Stuck In Link Limbo? How To Craft Real Business Metrics For Link Building

As the in-house person in charge of marketing the online legal directory, Avvo, I need to have accurate and timely access to all of our performance metrics. Since we launched the site three years ago, finding consistent metrics to evaluate our site’s growing link strength has been a remarkably difficult exercise. We have adopted at least three different metrics and used three different tools, yet I remain frustrated by our inability to develop a consistent model to evaluate our site’s link performance.

From a business perspective, something that feels so easily quantifiable should fall into the simple process of setting objectives, defining benchmarks, and measuring results.  But it’s not that simplistic. SEOs get tied in knots speculating about what impacts the quality of a site’s link profile. The potential variables are endless — domain diversity, bounce rates, anchor text, absolute number of links, relevancy, redirects, nofollows (or not?), internal links, paid sponsored links, deep links, non-profit links, density of links on linking page, education links, international links, links written by left handed atheists, social media links, age of links, links from Malia Obama’s Facebook page,  and so forth.

Finding simple business metrics to accommodate all of these variables (and even knowing if they are the right ones) is extremely difficult. For a comprehensive overview of tools available to help keep track, check out A Big Roundup of Linkbuilding Tools by Debra Mastaler. The group I’ve gotten my hands dirty with include:

  • Site Explorer – the granddaddy of link checking tools, provided for free by Yahoo. Admittedly, this was our starting point at Avvo, but the data here was so erratic and incomplete, it was functionally impossible to use. Additionally, Site Explorer has been slated for the digital scrap heap.
  • Google Back Links Checker – Big G offers such a small sample of actual links that doing any competitive benchmarking is impossible. Even Google webmaster tools doesn’t show all links to your own site. While it recently updated to open up even more of the link profile kimono, you still don’t get 100% accuracy; although it shows much more comprehensive data than the link: operator.
  • Digital Point – offers a backlink tracking utility, which it accesses through Google’s API, so it has the same problems as the Google link: operator. Unfortunately, it only shows the raw number of links and only tracks individual page URLs, nothing in aggregate.
  • Linkscape – pay-for-tool from SEOmoz goes further than anything I’ve seen available to evaluate not only the quantity, but also the quality of links. Linkscape data is pulled from SEOmoz’ own index of the web. SEOmoz recently launched a new free product on top of Linkscape called Open Site ExplorerMatt McGee covered OSE launch for SEL.
  • Majestic SEO – fairly comprehensive link analysis based on review of a proprietary URL index updated monthly. They offer a free version, but you have to verify ownership of your site (no thanks, I already have enough third party stuff on our site.) One thing Majestic does provide (for free) is a handy dandy graph of your link history.  Here’s the graph for Avvo:

Both Linkscape and Majestic up the game on other tools by emulating the search engine crawlers and developing their own indices of links across the web. Majestic provides a monthly re-index. SEOmoz’s updates have been a little more erratic, but I believe they have settled into a more regular schedule recently. The problem with these third-party indices is that they sample different portions of the web every time they put out a new index. This means the absolute number of reported links may go down as they index fewer pages across the web (to deal with duplicate content or spam for example) or up – as the crawlers find more ancient pages.

The data fluctuations due to constantly changing indices wreck havoc on simple business processes. Note in the graphic above Avvo’s rollercoaster – with fluctuations of at least 10% every month in the second half of ‘09. Based on the reports here, we’ve vacillated between wild improvements and shocking losses every single month in the last two quarters of ’09.

If I had set an objective of improving links, defined a benchmark and then measured against that benchmark using these tools, I’d be pulling my hair out (see bio image.) If I was paying a vendor, I’d be screaming about my retainer, or thinking of extending it further. If I had a linkbuilding employee, I either would have fired her or over-bonused her. If I had to report back to my board, I’d be either boastful or sheepish depending on the month. You get the point: in every case, the erratic reporting leaves me entirely unsure.

When counting links isn’t enough

Simply counting the number of links and domains reported by these third party tools clearly doesn’t work. To address the erratic data issue, we shifted our link tracking monitoring metrics to a more qualitative approach provided by the SEOmoz tool. Linkscape takes link analysis a step further and provides their own statistical evaluation of the quality of individual links and the overall domain’s authority, along with a slew of other quality-type metrics. The primary metric is called mozRank, which is a 1,000 point scale and essentially is built to reflect SEOmoz’s interpretation of PageRank. This, in theory, is the ultimate solution for the business process of tracking authority growth. I can compare our progress with our competitors at very granular increments

Unfortunately, theory and practice collide.

First, there are so many different metrics to choose from within Linkscape, I still can’t discern the differences between all of them – we settled on Root Domain Domain mozRank. Second, we’ve experienced metric fluctuations that just don’t make sense. As a rapidly growing startup, our domain authority is constantly increasing, yet we’ve seen down cycles with mozRank, including one incident when our mozRank dropped .04 to 5.83 on the same month our visible Google PageRank moved up to a 7. Granted, this is a very small change, but when you offer a very precise instrument, you expect very precise results, not to mention the numbers are a full logarithmic step apart.

Additionally, the search algorithms change. Assuming the statistical minds at SEOmoz can reverse engineer authority profiles, the cycle of collecting data, validating data and then tweaking their own algorithm means they will always be way behind the here and now. Finally, the bigger issue here, of course, is that PageRank is deliberately fuzzy, so at best, SEOmoz is trying to match a deliberately inaccurate number.

