“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” – Department store mogul John Wanamaker
It goes without saying that Wanamaker didn’t have a Google Analytics account to check to see how his ads were performing.
The Internet has ushered us into an era where many believe that everything can (and should) be measured and acted upon.
As the more modern saying goes: If you don’t measure it, you don’t care about it.
The thing is, while we clearly have more data than Wanamaker had over 100 years ago, we don’t always know which data matters the most.
Worse still, having the data doesn’t mean that we use it to make the right decisions.
This can apply across all digital marketing channels – especially SEO. More precisely, it is too easy to misunderstand and misuse data associated with link building.
When we measure the wrong data points and metrics, a bunch of not-great things can happen:
- We think that we’re doing a good job but actually aren’t.
- The wrong behaviors can be triggered, leading to work that is below standard.
- We measure the impact of our work in a way that isn’t tied to real business outcomes.
Let’s take a closer look at some of link building metrics available and assess how we should – and shouldn’t – be using them.
1. Domain and Page Quality Metrics
The most obvious place to start is with the abundance of metrics that various tool providers have created to help assess link value and quality.
Here are a few:
- TrustFlow and CitationFlow from Majestic.
- Domain Authority and Page Authority from Moz.
- Domain Rating from Ahrefs.
- Domain Score from Semrush.
Most of these are available for free. We all have our favorites, and many use more than one or even our own proprietary versions.
No matter which one(s) you use, there are a few things to think about if you’re going to use them and a few pitfalls to watch out for.
Use As An Indicator Of Ranking Potential
Many of these metrics are designed to replicate how Google PageRank works (which we no longer have access to) but are going to fall way short of what Google is capable of calculating and using across the web.
They are also generally designed to give an idea of how well a domain or page is going to rank in comparison to another.
They are not exact metrics that can give you an exact answer to a question and therefore should not be used in this way.
Instead, use them to understand one possible reason why one domain or page may rank better than another: The volume and quality of links pointing to them.
Of course, there are many reasons why one domain may rank higher than another, so checking a metric such as Domain Rating or Domain Authority can give you an idea of how links may be a factor.
That becomes a starting point to dig deeper into those links or to look at other areas that you could influence to improve organic search rankings.
Use To Sort And Filter Link Building Prospects
Another good use of metrics such as Domain Rating or Domain Authority is to sort large lists of domains so that you can focus your link building efforts.
While there are other factors such as relevance that need to be thought about, using a raw metric like this and ordering domains from the highest scores to the lowest ones can help.
Let’s say that you’ve gathered a list of 300 potential domains that appear relevant to your link building efforts, you’ll need to find somewhere to start.
Pulling in a metric can do this job pretty well so that you start your link building process with domains that are likely to be the strongest in terms of link equity.
Again, this isn’t a concrete rule, but this is a useful way to use these metrics.
Use for Link Profile Auditing
If you are trying to audit a link profile, you’ll likely need to gather and review data on hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of linking domains.
When faced with this kind of task, using metrics can help you find potential problems with your link profile or unusual patterns.
As an example, if you pull data for your link profile and find that a high proportion of them have a Domain Authority or Domain Rating of below 10, then this gives you a good starting point for potentially low-quality links.
On the other hand, you may find an unusually high proportion of your links are in the DA90+ range. This could mean that some digital PR activity has taken place previously, leading to lots of links from top-tier domains.
Either way, gathering these types of metrics can give you direction for the rest of your link audit and show patterns that you may not otherwise spot.
2. Link Attributes – Nofollow, Sponsored, and UGC
Next, let’s look at a very common data point that SEO pros use when link building – link attributes including nofollow, sponsored, and UGC.
We’re going to talk about nofollow because this is by far the most common, given that sponsored and UGC are relatively new.
Don’t Ignore The Value Of Nofollow Links For Ranking Purposes
Historically, the common belief has been that links using the nofollow attribute have zero impact on organic search rankings at all.
While there has been some debate and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, it was generally accepted because Google openly stated that these types of links would pass no PageRank.
