Testing the First Link Priority Rule

This post summarizes the results of a recent internal test conducted to understand how a website’s navigation menu affects the ‘First Link Priority’ rule. A method for avoiding the consequences of this rule was also tested with positive results. While these tests were in no way exhaustive, they do add to the body of evidence available on the subject.

Optimized anchor text has long been an important aspect of search engine optimization because it helps the search engines determine the relevance of the target URL. And while a good SEO link-building campaign can help you achieve better optimized anchor text, a natural backlink portfolio will often be less than ideal.

For this reason, internal linking is crucial. It allows you to tell search engines what pages you want to rank for a certain term. In order to make your internal linking effective, there is one very important yet often overlooked rule you should be aware of called the “first link priority” rule.

What Is the ‘First Link Priority’ Rule?

The “first link priority” rule is Google’s way of making sure a webmaster doesn’t add hundreds of anchor text links into the content of their website. Basically, when the search engine spider crawls a page on your website and comes across two links pointing to the same page, it will only consider the anchor text of the first link and disregard the second. While this rule has been well documented by many SEOs, there seems to be some confusion on whether or not this rule applies to the navigation menu of a website.

Problems with the Navigation Menu

On the vast majority of websites, the navigation menu is located above the majority of content when viewing the source code. As a result, the spiders end up crawling your navigation menu first. This creates a problem because most navigation menus do not use fully-optimized anchor text. For example, if I sell bunk beds, I might have two tabs in my navigation menu, one labeled “wood” and the other labeled “metal”. Of course those are not the keywords I am optimizing for, but “wooden bunk beds” and “metal bunk beds” don’t always look good in a navigation menu.

As a result, many professional SEOs have assumed that Google will still count an internal link’s anchor text within the content of a page. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I created a test a few months ago on www.christiangreiner.com, before I redesigned the website. I made a page using 15 randomly generated letters with no search results (christiangreiner.com/zjjiurzcfccylco/). I then linked to this page twice, using other randomly generated letters. One link (pbnrnqdmzbeloxd) was in the navigation menu, with another (cxelwjgqaajlost) in the content of the homepage.

random letters image

In the search results shown below Google ONLY considered the anchor text from the menu in ranking the page named zjjiurzcfccylco. Results were the same in Bing and Yahoo.

random letters results

random letters results2

Results of this test and others that have been performed show that webmasters should re-examine the internal links of their website. If you have a link within the content to a page that is also linked to in the menu of your website, then the anchor text used in the content is most likely not being considered by Google because of the first link priority rule. However, all is not lost because there are a few ways you can still get your desired anchor text.

3 Ways to Get Around the First Link Priority Rule

There are a quite a few technical ways to avoid the first link priority rule, some of which are demonstrated in a post by Giuseppe Pastore from Italy. However, I wouldn’t recommend all of these since some could be seen as misleading by the search engines. Instead, the following are three “best-practice” ways to avoid the consequences of the first link priority rule on your website.

1. Place the menu below the content in the source code of your website

If you have a static website this could be a great option. By using DIVs and absolute positioning it is possible to place a side navigation menu below the content in the source code. When applicable, this is a great option. Google considers any anchor text within the content first, and only when there is none does Google go on to count the links in the navigation menu.

However, before you get too excited you should know that this is difficult to do with a dynamic website, or any website using a CMS. It requires a smart developer, since one little tweak could ruin your absolute positioning and throw your website into a tailspin.

2. Internal link to deep pages only

Most of the time it is best to simply link internally to the deeper pages of your website, instead of duplicating links to pages already linked to in the navigation.

This is probably the most common solution and you see it used a lot by major news outlets. For example, I have never seen a New York Times article with an internal link to the “Sports” page within the content of article. Instead, they link to other articles with optimized anchor text. The result is a deep-linking strategy that is beneficial in getting deep pages read and indexed.

3. Use a hashtag for multiple internal links

The final option is a little trick that involves using a hashtag within your internal links. A hashtag is used within a link to bring users to a specific part of a page and is very common on websites like Wikipedia. Because only part of a page may be relevant to a user clicking on the link, Google treats a hashtag link like a link to a separate page, and therefore will consider the anchor text of multiple links.

