How do you measure link building effectiveness? The easy answers are by search rank improvement or click traffic. But the easy answers are moving targets and nobody knows where they are headed. The links that are giving you page one rankings today might stop helping you one day. The algorithms of tomorrow will be different than the algorithms of today. And that click traffic you are getting from Digg or your Yahoo Pick will decay over time or even dry up completely.
Still, how many times have you been asked to measure something related to online marketing? For every web promotion tactic, there is somebody somewhere who wants to measure it. Did it work? How? In what way? Why? What didn’t work? What can we do to make it work? Seeking a solid measure for ROI is easier for some online marketing tactics that others. There are ways to measure email marketing effectiveness, PPC campaigns, banner ads, interstitial ads—you name it, it can be tested, tweaked, measured and re-measured.
But link building has an unusual set of characteristics that make measurement and ROI much more difficult. And the greatest irony of link building metrics and measurement is in order to measure it, you end up having to employ linking tactics that are ineffective, but at least measurable.
As an example, if you are launching a new site and are looking to outsource link building for that new site, you might put out an RFP or simply ask a potential vendor “what will I get and how much will it cost?” A totally reasonable request and it would be silly if you didn’t ask that question. The link building services respond by trying to bundle together a “package” that they can quantify and sell you, to ease your worries and give you confidence you are not wasting your money. So to answer the “what will I get” question, you find services offering link building packages with numbers like 25 quality links for $1,000, or 600 directory submissions for $199. Seems logical. You will get x number of links for y number of dollars. Where it all breaks down is such services by necessity have to ignore the essence of your content; its subject, intended audience, and purpose, and see your site as a single URL to be shipped anywhere in order to meet the link numbers promised in the link building package. This does not make packaged link building services bad or wrong. It just makes them ineffective.
The beauty of all web sites is they all begin on equal footing. Every site is identical to every other site in one way: they have a homepage URL. And that URL becomes the basis or starting point for many promotional and link building activities. But web sites are also completely different at the same time they are equal. Do you really believe the same link building package is suitable and helpful for NBC.com as well as for CheapViagra.biz? Do web sites about the joys of Chinchilla breeding really require the identical link building package or service as sites about industrial lubricants? Hardly.
So why then do the folks who are in charge of web marketing seek out and buy link building services that in no way speak to the purpose and point of their web sites? My hunch is because they want, or need to be able to measure something. If I promised each of the above sites that I would get them each 100 links for $500, and I knew I had to deliver a report proving it, then my only course of action is to go after links with the least resistance. Like the hundreds of free or $10 web directories than any site can be included in. And statistically, if you knew that for every 1,000 link request emails you sent to “Dear Webmaster” you will end up getting 10 links, then I applaud you for having a perfectly accurate statistical grasp of a perfectly useless marketing tactic.
For me, the real value of any link must be in reverse proportion to how much work I had to do to identify and evaluate its potential, plus the work the owner/editor of that venue has to do in order to include the link on their page. The corollary to this is that any link you can get instantly and automatically with little to no human vetting is likely to be useless. Yes there are a handful of exceptions, but let’s keep it white hat for now.
To illustrate by example, remember my industrial lubricant comment earlier? Let’s imagine you are the marketer of Machinery Lubrication magazine’s web site, and you are seeking link building services from an SEM vendor. Would you want your links to come from places like this, or from places like this? Take it a step further. What is the true link potential for your overall site, not just from any random link target venue, but within your site’s subject area? Now that’s a metric that makes sense to pursue. The rub is that this requires spending serious time doing research to find the relevant and legitimate target venues that would be most appropriate for seeking links from. And even then you have no assurance you will get the link just because you ask for it, because at this level of granularity there are people running the target sites who will make qualitative decisions about whether or not your site even deserves a link.
It’s hard to do all that and sell it as a nice neat package. Who is to say what a proper link building package should be for one site versus another site? Who is to say what the magic number of links is and where they should reside in order to get your site a page one ranking? Some links that send you absolutely zero click traffic will have tremendous impact on your search rank, and some links do nothing to help your search rank but send you a steady flow of targeted click traffic. But which ones and how many and how do you get them and how long will it take?
These are just some of the innate challenges of measuring link building accurately. I know it’s frustrating and I know we all long for spreadsheets and charts and graphs that always go upwards and to the right. But don’t let the pursuit of statistical satisfaction get in the way of the reality, and don’t believe bundled and packaged link building approaches will be the key to your success.
Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.