Then, in 2019, Google announced that they were softening this stance a little and that, in fact, links with the nofollow attribute may be taken into account as a “hint.”
In classic Google fashion, they didn’t guarantee that they would or wouldn’t do this – simply that they reserve the right to.
In reality, this is likely to mean that they use a bunch of other signals to determine if they should count a nofollow link in their link graph or not.
For example, if a domain has a good history, high-quality content, and is free of spam, they may well decide that these factors outweigh the nofollow attribute and that PageRank should flow across it.
On the other hand, they may see that the nofollow link in question is on a domain that allows user-generated links to be placed all the time, leading to it being taken advantage of and now being full of spammy links.
In this case, they may see that the use of nofollow is appropriate and will pretty much ignore this link for ranking purposes.
Overall, due to the uncertainty around Google using nofollow links (or not) to understand whether a page should rank better or not, it’s not wise to use a blanket rule that they all should count in the same way as standard links.
At the same time, we can be reasonably sure that Google does count them at least to some extent.
Assuming you’re building generally good links with lots of other positive attributes, then it’s a fair rule to count any nofollow links to some extent for ranking purposes.
Remember The Value Of Traffic
One thing that often gets overlooked when it comes to nofollow links is that they still have the ability to send traffic to your domain.
Users can’t tell the difference between a link that has the nofollow attribute included; they just see a clickable link.
If a lot of people click on a nofollow link and end up browsing your website, then there is clearly value here that shouldn’t be ignored.
I like to think about how we’d approach link building if links themselves didn’t make any difference whatsoever to organic search rankings.
The fact that links can influence organic search results doesn’t mean that we can’t still have the same mindset and approach. Building links that send traffic can add another layer of value to your work beyond rankings.
At a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to isolate the ranking impact of particular links, being able to show your value with traffic is going to become more and more important.
3. Links From New vs. Existing Domains
Many agencies and in-house teams will keep an eye on whether their link building efforts are leading to links from new domains or existing ones.
While this isn’t a bad thing to look at, there are ways to look at it that may not be immediately obvious or initially seen as valuable.
Increase Your Focus On Links From New, Relevant Domains
Assuming that the quality and relevance of your links is pretty high, getting links from domains that you’ve never received links from before can be more valuable than an existing link – but not for the reason you may think.
If you get a link from a domain where you’ve never been featured before, you’re getting yourself in front of a largely fresh audience.
Increasing your reach like this to a relevant audience can come with benefits beyond organic search, such as increased brand awareness and new visitors.
Even if we’re not hoping for any value from an organic search perspective, links like this will add value to your work and should be considered as part of your digital strategy because they add real value to the business.
Don’t Discount Links From Domains You Already Have
On the other end of the scale, I’ve seen in-house SEO professionals (and even some agencies) completely discount links from domains that have linked to them before.
The rationale appears to be that once they have one link, any future ones will not be valuable.
The thing is, links from the same domains can add more value for a few reasons:
- The trust shown by linking to you is reinforced over and over again, showing Google that it wasn’t just a one-off or fluke.
- Pages get deleted from the web all the time. Just because you have a link already doesn’t mean that it will remain there forever. Getting more links from more pages will help to combat this.
- The more links you have, the more visibility you have on that domain and the more chances you have to generate traffic to your website.
The last one is really important for me.
If you build a link from a domain, you’ll be able to see pretty quickly and reliably whether it sends traffic to you or not.
If you see traffic coming through and this traffic appears to be valuable, you should absolutely be looking for ways to work with the domain more and get more links in the future.
To Wrap Up
In summary, don’t let any single metric or data point distract you from what you’re really trying to accomplish – adding value to the business.
Metrics can help you in a number of ways but can also work against you if you’re not careful.
Ensure that when you’re using metrics and data points in link building, they:
- Drive the right kinds of behaviors.
- Ultimately lead to business outcomes.
- Allow you to understand whether you’re doing a good job.
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