External Links and SEO: Vetting Your Sources in the Age of E-A-T

Alec Cole Alec Cole May 21, 2020 Category Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Just about every modern SEO knows and understands the importance of inbound links. Links have always been integral to how Google’s algorithm evaluates pages. While there’s still plenty of healthy debate as to how important they are and the exact criteria that make them important, you’d have to look pretty far to find an SEO who would reject the basic formula of “authority link = SEO value.”

The Value of External Links

External links are a bit trickier, as they play an obvious role in the grander scheme of link value. It’s easy to understand why having some of that SEO value coming in is a good thing—it’s tougher to see how you could benefit from giving it away. Some of our industry’s best and brightest have argued that associating yourself with high-authority, high-relevance sources has benefits both coming and going. 

Cyrus Shepherd’s Whiteboard Friday from 2011 stands out as an example—though he focused more on the boost that linking to strong sources provides to your perceived authority than its role as a ranking signal. More recently, an exhaustive study from Reboot Media’s Shai Aharony gave us strong evidence that sites with appropriate external links will outrank sites that lack them.

For the sake of this article, let’s proceed with the assumption that these links have at least some relevance. Of course, this raises another question: what constitutes a good source? That question has only become more pressing in the post-Medic (Google’s bombshell core update from August 2018) landscape, not to mention one where “fake news” and search engine censorship have become real issues for SEOs. 

Let’s delve into the territory of external links and uncover the answer to this question, with a particular eye toward Your Money Your Life (YMYL) topics (defined on page 9 of the Google QRG). There’s reason to believe that informational accuracy matters more for this content but also because, at a basic level, content creators need to ensure that their traffic play doesn’t wind up hurting their readers.

Step 1: How Can You Tell if a Website or Journal is Credible?

The absolute first step to determining whether or not a resource is worth using as a source in a YMYL context is to figure out if, at the end of the day, it’s worth trusting. In order to do so, you’ll want to critically evaluate the following items:

  • Who wrote it?
    • Authorial credibility might be the single most important item on this list, doubly so because it’s often the easiest to check. Take a look at the name behind your potential source, and ask:
  • Do you know who they are? 
    • It’s impossible to assess credibility if you can’t even determine who wrote the content. With YMYL articles, it’s recommended to use individual expert names whenever possible, though some high-authority organizations publish under a brand name without any apparent issues. 
  • Are they an expert in their field?
    • Since we’re talking YMYL, as an example, do they hold a degree or certification that indicates their experience?
  • Do they have relevant, recent experience? 
  • What’s their reputation in their field? Do they associate with trusted names? 
    • A good example of this would be the Shai Aharony article linked above—while we didn’t initially know much about Aharony, we did notice that he had his data vetted by Rand Fishkin, who has also had good things to say about Aharony’s other experiments. Fishkin is one of the most recognizable names in SEO, so his involvement immediately raises trust in Aharony’s work. 
  • Do they have any incentive to mislead their readers? 
    • An author—even an expert—who has a financial stake in what they’re covering needs to be scrutinized more closely, particularly for YMYL content.
  • Who published it?
    • The credibility of the website or journal that published the source is imperative. Academic researchers have long used journal reputation as a quick way to assess credibility, but many of these rules fall short when applied to websites. Instead, take a critical look at the site itself. Look for obvious shortcomings or poor practices (lack of HTTPS, ad spam, etc.), search for reviews if available, and even consider using a backlink monitoring tool like AHrefs to get an idea of who’s been linking to it—strong, relevant inlinks generally indicate a more trustworthy source. If you’re working in a specific vertical, you may also be able to check whether or not your sources are on lists indicating distrust, such as Quackwatch (medical) or Media Bias Fact Check (media), though these sites can come with their own built-in biases and should be taken as only another factor in this process.
  • Who funded it?
    • Good academic journals will generally have a full funding disclosure policy, letting readers follow any potential paper trails. Websites are, as expected, an extremely mixed bag. The obvious thing we want to watch out for is sponsored content as we probably don’t want to treat an advertisement as a high-authority source. If a site’s playing nice, identifying these ads is as simple as looking for a statement identifying sponsorship in an article’s byline, or in a site’s editorial policy page. However, not all publishers are so honorable, so you’ll sometimes have to determine if a potential source is giving a product, service, or company a little too much positive attention. 
  • Is it current?
    • “Current” can have different meanings—you need to be sure that the writer’s context reflects your own. For example, if we’re writing an article about how to adapt to Google’s focus on E-A-T, it doesn’t make much sense to rely exclusively on sources written before the release of the August 2018 update, the first time we really saw this term used in Google’s own resources.
  • Does it back up claims?
    • Finally, does the resource provide data and sources that support its claims? Major assertions without legitimate backing are a huge red flag that your source isn’t trustworthy. Crucially, you need to go beyond just looking for links in an article here. Apply the above tests: who is your potential resource linking to? Do they pass the above criteria? 

