Building the web: why internal linking is essential for ecommerce conversion and SEO

A spider's web of droplets with internal links running between

Although conversion rate is inevitably the most scrutinised metric for many online retailers, maintaining strong traffic volumes remains a key consideration. While PPC has provided answers in the past, its efficacy is diminishing even as browsers grow more savvy, with 22% of British adults now using ad blockers. As a result, astute digital marketers should be thinking about how to maximise organic as well as paid traffic.

While ecommerce SEO strategies are often focused on external link building, relying on link juice from high authority domains, recent research from link building experts North Star Inbound suggests that marketers might do well to look at their own sites first.

We’re talking about internal link structure – that is, the links that connect the pages of your site to one another. North Star’s survey found that, of 240 SEO specialists, 59% named on-site technical optimisation and site structure as their most effective strategy. By comparison, external link-building ranked only fourth on the list of respondents’ priorities, with content development and traffic analysis taking the second and third spots.

It makes sense; an ecommerce business’ greatest asset, after all, is its website. Unfortunately, internal linking strategy is often neglected. While internal links are typically baked into core navigation, side-bars and dynamic content, they are not consistently incorporated into product descriptions, category page copy and editorial content.

But these ‘editorial’ or ‘natural’ links, as Moz calls them, are actually the holy grail of internal linking: here’s why you should be deploying them more broadly.

Improve the customer purchase journey

Although online purchases are making rapid gains in terms of share of total consumer spend, in-store purchases continue to represent the majority of global sales – with ecommerce sales predicted to account for 17.5% of retail spend by 2021. In fact, research from GVG Digital indicates that an online majority market share won’t come about until 2035.

But in the age of rapid delivery and free returns, why are most consumers still picking bricks-and-mortar shopping over online? The answer is convenience and service.

First and foremost is speed of delivery. The above GVG Digital study found that 90% of customers would buy online if they could acquire products more quickly than in-store. This is a hard battle for etailers to fight and – until technological advances enable online brands to reliably deliver most products within hours to rural as well as urban areas – not one that they can currently win.

The second advantage that physical retail can boast over online is customer service. Some bricks-and-mortar retailers have caught onto this, with John Lewis offering concierge-style services and educational workshops to brand themselves an ‘anti-Amazon’. Without the presence of on-hand human assistants and personal shoppers to fall back on, etailers must find ways to offer the same high-quality experience on a mobile or desktop.

Streamlining and optimising the user journey is one of the most effective ways to achieve an online experience that’s commensurate with offline. While a website can’t replicate in-store signage or sales assistants, it can do the next best thing by facilitating the user journey with tactical internal linking.

One way to do this is to include natural links in category description copy to relevant sub-categories, as well as optimising buying guides and editorial content with internal links to relevant categories and products. An example of a brand doing this exceptionally well is Farfetch, who include naturally integrated links to sub-category pages within top-level category page descriptions, to both facilitate the user journey and improve search rankings: 

A category description optimised to increase conversion

Enhance website authority and search visibility

Considering the high levels of product churn and seasonal rotation that are a fixture of many online retailers’ operations, it’s perhaps unsurprising that product description content – and particularly optimising it diligently for conversion and SEO – is often de-prioritised.

The rewards, however, are well worth it. When done correctly, incorporating product descriptions into your internal link structure can have an impressive effect on keyword and SERP rankings.

Most good retail sites can boast a strong ‘pyramid’-style navigational structure, but few go further than that. All too often in this set-up, product pages are left to fester at the foot of the site map chain, gathering neither traffic nor page authority.

Category and guide pages also rarely link to one another, meaning that pages which do gain traction from search queries and traffic booms cannot in turn boost the rankings of other pages within your domain. Even where internal links are featured on a page, they’re typically baked into navigation menus, sidebars or footers where their SEO value is reduced compared to more visible in-content links. The answer?

Combine pyramidal site navigation with a curated web of natural links between categories, products and user guides. This is the surest way to convince Google you know what you’re talking about.

Make use of content clusters, an internal linking strategy whereby sites arrange topic-specific pages around all-encompassing ‘pillar’ content. For example, if your pillar content is a category page for ‘bags’, you would want all of your ‘bag’ sub-content – from more specialised ‘shoulder bag’ category pages to style guides – to link back to this pillar page. Done correctly, pages in the cluster should see an overall improved ranking for bag-related searches, and therefore increased traffic.

Ensure no product page walks alone. Connect the dots with links; provide ways for customers to hop directly from product page to product page. Although dynamic ‘similar items’ or ‘pair with’ bars are good practice, you’ll also need to enhance core product description copy in this way to reap the full SEO rewards. Use high-quality links to suggest alternative options, lead customers to relevant hub pages and return link juice to cornerstone category content. As always, ensure that you keep your anchor text accurate, relevant and natural.

With so much to gain, why aren’t more etailers investing in detailed, natural link-centric internal linking strategies?

The answer is time, money and scale. With thousands of products flying through ecommerce sites every month, adding valuable links to every individual product description is nigh impossible with in-house resources alone. The sheer volume of new content would require sizeable teams of writers to produce – not to mention the updates required on old product pages, blogs and editorial pieces. As a result, internal linking is pushed further and further down the to-do lists of busy SEOs until it is never addressed at all – to the retailer’s inevitable detriment.

Focused and detailed internal linking provides a framework for your ecommerce site to thrive, but producing such optimised content efficiently, and at scale, comes with a raft of operational challenges. Quill is in a unique position to produce high-performing product and category descriptions at high volume – all individually optimised to support your internal linking strategy and boost conversion – thanks to our scalable network of freelance, specialist content creators and our efficiency-driving Quill Cloud technology.

To find out how Quill can support your SEO efforts, get in contact.

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