The goal of this post is to clear up a few misconceptions that I saw in the comments, and to show you exactly what I mean about sitewides that could be problematic both now and in the near future for over-optimization algorithms and filters.
Footer Links Are Not (Inherently) Bad
One question I saw a few times was about if we should use sitewide footers at all. My answer to this is “absolutely!” Footer links can be awesome for the user experience. Especially in the growing world of mobile surfing of the Internet, there is an increasing need for good navigation at the bottom of websites that allows users to navigate to a place on the site that makes sense, without necessitating scrolling back to the top of the page.
Footer links like SEOmoz’s are fine, as they point people to the most important and useful pages on the website. People expect to see them there:
Zappos does this as well, though interestingly they do not have the same footer on the homepage as they do on their category pages (take a look at the homepage and this category to see the difference). They are not overloading you with anchor text and taking you to irrelevant pages from every page, though. Their main footer is large, yes, but contains useful links for the user.
The Problem is Scale
Footers like these become an issue when they are scaled out across a full website and also into microsites. This is a common practice for large sites, especially in the travel/hotels/tourism industries.
But if you scale this out to a sitewide section, such as in the hotels site above, then every page becomes like a homepage linking with optimized anchor text. And often these links are irrelevant and don’t add value to the user.
Microsites/Franchises Can Be Dangerous
I recently came across a site that also has many third-party franchise sites. Each of these sites is built off a template (which is not necessarily an issue) and provides local content specific to the area where the franchise is located. Each of the sites, in my opinion, adds value to the user.
When you take this out to scale, the linking between the sites (and all of the links shown in the microsite example are sitewide) begins to look thus:
The best way to steer clear of these over-linking issues that could and probably will get you into trouble, is to categorize your pages. Inside Distilled, we often talk about these categories as “page types”, but basically we’re talking about the different levels of the pages on your site.
One thought as to how to improve your internal linking, but in an algorithm-update-friendly way, is to interlink between the different levels in ways that make sense. The ultimate best answer would be to create an internal linking schema or algorithm that allows you to link to these pages automatically depending on how you best decide the pages fit.
You’ll end up now with linking that looks thus, with all of the pages pointing in being pages in the same geographical category:
Parallel Internal Linking
As I said in the video, it doesn’t make sense to link to all of your important category pages from every other category page, as this is bad from a user perspective. If someone is looking for a Washington DC hotel, they’re not interested in seeing London hotels probably. If someone is looking for London hotels, they are probably not interested in Orlando hotels, but they might be interested in Paris or Munich hotels.
Then, pattern match the continents, then countries, then cities. If we do this, then your London hotels page could like this way, with links in the sidebar to Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, etc and not links to Orlando and Atlanta –
ccTLD Internal Linking
A tip that I gave in the video is to link between your relevant pages on your ccTLDs (.co.uk, .fr, etc) to the relevant page on the other TLDs. Using this methodology, we end up with the following structure and linking patterns instead of the craziness seen above:
How Do I Test This?
As with any blog post you read, you should take the advice with a grain or two of salt. I don’t care who writes it, you need to do your own testing and competitor research to find out what is working and then how you can stay competitive while also not putting your website in danger.
Do Your Competitor Research
I found the principles talked about here by doing a deep dive into how competitors are getting their rankings (this is one factor of many). I found how they are linking and compared that against their traffic to see how it is trending.
You need to do the same. I recommend starting off with your most competitive term and reverse-engineering their strategies, looking specifically at external links, internal links, and content. You might find that you are being beaten because they have superior useful content. Or maybe you’ll find that their internal linking is better, and you can learn from their strategies.
Work With Your UX Team or Developer
Now, depending on the size of your company, you might have a dedicated UX team. If you’re working on the scale that I am talking about here, you need to have a UX team, even. Get them to help you categorize your pages and levels, and then work with them to create mockups using a tool like Balsamiq (the tool I used for the illustrations here).
Start off NoFollowing Links instead of Removing
Some people in the comments on the Whiteboard Friday recommended starting to test this by nofollowing your excessive internal linking instead of removing links. I think this is a good place to start, on a small sample of your pages, so that you can test the potential gains or losses experienced through these strategies.
Ultimately though, if these strategies work for you, then you will want to create new page layouts so that your categorization can help you effectively interlink. Slapping a no-follow on these links is only a band-aid, as we are also concerned about conversions and not just rankings.