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Beyond authority: guiding metrics for lasting links
Aside from technical metrics related to web page authority, what factors should be used to inform your link building efforts? Columnist Andrew Dennis shares his ideas and those of other industry experts.
I recently attended a search conference and had the opportunity to converse with attendees from a wide range of fields, with varying SEO backgrounds and experiences. After many interesting and engaging conversations, a common takeaway stood out to me:
People are hung up on technical SEO metrics.
I remember multiple questions like, “What’s your minimum threshold for Trust Flow?” or, “Okay, you get relevant links, but what is the average Domain Authority?”
I shared my observation with our sales team when I returned, and they confirmed this was a common theme among their contacts. It seems my peers in the SEO industry have noticed this trend as well.
While I do believe SEO metrics like Domain Authority or Trust Flow are important and useful, I also believe they require context — and there is more to the story when it comes to evaluating link prospects.
Link acquisition is a nuanced, difficult practice, but I want to walk through my own perspective on the link metrics that lead to securing real links that will make a lasting difference.
The number one key to acquiring worthwhile links is relevance.
Relevance provides both a starting point for evaluating your campaign and a continuing guide. Above all other factors, relevance should be the North Star of your link campaign.
SEOs have a propensity to get caught up in technical metrics (Domain Authority, PageRank, Trust Flow, anchor text, co-citation and so on) and only think about Google’s algorithm. But if you pursue links purely from an SEO perspective, you’re going to make mistakes. Serious mistakes.
For example, consider Domain Authority (DA) from Moz. Domain Authority is a helpful metric and provides a useful barometer to evaluate the perceived authority of a site.
But Moz is not Google; Moz has a much smaller index of the web. Domain Authority does not directly equate to PageRank, much less the other hundreds of factors Google uses to evaluate a given site. Judging sites purely by Domain Authority is a mistake.
SEOs can obsess over Domain Authority and conflate DA with site quality, but that is simply not the way this metric should be used. Rather, as Nick Eubanks points out, Domain Authority works best as an indicator for ranking potential.
Moz itself agrees with this assessment that DA is a high-level metric for gauging ranking potential:
While specific metrics like MozRank can answer questions of raw link popularity — and link counts can show the raw quantities of pages/sites linking — the authority numbers are high-level metrics that attempt to answer the question, “How strong are this page’s links in terms of helping them rank for queries in Google.com?”
Domain Authority is a helpful metric and is worth considering in your link acquisition, but don’t discard potential link prospects simply because they have a low DA.
Relevance should trump all other metrics, particularly in regard to your audience. As my colleague, Nicholas Chimonas, stated, “I will never avoid a site that is under DA 25 if it is highly relevant, high-quality, and my target audience is there.”
Technical metrics, such as Domain Authority, Page Authority, Majestic Trust Flow, SEMrush traffic levels and so on, are helpful tools that provide signals and indications of the authority and reputation of a site. But at the end of the day, relevance should ultimately guide your decision-making process within link building.
The goal, after all, is to bring relevant traffic into your site — people who are interested in your company and might actually become a client/customer. What better way to accomplish that than to build relationships and links across your industry, where your audience lives?
Links should be first and foremost for people, not robots and search crawlers.
As SEOs, we’re not blind to search. Of course, the goal of link acquisition should be to influence rankings and search visibility. But those rankings should flow from building real human connections. Otherwise, you’re building rankings on a house of cards.
Build a real network for your website. That’s what links are: a digital network of connections which tie your site to others.
Build links you would want even if they didn’t increase rankings.
Trust and authority metrics shouldn’t be ignored — these metrics can play an important part in evaluating sites — but you shouldn’t rule out sites that have an active audience and community.
When judging a prospect, think about whether someone would ever actually click on your link. To determine human value, gauge user engagement on a given site. Here are some methods to measure user engagement on a site:
- Find the actual person/people behind the site. See if they have an active presence on the site, in the niche, and on social media.
- Check the comments section in blog posts.
- Review social media (or social buttons, if they have them) for social activity surrounding the site (e.g., shares, followers, conversation).
