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Testing the First Link Priority Rule

Jul 7, 2011 / by Christian Greiner

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.

Topics: Blog

Christian Greiner

Written by Christian Greiner

Christian Greiner is a former Senior SEO Specialist at SEO.com who enjoys quantifying SEO strategies through statistics. He graduated with a B.S. in Sociology from Brigham Young University—Idaho and joined the SEO.com team soon afterwards. Born and raised in Tracy, CA he now lives with his wife Tiffany and their two young boys in the Salt Lake City area. If not in the office he will most likely be found backpacking through one of Utah’s many National Parks.

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