What you need to know about backlinks, internal links, and external links

The Difference Between Internal Links, External Links, and Backlinks

Allison Bennett headshot

Written by: Allison Bennett

Category: marketing strategy


When building a website, it’s important to consider all of the ways, big and small, you can improve your SEO strategy. One of the best things to implement is links. Links play a vital role in your SEO strategy. Whether they’re scattered throughout the copy, front and center as buttons, or implemented in other ways, they’re the key to getting traffic to and throughout your website.

There are three different types of links you should know about, because they all affect your website’s navigation, authority, and searchability. By utilizing internal, external, and backlinks, you’re setting your website up for success.

What are Internal Links?

Internal links are hyperlinks that connect one web page to another within the same domain or website. They help your website’s users and web crawlers navigate a website, directing them to related and relevant pages on the same website. If you have a sentence or paragraph that relates to another blog or landing page on your website, link to it. It’s a great way to strengthen your site’s SEO rankings.

Internal links are essential to user engagement and keeping people on your website for longer. You can link to another page of your website that will elaborate on information you don’t have the time or word count to go in-depth about. When done correctly, internal links create a network of related content that will help your audience find what they need beyond the initial page they started on.

Wikipedia pages are a great example of how internal linking keeps your users on the website. You could start off reading an article about Labrador Retrievers, discovering that they were occasionally mistaken for Newfoundlands. This piques your curiosity to a new breed of dog, and since there’s a link right there, you click it, bringing you to the Newfoundland dog page. As you read that article, you come across the famous members of the breed, which includes Neptune, who was the dog on Franklin’s lost expedition. Intrigued by the title, you click that link, leading you to learn it was a failed attempt at arctic exploration in 1845. You’re now on a completely different topic than where you started, and you’re still on the same website.

A graphic of a labrador retriever being linked to a Newfoundland dog being linked to a Victorian ship representing the Franklin Expedition

What are External Links?

In contrast to internal links, external links are hyperlinks that bring you to websites outside of your own. Also known as outbound links and authority links, they can provide support for claims you’re making about your service, product, or company.

External links can really help your website authority, which is great for SEO. They’re especially helpful in blogs, where you can add an external link to reputable websites that acted as your source for a statistic, quote, or piece of information that needs citation. These not only look good to readers, but the website crawlers will see them and deem you a credible source, which can increase your ranking in search engines and thus make it more likely that people will find your website.

What are Backlinks?

Backlinks are the most coveted type of link, as they’re external links to your website from elsewhere. These websites consider your site the authoritative source on a subject that will help their own rank improve due to your credibility. Often, getting backlinks is a sign that your answer to a question or discussion on a topic is a high-ranking search result.

An important thing to keep in mind, however, is that when it comes to backlinks, quality matters more than quantity. A single high quality backlink can be more powerful and give your site more authority than a thousand low quality backlinks. 

High Quality Backlinks

If you want to rank well for search engines, focus on attracting high quality backlinks. What you want is for a trusted, authoritative website to link to your content because they believe it offers value to their readers and that you’re a reputable source. Getting backlinks from an authoritative website is known as “Domain Authority” and search engines take notice and will rank you higher for it.

Search engines also give a backlink more weight when they’re coming from sites that are topically related to yours. For example, if you wrote a blog post or article about penguins, search engines will take more notice if you’re getting backlinks from websites about birds, marine life, and Antarctica.

Toxic Backlinks

Be wary of toxic backlinks. These are incoming links that negatively affect your SEO ranking and visibility. According to Semrush, these are usually links that “violate Google’s link spam guidelines because they were placed on external sites for SEO purposes, rather than for users’ benefit.”

Graphic stating Beware of Toxic Backlinks and showing both good web pages and toxic ones being linked to a laptop

Toxic backlinks can come in many forms. Often, they’re links that have been paid to link to your website. This is disingenuous to the users who are led to your website from them, so search engines like Google will penalize you for them. This is why you should always resist the temptation to pay for backlinks, or try to mandate that a company you’re partnered with is contractually obligated to backlink to you. This will typically be noticed and marked as spam.

Using link building bots is another way to create toxic backlinks. Basically, you should never use a bot to automatically place backlinks. If you’re approached by a company promising to give your pages backlinks at speed and scale, walk away. Otherwise you’re signing up for a host of toxic backlinks that will tank your visibility.

Overall, links are a simple but valuable tool in your SEO arsenal. Do your best to utilize internal, external, and backlinks to improve your visibility and search engine rankings. This will lead to a more visible, authoritative, and successful website.

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