- Analyze traffic via SEMrush.
- Examine post frequency and content freshness.
Sites with low authority signals but high engagement can still be viable link targets.
Human value also comes into play when Google evaluates sites and links. Google has always advocated for focusing on users, and they uphold this philosophy when assessing links. With another Penguin update on the horizon, taking a page from Google’s guiding principle in your link development certainly seems like a good idea.
Links should be built by humans, for humans. Every link should add value to the web.
Every campaign needs clearly defined goals.
Establishing goals and expectations at the onset of a campaign will provide an overarching guide for all aspects of your project. Every link you secure should, in one way or another, contribute to the larger goals of your campaign.
The odds of achieving success without a clearly defined goal are minimal. And even if you achieve success, you probably won’t know or appreciate it — and thus will have trouble communicating it to your client/boss. You need to set specific goals with specific timelines, and then you can measure progress and report appropriately.
Whether your goal is to improve traffic, increase conversions, support a new initiative or grow brand exposure and affinity, each link secured should be acquired with that specific goal in mind.
This is not to say that every individual link will directly lead to more conversions or increased rankings. But rather the amalgamation of your efforts should develop a diverse link profile that, as a whole, helps you achieve your objectives.
Different links will serve different goals, such as:
- Links on industry-leading sites can build authority and tap into new audiences, growing brand exposure. These sites are often great places to connect with your audience directly.
- Links on hyper-relevant forums or communities won’t pass much SEO value but may direct qualified traffic.
- Links on partner sites bolster relationships, create further marketing opportunities and develop brand advocates.
- Links on local/niche directories and trusted review sites build brand affinity and offer targeted exposure.
Each link you secure should build toward your greater business goals. And you need a diverse mix of links to achieve the specific goals of your campaign.
To ensure you’re employing the most effective tactics and building the right types of links, it’s important to track progress. You can measure a wide variety of metrics, analytics and data (depending on your project’s goals), but here are a few main aspects worth tracking for nearly every campaign:
- Organic traffic to the site
- Organic traffic to selected pages
- Increases in traffic, sitewide
- Thematic keyword rankings
- Key head terms and rankings
Monitoring these metrics will inform whether or not your project is achieving results.
Of course, you can (and should) add other KPIs to provide a more complete picture. For example, if one of your main goals is to improve engagement on your site, you might track bounce rates, average time on page, pages per session and returning visitors.
Determining appropriate KPIs for your campaign will ensure you stay on course to reach your goals.
This post covers my opinions on what metrics really matter within a link campaign. However, I’m not alone. Many of the same opinions are shared by industry experts and luminaries.
Of course, having more authority links to your site means better rankings and traffic. No one is silly enough to think that a website with a Domain Authority of 65 isn’t a very powerful one in many ways.
However, rankings are not all that matter. Traffic isn’t all that matters, either. What matters is relevant traffic that has the potential to convert.
In general, though, focus on relevance above all else. It’s tempting to just shoot for the big, authoritative opportunities, but by doing so you run into a few issues. The first is that you limit yourself to a smaller pool of prospects, so you generally end up with less links (in some low-quality niches, this can leave you with next to none). Second, relevance is having a much bigger impact in the algorithm moving forward. And third, by targeting more relevant opportunities, you’ve got a bigger chance of having the webmaster say Yes.
Domain authority is a powerful, directional measure of trust and authority — but it cannot be used in a vacuum. There are other link strength and contextual signals that need to be considered to get a full picture of a domain’s ability to move the needle, rank on its own or prop up other pages for rankings.
The internet is always going to be about people connecting with other people, or connecting with content written by people (sorry, Narrative Science). And while I agree there are many link-building strategies, tactics and techniques that need to die a slow and painful death, the process of one person sharing with another person an incredibly useful piece of content that will resonate with that person and result in a link will never go out of style and will never be obsolete.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I can assure you that while the methods for identifying the right people have become more challenging, at the end of the day, the end game is still the same: I need to get in touch with the person who will most likely care about what it is I’m sharing or seeking links for.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.