forgotten resources ,old PR pieces that have been done, etc. so make sure you utilise every page of your site basically.

Cool, and then finally a little word on the good old breadcrumb, this is a bit of a bug there for me, I think too often decisions have been made to either limit the functionality of a breadcrumb or to remove it completely. For me it's a really important linking element, it's really handy to link up and down through our structures but also we've got full control over the anchor text, or we should have, if they are customisable, as they should be, and of course they're at the top of the page and we know Google likes to wait things higher up the page. So very important from an SEO perspective and I do think that from a user perspective, to know where you sit with a site, it's hugely valuable. Of course the argument is made that it becomes intrusive on a mobile experience, but I think in a mobile-first world, we’ve really got to think about that decision and as you can see in this example, they can look really good as long as we're keeping the anchor text concise and font sizes down to minimum etc. So yeah, quickfire 3 tips - there you go.

A: That was great. So many tips, we have so many questions and we also have a huge amount of live views, we had over a 60 I think at one point, wasn’t it Carrie? Well I’ll pass you over to Carrie and she can answer some of these questions,we'll try and get as many in as possible, over to you.

CS: Great, thank you. So the first question we have is from Simon and he says ‘blog links to evergreen pages get buried in blog pages, as they move slowly away from the home page because of blog list pagination. Is it worth building out blog categories and tag pages?’

MC: I can take a stab at that if you want. Yes, so I mean personally I try to avoid tag pages myself just because I think when we've actually conducted with other agencies' user experience testing, they just don't seem to be used that much, like whole pages of tags. And I mentioned when I was talking about building these hub or pillar pages that a cheaper, quicker, faster, alternative is to build a type of category page. I don't see many blog category pages ranking in search for many terms, and that's generally again because they're pretty unsatisfying to land on. So what I'm seeing now is and I've seen quite a few of larger, especially blogs, do this which is actually no-indexing their actual category pages and they're basically placing them with these hub pages. Which is to say you've got your blog about SEO and you're writing about link building, rather than have a category page, it says link building that just lists all your posts about link building, you then make your hub page that introduces link building as a concept, what's involved in it and then as you're talking about that, you link off to all of those blog posts yourself. So I think, personally, that's a better way to keep those links higher up in the structure. I have seen some other sites, as I say, take this approach where it's a type of category page, but it's a little bit more helpful, but that's the approach I take in terms of building up those category pages, which is, if you've got the resource, start rolling out content that's more helpful to the user because again, it will attract links and try and steer away from things that you don't see Google ranking that much in the world.

MS: Yeah I agree, 100% and I think if you can, it depends on your platform, but if your platform is flexible enough and you can add value to your category pages, then we're doing a very similar thing there where we're adding some content to that page, and we're adding some genuine value to the user and those pages become more useful, so I think that's probably a good way to go. But lifting those pages up within the structures 100% necessary for sure.

CS: Great, thank you.

MS: I think it's also good to think about when you lift something up with the side architecture, you're also gonna be dropping some other things down, so really be careful of what you're changing within the structure, make sure you're not having any impact on existing rankings.

CS: Great, thank you. And the next question we have is for Maret - ‘how would my keyword research fit in with the topic clusters?’

MR: Cool, okay so if you are doing keyword research and I'm kind of presuming that the people that are watching this will have keyword research as part of their on page SEO strategy, and what you will likely already be doing is categorising your keyword research - whether that is in different tabs, or in dropdowns, or however you categorize your keyword research and if I think of my own website, for example, there will be keyword research in a tab which is inbound marketing, there will be one of them email marketing, in one of our SEO as an example, and within each of those tabs I have actually already found a topic cluster because there will be different questions about those areas that you want to talk about. So really, the categories of your keyword research are usually a very strong foundation of your topic clusters.

And then other than that, I would say keep answering questions; so use the keyword research that you have done, but also ask internal teams - sales teams will know what's asked of them on the phone regularly and then make use of, like Mike said, make use of things like Search Console and I have to do a shout out to AlsoAsked, which is a great resource where they further expand and be more useful to the people on your website, essentially.

CS: Thank you. We have a question from Charlie to Mark - how do you approach choosing anchor text after you've audited it through Sitebulb?

MC: Sorry, can you say that again? How do you go about choosing anchor text after what?

CS: After you've audited it through Sitebulb?

MC: Okay. um so and that would be based on the keyword research that we've done and I personally, normally go through kind of three stages of keyword research which is I will look at search volumes and competitions to plan out the broad intent, high search volume page which is kind of deciding what's going into our main menu for instance - so that's one way we'll decide anchor text, which is what makes sense for users and taking this approach of trying to target intent rather than keywords. so the part of the job of keyword research is to figure out what information people are trying to find, but figure out the most common ways in which they're asking that. so the most common ways which are asking it will come through in search volume which tends to give me the steer on the menu stuff.