In fact, the hashtag work-around works even when the link doesn’t bring you to a specific part of the page. For example, after the first link in the content (cxelwjgqaajlost, which was ignored by Google), I created another link with a hashtag in it (http://www.christiangreiner.com/zjjiurzcfccylco/#1) and gave it another random 15-character anchor text (mtqqjatxxwjfkod). Sure enough, as seen below, Google (but not Bing or Yahoo) considered the anchor text used when ranking the page it links to.

random letters results

Even though it worked in my test, I wouldn’t consider this method to be a “best practice,” since it is essentially adding links which do not benefit users for the sake of manipulating search rankings.

However, if you do have an H1 tag that contains your keyword, and use an internal link with the same anchor text to bring users directly to that H1 tag on the page, this could create a good user experience and solve the first link priority problem at the same time.

Final thought

This was not the first test to learn more about the first link priority rule, nor should it be the last. Instead, it is simply meant to help us better understand how Google crawls a website and what it considers.

It is also important to note that having internal links within the content of your website (even when the menu already links to the same page) can still be beneficial as long as it creates a positive user experience. The point of this post is not to discourage internal linking, but to discourage internal links that will hold no value for a visitor or the search engines.

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19 Comments

  1. Sean McVey says

    Thanks for these tips Christian. It’s always great to understand how search engines are thinking.

  2. Sha Menz says

    Thanks for this post Christian – very timely for me as I have been having a discussion with a client about this subject recently.

    Nice to have some good discussion of the alternative solutions and why they may or may not be a good choice.

  3. Greg Shuey says

    Christian, I’ve run similar tests and found that you can also create the navigation in an iframe and robots.txt the iframe out. It works great but it’s a lot of extra work.

    • Christian Greiner says

      Thanks for the idea, I never thought of that but it makes complete sense. You would just need to make sure your internal linking is very thorough since you essentially wouldn’t have a navigation menu.

  4. Mike says

    I am glad you provided this information. We were just going through this vary thing with our sites. We have decided to put the side nav below our content when creating our sites.

  5. Kathy Long says

    Thank you so much Christian. This is going to really make a difference for me. I’ll be following and Tweeting you. :)

  6. Christian Greiner says

    Good point. These results should be taken with a grain of salt. Google could treat my 3-page WordPress site differently than a larger site with authority.

    We will never completely understand this rule, but I think these results could be duplicated on the vast majority of websites.

  7. Pauline says

    I have been wondering about the effect of the menu text recently as I noticed that when I added a tag cloud it showed words which were not on the page but in the menu.With a larger site there is going to be a lot in the menu which is not relevant to the page -will this harm the page SEO wise?

  8. Christian Greiner says

    Pauline, it’s hard to say without seeing your website, but I have two thoughts.

    First, if the tag cloud is simply duplicating text already in the menu, then the results of this test would suggest that those links within the tag cloud are not being considered. Since the menu is being indexed before the tag cloud.

    Second, tag clouds in general are not all that great for SEO. Google reads a tag cloud as a long list of links. Too many links can hinder the ability to flow PageRank to your most important pages and in extreme cases can even make it look like you are keyword stuffing.

    • Pauline says

      Thanks for the reply Christian. I am using xsite pro2 and they say that it loads the main content before the menu, not sure of this makes any difference. I hadn’t realised that tag clouds could be harmful – I may remove them now.

  9. David Ewing says

    Christian, do you know of any ways to get around the first link priority rule using a CMS like wordpress. Or is the only option hiring a “smart” developer?

    • Christian Greiner says

      David,

      A CMS like WordPress is not going to have that capability. You will want to stick to either internal linking to deep pages or using a hashtag.

  10. Eric Catlapp says

    I use WordPress, but my categories are exactly the words I should be ranking for. So I won’t have to worry about this phenomenon much right?

    And if I read right, If I have internal liking in my website, and there is duplicate anchor texts pointing to an internal page, Google may ignore all but the first one in some instants…

    • Christian Greiner says

      Eric,

      If the navigation menu of your site contains the exact phrases you want to optimize for then you are correct – you have nothing to worry about.

      Also, duplicate anchor text is not the problem, the problem is when more than one link goes from Page A to Page B. In fact, if you have duplicate anchor text you also have nothing to worry about, I would just make sure it is contributing to a positive user experience.

  11. Ryby Smith says

    Great thought! Thanks for sharing your post. It’s really helpful for search engine optimization. Just keep up the information.

  12. Michael says

    Being an amateur it is great to learn a bit more about SE and how they crawl around the websites. Though I did not understand all what you said regarding second rule I will try to implament this technique in my site. Thank you.
    Any clarifications whether it is better or must be set down of the page will be much appreciated.

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