Many websites I come across don't have a single link to another website. Ask the webmaster why not, and the answer you get is simple enough: “If I link to other websites people might leave my site.” At this point I break the news that site visitors will leave your site. And there's nothing you can do about this.
Site visitors won't leave your site because you provide links to external sites. They'll leave for one of two reasons:
- They've found what they were looking for and no longer have a reason to stay on your website
- They can't find the information they're looking for and leave to seek it elsewhere
“OK, so site visitors are going to leave my site. But why should I hunt around for websites to link to?” I can think of four reasons why linking out is good for you and will ultimately increase traffic to your website:
Proof there's a real organisation behind the website
One of the best ways to prove your organisation really exists is to link to other websites that reference you. Any website willing to mention your organisation is in effect providing a reference for you. Just 52.8% of web users believe online information to have credibility (source: UCLA) and four in five users say that being able to trust the information on a site is very important to them in deciding to visit a website (source: Princeton Survey Research Associates).
Links about your organisation can include:
- Press articles
- Affiliation listings
- Professional association membership details
- Awards your organisation has won
- Articles published by a member of your organisation
- Directory listings (such as Yahoo! or the Open directory)
Anyone can put up a website making whatever kind of claims they want to. Have a look at the fantastic Christian women's wrestling website. It's got quite a lot of information about them and lots of photos. And it's 100% fake.
Backs up your arguments
Ensure that all statements about your organisation are backed up by third party websites. For example, if you sell toys it's very easy to make a statement such as, “We're the number one online toy seller in the country!” Anyone can make this statement, so prove that it is true by linking to an external website showing a list of the top online toy sellers last year.
Most of the time your site visitors probably won't follow these links, but that doesn't matter - the important thing is that you've shown evidence to back up the claims you're making.
Benefit to your site visitors
The Internet is designed for users to flow through it from one website to the next - don't make your website the last one in the flow. If you know of websites that you find really useful, and you think your site visitors might too, be sure to link to them. By offering a range of useful links you may even come across as an industry expert and someone who really knows their stuff.
When providing links make sure you do so at appropriate times. Don't relegate external links to a links page - site visitors aren't so likely to visit this page as a links page doesn't immediately address their needs. Instead, provide links as and when they're appropriate to the content of each page.
For example, if you run an accountancy firm you may wish to link to a website that has an up-to-date reference guide about new tax laws in the field of accounting. You don't have the time to provide that kind of regularly updated information on your website but your site visitors would find it really useful. Help out your site visitors and they'll hold your organisation in a positive light.
Search engine benefits
One of the ways search engines try to work out what your website is about is by analysing its inbound and outbound links. The more confidence a search engine has of what your website's about, all other things being equal, the higher search engine ranking you'll achieve. By providing outbound links to related sites you actually help the search engines analyse your site and therefore help your search ranking.
Jon Ricerca did a mini-analysis to see if outbound links affect search engine rankings and his results were pretty conclusive: web pages with more outbound links generally achieved higher search rankings. Be warned though, an inbound link is worth far more than an outbound link so do not link to your competitor's websites!
Don't be afraid to link out. Your site visitors will appreciate you introducing them to useful websites, you can increase your credibility and you can achieve a higher search engine ranking. So check your favourites folder and if you think your site visitors would benefit from any of the websites there be sure to include them in an appropriate place on your site.