I’ve also tried benchmarking against competitors by creating performance ratios. Using Linkscape data, we tracked our absolute number of links and number of linking domains against an established competitor. This works on the theory that while the data from Linkscape and Majestic may fluctuate based on their most recent indices, the relative reporting for sites within a business category should be similar.  The data is similarly bad across sites and therefore you can track overall performance improvements. Additionally, a competitive ratio as a KPI tells you how far behind (or ahead) you are.

Again, practice collided with theory. Our benchmarking ratio graph looks like this:

The matrix below shows wild fluctuations in Avvo’s ratios month to month, including one period when Linkscape reported a loss of over 500,000 links to our competitive benchmark moving the ratio from 4.5% to 10.9%. This is just far too variable to use as a month to month managerial tool.

December January February
Link Ratio 17.8% 20.4% 18.6%
Domain Diversity Ratio 5.5% 4.5% 10.9%

What does count when it comes to building links?

So I found myself back at square one. The myriad variables associated with links makes finding a solution imprecise at best. However, I’d offer an obvious proxy solution for measuring link performance: referring traffic. Link building in its purest sense is a business development activity.

Thus, growth in a site’s overall link profile should be reflected in strong growth in referring traffic. It’s not a massive leap of imagination to presume that links that deliver traffic are more algorithmically valuable. And if you are playing by the rules, you can filter those paid (and appropriately nofollowed) links in your analytics package. Below is a snapshot of a link to our “How to Date a Lawyer” page that generated great traffic (and therefore SEO value) to Avvo.

Presumably, this is the type of link that really impacts site authority and the success you want to see from your link builders. Referring traffic is neither perfect nor particularly granular. It does, however, provide a workable framework for running the business process of link building by either employees or consultants.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | How To: Links | Link Week Column

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About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://smart-keywords.com Aussiewebmaster

    Another tool you have overlooked is LinkResearchTools.com – relatively new and a paid service put it has great info for comparing efforts against competitors

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    You have a well-written and reasonably thorough summary here but there is minimal search optimization value in jumping through all these hoops over imaginary link data. It may be real within each service but you cannot take any of these tools — even the Google-powered ones — and use them to determine which links are helping within which search engines.

    SEOs who depend mostly on link building are playing at the low end of the efficiency spectrum. People need to step up their game and obsessing over links.

  • http://2helixtech.com matthiaswh

    Michael,

    I don’t think people can stop obsessing over links until they become a non-factor in ranking (which will most likely never happen). The best on-site SEO work won’t get you very far on competitive terms without any links. On the other hand, the right links can get even a terrible example of SEO to the #1 spot, as long as it’s search engine accessible.

    The fact of the matter is that links are the single biggest factor in search engine rankings, but they’re not the only factor.

    Conrad,

    While I agree that it is incredibly difficult to put a value link building efforts, I think relying solely on referral traffic is as equally inaccurate as using a tool like Linkscape/OSE. The idea that the ranking algorithm’s value of a link is proportional to the traffic volume supplied by a link doesn’t hold up in all situations.

    A mention on the NYTimes front page might bring in a huge amount of traffic for several days and then taper off into a couple referrals per day when it gets pushed into the archives. However, the algorithmic benefit of that link doesn’t appear to fade very much. Equally, a mention on a deep but relevant page of Harvard.edu might never bring in very much traffic but offer a significant algorithmic boost.

    It’s frustrating to try to give due credit to link building. We do pretty general SEO for our clients. During the review of my last report for work performed, the account rep. for that client saw I’d only obtained X amount of links (which is only 1 of the tasks during that session) and asked how that accounted for all the time spent on it. At first that was almost insulting, but I realized that to someone who doesn’t spend time building links that it’s difficult to understand and quantify results.

    I think the answer (if there is one) is probably some mix of referral traffic and Linkscape data. It’s good to keep the traffic in mind, and I think it will become more and more important as a signal of the link value. Outspoken Media did an interview with some of the top link building minds, and their answer to Question 5 supports your idea that referral traffic is a valuable metric: http://outspokenmedia.com/seo/link-building-interview/

    Thanks for the article. It’s good to keep in mind and raises some great points.

    -Matthias

  • http://www.robertdreher.nl RobertDreher

    Very refreshing and it gives me confidence in my own ideas. Thank you. Tools can help me doing my job better but they never give me a complete and reliable picture.

  • http://arizonaseo.com halfacat

    Interesting article Conrad. It seems that tracking links is an ongoing struggle. Thanks for the ideas here.

    Michael – Can you give us some alternatives to link building that deliver results? I am sure it would be something that Search Engine Land would publish.

  • Conrad Saam

    Update: Talked with Rand from SEOmoz this morning – they are indeed updating their index on a four weeks or less schedule since January of this year.

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    Conrad, I agree with Micheal M. All of us who have created tools in this niche are, at the end of the day, basing everything on assumptions. Link Insight is the newest tool I helped create, and I purposely simplified the process of link evaluation and scoring down to a set of signals that are easy to measure and track. At the same time, I know we cannot ever have a perfect set of metrics for link building, as there are simply too many possible goals and variables. That’s where the experience of the tool creator matters. Having been at the link building biz for 15+ years, I must say that link building that is driven purely from a search rank standpoint misses the point entirely. Tools and metrics can help us feel more confident about what we believe to be true, but that’s it.

 

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