I came across an interesting take on internal links by Manuel Moreale, who goes by Manu on the web. In a short post titled I hate internal linking, he opined:

In my ideal world, 95% or more of the links on a webpage should be [to another website]. If you write on the web about anything, please, give me links. I want to be able to click them and discover new websites and keep my web journey going. You should only use [links to another page on the same website] when strictly necessary. That is my ideal world.

Manuel Moreale

I concur in part and dissent in part with this take. Below, I will explain where I agree and where I disagree and offer my suggestion for principles on implementing external and internal links in online writing.

External Links

A good writing website should link to other good writing websites. For example, many of my article topics are either inspired or informed by other articles from around the web. In this case – this post is clearly inspired and informed by I hate internal linking, which is why I shared that post with you. I am a strong proponent of linking to reference materials – both because plagiarism is bad and also because writers should share and present other informed perspectives on topics of interest.

Going against the spirit of the inspiration for this article, I will call my own number and reference my piece advocating for combining feed readers with read-it-later solutions. In that article, I offered a rebuttal to the argument that a primarily feed-based reading flow has a weakness in the area of discovery. Feed-based reading is a great form of discovery if you follow writers who regularly post original, informative articles and link to their sources. Having a read-it-later tool to complement a feed reader makes it easy to read these externally linked articles and posts and, perhaps, discover new feeds to add to the feed reader. I have discovered many interesting articles and websites in this way.

Internal Links

I concur in part with Manu’s general preference against internal links. In the spirit of being agreeable, I quote him on the main point that I agree with:

I live in the world of marketing, search engine optimisations, and analytics. The world where people want to keep page views high and bounce rate low. And in order to do that they fill their websites with internal links. Which is just the worst.

Manuel Moreale

I agree here. The key question, however, is why. Why is this position correct? I agree with Manu with respect to intent. See the key passage excerpted from the above quote:

[P]eople want to keep page views high and bounce rate low.

Manuel Moreale

I understand this passage as describing using internal links with the subjective primary intent of improving website analytics metrics. To be sure, most people who write in the internet would prefer, to the extent practicable, to have people read their writing. There are different ways to attract readers. I like to tell myself that I attract a small number of readers by posting original writing about things that interest me. That is, I focus on maintaining The New Leaf Journal in the way I want to maintain it and writing what I want to write about. What Manu is describing – as I understand it – is focusing on the metrics before the writing. He is describing using internal links to increase metrics (and by extension, conversions, ad revenue, or the like). I describe this as prioritizing algorithms over humans, and metrics over reader experience, in crafting internal links.

Internal linking for algorithms and metrics is bad. But internal linking for human beings should not be inherently disfavored. Internal linking can serve one of the main purposes of good external linking: Introducing a reader who is interested in what he or she is reading to other writing and media of interest. Internal linking well conceived also serves a different, but valuable (if implemented correctly) end than does meaningful external linking.

We (mostly me, but also Victor V. Gurbo (see his external personal site)) have published over 900 regular articles and many more short-form posts here at The New Leaf Journal since April 2020. Unlike many sites, we do not have a single focus – I noted that I write about what I want to write about. For this reason, I have written articles on everything from mid-2000s translations of doujin Japanese visual novels to the history of holidays, seasonal readers, and open source tech (I chose example articles that have many external links).

Due to our lack of a single article-writing focus and the variety of topics we cover, discovery is an issue. Moreover, while we derive a good amount of our traffic from search – namely Google, DuckDuckGo, Bing, Yandex, and Brave – only a small percentage of our articles are consistently self-sufficient (we track page hits with a local open source tool called Koko Analytics). One reason I use internal links is to help guide readers – new readers and regulars – to articles on our site that they may find interesting based on something in the article they happen to be reading. For whatever it is worth, I do not think the search engines necessarily select for what I consider to be my most interesting articles.

When using internal links, I have two focuses. Firstly, I try to use links that the reader, having some interest in what he or she is reading, may find useful or interesting. Second, I prioritize using internal links as a way to discover hard-to-find articles on The New Leaf Journal. I took the time to write and publish them for a reason, after all.

To use a foreign, non-New Leaf Journal example of the value of internal linking, or more broadly self-linking (I am including cases where an author publishes external links to his or her own writing within the ambit of internal linking for the instant purpose), I read some authors and commentators who have been publishing content on the web for the better part of the last three decades. Because one’s writing in the present often builds on his or her writing from the past (this is certainly true of my work at The New Leaf Journal), an author may have good reason to link to his or her past work. For example, the author may connect an argument he or she is raising about something happening today with an argument he or she raised about something that happened in 2003. I have found many of these internal links instructive – both because they often lead to interesting articles from many years ago and also because they offer additional context and perspectives about an issue of present concern in addition to describing interesting events from the past. Moreover, the older articles often include the sort of external links that Manu’s argument favors, thus unearthing meaningful research and writing that is not readily discoverable through common search queries.

Proposing Linking Principles

While I do not agree with Manu’s post in all of its particulars, I see merit in his argument. I thought about how I try to use external and internal links (to be sure, I am sure some of my links are better than others). After considering the matter, I propose some general rules for linking for writing websites. While my post is most applicable to small, personal, and non-commercial projects such as The New Leaf Journal, it is not limited to these sorts of projects. Most of the feeds I follow are not small, independent blog sites – but many do a good job with linking.

A few principles:

  1. Always link to and credit your sources.
  2. Where an article inspires your post, link to it with a note about why your external link is significant.
  3. When writing, think of your website as a vehicle for helping people find other interesting websites, articles, and ideas from around the web. Making your site a resource in addition to interesting internally adds genuine value for your human readers.
  4. With respect to internal linking, consider your links from the perspective of someone who is reading your article. Starting from the assumption that your reader finds what he or she is reading to be of interest (why else would this reader still be reading?), will your internal link help the reader find another article of interest based on his or her interest in the current article.
  5. Your articles are for humans not bots.

I suppose that I am proposing humane linking principles (as in links created by human writers for human readers) in line with my preference for a humane web. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to linking, and what may make sense in one article or site may not make sense on another – although citing to sources and inspirations is important in all cases. But by putting the emphasis on ensuring that links will be, to the maximum extent practicable, interesting, useful, or pleasant to an interested reader, sites big and small can contribute to a healthier linking ecosystem.

Bringing the Linking Together in a Fitting Conclusion

The man behind the linking piece that inspired this article is also the co-creator of The Forest, a small web project wherein one can go to a random independent blog or website with the click of a button. The Forest also accepts submissions. See the following links:

I recommend visiting The Forest and seeing what you find. If you like it, you can learn about how I discovered The Forest and my brief thoughts on the project and contributing new sites to its index.

Consider this a small example of my ideas for using external and internal links effectively.