To Link or Not to Link: Our Take on Crediting Sources

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Should you receive credit via a do-follow link when another site quotes you or uses your content? In an ideal world, sure. But you’re not entitled to a link, according to Google.

Roger Montti recently delved into this issue in his article about a Twitter conversation between Rand Fishkin, Google’s Danny Sullivan, and others in the SEO community.

The tweet that started it all came from Fishkin, who argued that “every website’s ToS should include something like: ‘Screenshots of this website, quotes taken from our text content, and any references to our brand, domain, or web pages must include a search-engine-followable HTML link.’”

Elaborating on his reasoning, he added, “…Why? Because when other sites write about you/use your stuff, they *should* be linking, and it should be a ToS violation when they don’t.”

It’s an understandable sentiment – but as Montti points out, it’s entirely unenforceable and violates Google’s Search Quality Guidelines regarding link schemes. Various Twitter users debated the merits of Fishkin’s idea as well.

So what are the best practices for linking to and crediting sources? Below are some key takeaways reflecting our view on the subject.

Linking Back is Important, But Not Required

It can definitely be frustrating when third parties quote you or reference your content without including a link to your page. You can always request a link, of course, but if they decline, you just have to accept their decision.

However, many Internet users have come to expect that citations will incorporate a link to the original content. This makes it easy for them to check your references or find out more information if you’ve piqued their interest. They may also respect the fact that you’re giving credit to the original source with a link.

And if there’s one thing Google rewards, it’s giving users what they want.

Know How and When to Use Links

The best approach is to lead by example! Depending on your preferences, this can go a number of ways, but the following is a good starting point:

  • Be mindful of how often you’re using outbound links on a single page. No one wants to get lost in a sea of hyperlinks – it impedes reading ease and it’s not beneficial, anyway. Links should be judiciously incorporated, and always with an eye toward usefulness.
  • Based on your choice of anchor text, it should be obvious at a glance what you’re linking to. It’s nice if the anchor text reflects the content of the page you’re linking to, but it doesn’t have to. The priority should be to sound natural and avoid any hint of keyword-stuffing.
  • If you’re merely mentioning another website, a link isn’t necessary or even desirable in most cases. (Montti covers this as well in his discussion about Creative Commons citation guidelines.)
  • Don’t feel obligated to include a link just because it seems “right” to always provide your source. There can be other important considerations, such as protecting someone’s privacy or discouraging more attention and/or clicks on a negative story (think Hulk Hogan and Gawker).

Use Canonical URLs

A canonical URL (or the rel=canonical element in HTML tags) allows you to specify that certain similar URLs with duplicate content are actually the same. This way, search engines will recognize the preferred version of a web page, or even the original source – regardless of whether it’s on a different domain. So if you have different versions of the same content, you can point search engines at your chosen “canonical” link, avoiding the duplicate content issue and having only the canonical version show up in SERPs.

Setting a canonical URL improves SEO, since search engines can count all the links pointing at similar content as links to the canonical version only.

For instance, if the exact same content is published on multiple domains (perhaps even on a third-party site that republished your article), the rel=canonical link will point to the canonical version on your website – and therefore count toward your search rankings.

It does take a bit of effort to properly set canonical URLs, but there’s enough benefit to make it worth your time.

Focus on Holistic SEO Instead of Links

We all use links and like to have third parties use them for us, but focusing too much on links and link building can be detrimental to overall SEO. As Montti puts it, you can easily “lose focus on the prize (ranking better) from focusing too hard on the means (obtaining links).”

Links are just one small part of the package, so take a holistic approach to SEO that considers all of the factors in play. Most importantly, create good content!

There’s simply no good or reliable shortcut to “trick” search engines into ranking you better. But when you put out great content that incorporates SEO best practices, you’ll naturally provide users with what they’re looking for… and Google’s algorithms will recognize and reward that.

For more on SEO, check out our previous blog posts on the history of Google’s algorithm updates and how to approach keyword research.