Step 2: How Can You Determine Whether or Not Your External Link is Good for SEO

While it’s crucial to determine whether or not your potential source is even worth considering, there’s more work to be done. After all, we’re marketers; once we’ve fulfilled our essential responsibility to provide our readers with trustworthy information, we need to critically evaluate whether or not a given source will improve the value and UX of our content or damage it. Keep the following in mind:

  • Audience Comprehension Level
    • You dug into a trusted database like PubMed and found a fantastic source. It’s a highly-cited, recently-published, peer-reviewed article that proves your point. The problem is, it’s difficult to understand unless you’ve got an advanced degree in biochemistry, and you’re just trying to convince readers that an ingredient in your product is safe to swallow. In this case, despite the strength of the source, it’s not something that most of your readers will have the background to understand, and it’s likely to leave them feeling confused or even more worried about your product than before. While it’s tempting to head straight to scientific studies for big claims, bear in mind that the first role of a source is to provide authority and context—a source can’t do that if your readers can’t understand it.
  • Destination Experience
    • While it’s great to keep your own site blazing-fast and ad-free, these qualities also matter for your sources. There are few things more jarring than clicking a source on a nice, clean blog article only to be taken to a slow-loading, ad-infested site. Consider your link an endorsement of its destination, because your readers absolutely do. 
  • Safety
    • In a similar vein, please make sure you’re not linking to an attack site. While there’s no explicitly laid-out Google penalty for doing so, it’s probably not great for SEO. Far more importantly, associating yourself with a site that serves malware is a great way to lose audience trust. If your browser throws up a warning when you click through to your source, or if it fails a check on Google’s safety tool, don’t use it.
  • Scannability
    • One issue that can create a poor user experience in sourcing is the tendency to link out to extremely wide-ranging resources. For example, let’s say we’re writing a blog on SEO and briefly mention “cloaking,” linking out to a chapter of the Moz Beginner’s Guide that mentions it. On paper, that’s not a bad source—it’s high-authority and high-relevance. That said, our hypothetical reader’s going to have to read half of a >5,000 word resource to find the information we want them to and they might just decide to keep browsing on Moz after they do. Instead, a better option might just be to link to Google’s definition, given that it’s a short, dedicated page with less of a chance to end in a user bouncing. 
  • Competition
    • Additionally, make sure you’re not inadvertently linking to a competitor. This is easier to do than you’d think, given that the people most likely to be writing in your same vertical are often going to be companies sharing your space. In some cases, you might have a friendly enough relationship to break this rule but for the most part, linking out a direct competitor’s all-star article or infographic is something to be avoided. If you’re linking out to a resource that completely mirrors (or even beats) your own, you’re essentially bouncing your own reader into someone else’s content funnel. If that someone provides similar products or services to you, your reader is now engaging with their content, clicking their CTAs, and potentially converting on your competitor’s site instead of yours – all because you pointed them there. 

Broader SEO Considerations and Capabilities

While there is much to consider when it comes to external links and their value, we’re hoping that at least some of what we’ve covered can help you with your own external link dilemmas. After all, better sourcing means a better, more trustworthy web. 

If you find yourself in need of more SEO help than just tips, browse our other SEO-centric articles. Be sure to check out our SEO Director, Lily Ray’s, recent article covering the winners and losers of Google’s May 2020 algorithm update. In the case of more focused, broader SEO capabilities, one of our many SEO teams can set you on the right path. Reach out, and let’s talk. 

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