When it comes to article topics, categorisation, I tend to use Answer The Public or Google Suggest data which gives you, again, a slightly broader range of what topics people are interested in. So that normally will help go into the title and then actually inside the article, that's when I use like our people AlsoAsked data.So to give you an example, if we looked at car maintenance was our navigational, navigation term and then de-icing our car was the article, AlsoAsked were chuck up things like - is it okay to tip boiling water on your windscreen for instance and to me, that's all within the same intent of ‘how do I de-ice my car’ - that's not like its own separate page, so that still comes under that anchor text. So it's just a case of basing it off your keyword research and again having that litmus test of, does it make sense for the user, of course, so you should be able to look at links and know roughly what you're getting.

The final thing is that when auditing anchor text as well, it tends to surface any cannibalisation issues you've got. So you may find that different people in the content team have been linking to different pages with the same anchor text in it. At that point you need to obviously review those pages and again work out what intent they're answering, if they're the same and if they're the same should they be merged or how do you differentiate them.

CS: Great, thank you. We've got one question from Andy - what tools do the speakers use to build a picture of their internal link building? Do you use Sitebulb and Screaming Frog and what do they look like? Or what do they look for if they use them?

MS: Yeah, I’ll jump in. So I do the same, we typically use Sitebulb and Screaming Frog as well. They've got some pretty visualisations within that, I tend to find depending on the size of the site, these things can become a little bit overwhelming. It's nice to dig through the actual data and pull that apart into sheets and then you're really looking for the page depth and number of hidden links for these things. Those tools are great, I don't think there's as much else that's needed.

MC: Yeah like Mike I enjoy looking at the Sitebulb visualisations just because it gives you an instant snapshot, if things are absolutely wild, or if they're kind of roughly how they should be. I used to use Screaming Frog pretty much all the time for this, and export it into sheets and build pivot tables. I am really a fan of that new tool that Sitebulb has launched though because they're modeling how the link equity flows around the site for you as well now. Apart from that, if it's a really big site, I don't use a tool, I just start with looking what's linked in the main menu - it sounds really obvious, but that's a really quick way just to see what you're linking to them, what you're not and what the opportunity is there.

MR: Yeah, I couldn't agree more with the both of you. For me,it's the same - Sitebulb, Screaming Frog, and as well as just my eyeballs.

CS: Great and the last question we have is for Maret - do you think there is merit in creating a hub of these cluster pages, like a mother hub?

MR: Could you say that again? Sorry.

CS: Yeah. Do you think there is merit in creating a hub of these cluster pages, like a mother hub?

MR: Like a mother hub? It's almost like a category page of category pages then isn't it it's like. I don't think I've ever done that or used that myself, also thank you for using the word merits in your question to completely ease me. I think I would personally not go for that because it's something that you can either use in your navigation; so whether it's areas that you service or services that you offer. I don't think it's something I have seen used, I don't know if Mike and Mark you agree?

MC: I'll be honest, I'm not sure I fully understand the question, so I'm tapping out.

MS: I like the term, it sounds great.

MR: Yeah I like the term as well for sure.

MS: I think the only time you might want to be doing this is if all of those hubs group into something that's obvious, like an overarching insurance type or whatever that is, you know going back to that insurance example. So there might be a few examples where that could be valuable, but I think effectively your home page is the place where you're linking to a lot of these important hubs and then you're going from there. So I also tend to think we probably don't need anymore.

MR: However, if you want to put a Maret hub on your website, I am happy to lend my face for that and any quotes that you need.

CS: That's great, thank you guys. I think that's everything we have time for and thanks.

MR: Thanks so much for having us.

JB: Thank you. Well just before we go, we have a lot of tips from yourselves and a lot of questions so that's great. Obviously we weren't able to answer all of them in today's session, so please connect with Mark, Maret, and Mike to continue the conversation, you have their Twitter details there, we will also be sharing this on Twitter as well afterward and LinkedIn.

Also just a note from us the Authorities, we're also offering a stimulus package for any startup, if you're looking to take on an SEO platform, we offer some discount for the first three months. So this is us from Authorities and we have a platform here that can help you with driving SEO traffic that converts, and for us, we will be continuing the Tea-Time SEO tomorrow at 4 p.m. We have Charlotte Ross, Alice Farren, and Martyna Walas here to talk about “How much content do you need to rank?”

So that's us for today, thank you. Big round applause for speakers Maret, Mike and Mark, and to all our audience. This is our biggest turnout to date. So join in the conversation on Twitter and on LinkedIn afterwards and ask those questions, sorry we ran out of time. So thank you very much again, we will see you tomorrow at 4 p.m.

MR: Thanks everyone.

MS: Thank you.

MC: Thank you, bye.

I hope you enjoyed that session. If you do want to see the video, you can find it out, along with a transcript and we will be back on Monday the 25th of May, hopefully, with some analysis finally of the may 2020 core update.

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