3 Key Types of Link Building Metrics and How to Use Them Successfully
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the problem is that I don’t know which half. – Department store magnate John Wanamaker
It goes without saying that Wanamaker did not have a Google Analytics account to check the performance of its ads.
The internet has ushered us into an era where many believe that everything can (and should) be measured and accounted for.
As the more modern saying goes: If you don’t measure it, you don’t care.
The thing is, while we clearly have more data than Wanamaker did over 100 years ago, we don’t always know which data is most important.
Worse still, having the data doesn’t mean we use it to make the right decisions.
This can apply to all digital marketing channels, especially SEO. Specifically, it is all too easy to misunderstand and misuse the data associated with link building.
When we measure the wrong data points and metrics, a lot of bad things can happen:
- We think we’re doing a good job, but we’re not.
- Bad behaviors can be triggered, leading to substandard work.
- We measure the impact of our work in a way that is unrelated to actual business results.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the link building metrics available and assess how we should – and shouldn’t – use them.
1. Domain and page quality metrics
The most obvious place to start is the abundance of metrics created by various tool providers to help gauge link value and quality.
Here are a few:
- Majestic’s TrustFlow and CitationFlow.
- Domain Authority and Page Authority of Moz.
- Ahrefs domain ranking.
- Semrush domain score.
Most of them 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 consider if you’re going to use them and some pitfalls to avoid.
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 they will fall far short of what Google is able to calculate and use on the web.
They are also usually designed to give an idea of how one domain or page ranks against another.
They are not exact measurements that can give you an exact answer to a question and therefore should not be used in this manner.
Instead, use them to understand a possible reason one domain or page may rank higher than another: the volume and quality of links pointing to them.
Of course, there are many reasons why one domain might rank higher than another, so checking a metric like domain rating or domain authority can give you an idea of how of which links may be a factor.
This becomes a starting point for digging deeper into those links or looking at other areas you could influence to improve organic search rankings.
Use to sort and filter link building prospects
Another good use for metrics like domain rating or domain authority is to sort through large lists of domains so you can focus your link building efforts.
While there are other factors like relevance that need to be considered, using a raw metric like this and ranking domains from highest to lowest scores can help.
Say you’ve put together a list of 300 potential domains that seem relevant to your link building efforts, you’ll need to find a starting point.
Extracting a metric can do this job very 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 it’s a useful way to use these metrics.
Use for link profile audit
If you’re trying to audit a link profile, you’ll likely need to collect 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.
For example, if you pull data for your link profile and find that a high proportion of it has a domain authority or domain rating below 10, that gives you a good starting point for potentially bad quality.
On the other hand, you may find an unusually high proportion of your links in the DA90+ range. This could mean that some digital PR activity has already taken place, resulting in many links from prominent domains.
Either way, collecting these types of metrics can give you direction for the rest of your link audit and show patterns you might not otherwise detect.
2. Link Attributes – Nofollow, Sponsored and UGC
Next, let’s look at a very common data point that SEO professionals use when building links – link attributes, including nofollow, sponsored, and UGC.
We’re going to talk about nofollow because it’s 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 was that links using the nofollow attribute had no impact on organic search rankings.
Although there has been debate and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, it has been generally accepted because Google has openly stated that these types of links will not pass any PageRank.
Then, in 2019, Google announced that it was relaxing this position a bit and that in fact links with the nofollow attribute could be taken into account as a “hint”.
In classic Google fashion, they didn’t guarantee they would or wouldn’t – just that they reserved the right to do so.
In reality, that probably means they’re using a bunch of other signals to determine whether or not to count a nofollow link in their link graph.
For example, if a domain has a good track record, high-quality content, and is spam-free, they may very well decide that these factors outweigh the nofollow attribute and PageRank should cross it.
On the other hand, they can see that the nofollow link in question is on a domain that allows user-generated links to be placed at any time, making it take advantage and is now full of spammy links.
In this case, they can see that using nofollow is appropriate and will pretty much ignore that link for ranking purposes.
Overall, due to the uncertainty around Google using nofollow (or not) links to understand whether a page should rank higher or not, it’s not a good idea to use a blanket rule that they should all count the same as standard links.
At the same time, we can be reasonably sure that Google counts them to at least some extent.
Assuming that you generally build good links with many other positive attributes, then it is fair to count all nofollow links to some extent for ranking purposes.
Remember the value of traffic
One thing that is often overlooked when it comes to nofollow links is that they still have the ability to send traffic to your domain.
Users cannot 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, there’s clearly value that shouldn’t be ignored.
I like to think about how we would approach link building if the links themselves made no difference in organic search rankings.
Just because links can influence organic search results doesn’t mean we can’t always have the same mindset and approach. Building links that send traffic can add another layer of value to your work beyond rankings.
In a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to isolate the ranking impact of particular links, being able to show your value with traffic is going to become increasingly important.
3. Links from new domains vs existing domains
Many agencies and internal teams will monitor whether their link building efforts lead to links from new or existing domains.
While it’s not a bad thing to watch, there are ways to watch it that may not be immediately obvious or initially seen as helpful.
Increase your focus on links from new relevant domains
Assuming your link quality and relevance are high enough, getting links from domains you’ve never received links from before can be more valuable than an existing link – but not for the reason you might think.
If you get a link from a domain where you’ve never been featured before, you’re in front of a largely new audience.
Increasing your reach to a relevant audience in this way can bring benefits beyond organic search, such as increased brand awareness and new visitors.
While we hope for no value from an organic search perspective, links like this will add value to your work and should be considered part of your digital strategy as they add real value to the business.
Don’t neglect links from domains you already own
At the other end of the scale, I’ve seen in-house SEO professionals (and even some agencies) completely cut links from domains that were already linked to them.
The reason seems to be that once they have a link, all future ones will no longer be useful.
The thing is, links from the same domains can add more value for several reasons:
- The trust shown by a link to you is reinforced time and time again, showing Google that this was not just a one-time event or fluke.
- Pages are removed from the web all the time. Just because you already have a link doesn’t mean it will stay there forever. Getting more links from more pages will help combat this.
- The more links you have, the more visibility you have on that domain and the more likely you are to drive traffic to your website.
The last one is really important to me.
If you link from a domain, you will be able to see fairly quickly and reliably whether it is sending you traffic or not.
If you see traffic coming in and that traffic seems to be valuable, you should definitely look for ways to work with the domain more and get more links in the future.
To wrap up
In summary, don’t let any metrics or data points distract you from what you’re really trying to accomplish: add value to the business.
Measurements can help you in many ways, but can also harm you if you’re not careful.
Make sure that when you use metrics and data points in link building, they:
- Adopt the right kinds of behaviors.
- Ultimately driving business results.
- Allow you to understand if you are doing a good job.
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