You’ll know all about these metrics – Domain Authority, Domain Rating or the Semrush Authority Score. These are metrics used to allocate a numerical measure of value on a domain.
I will start off by saying, yes, a lot of big legitimate sites, especially in big media, have large domain authority scores and the links from those sites are going to pack a serious punch when it comes to link equity (and sometimes traffic as well.)
The problem is, the interpretation of that has become a bit warped over the years. Even worse, some service providers in the SEO industry are taking that warped interpretation to conduct work, and produce results which are substandard.
From a link building POV, here’s a one-lined definition of what most people think to be the case: The higher the domain score (be it DA or DR), the higher the SEO impact that link will have.
This is not always the case, and is an oversimplification. Let’s draw back the curtain on the truth behind DA, DR and other “authority” metrics…
The Use of DA vs DR in SEO
Both of these metrics are basically a predicted measure of the strength of a domain.
DA – is Domain Authority, a metric developed by Moz. The Domain Authority is calculated by measuring 40 different signals – including link data (root domains and total number of links), spam scores.
DR – is Domain Rating, a metric developed by Ahrefs. Ahrefs claim it is calculated in a similar way to how the old “PageRank” metric was calculated. DR is purely link-based, and does not appear to take into account any other signals.
Generally speaking, if a site has a high DA score, it will often have a high DR score as well. However, due to the fact that DA relies on factors other than just links, you may find instances where a website has a high DA, but a low DR. This will often be a sign of a website that has a good overall SEO health, but not necessarily a very large link profile.
Whereas a high DR, but low DA, could indicate a large number of links, and in some cases, attempted manipulation of DR score, by using techniques which we’ll explain later.
Why You Can’t Rely on Third Party Domain Metrics
- These metrics are merely a way of estimating or predicting the strength of a domain. They are also only third party metrics, and are not used in any way by Google or other search engines.
- They are too simplistic. While the DA metric appears to be using a variety of signals to measure domain strength, there are just so many other factors they don’t consider. It can’t take into account things like content quality, true traffic levels, or, for example, the full extent of the 200 ranking factors that Google may be using.
Here’s an old comment by Eric Ward, on one of Perficient’s blog posts about backlink analysis tools. This summarizes the stance back then, which is still true today.
“.. these third-party tools do tend to focus on higher-quality sites, whereas Google crawls whatever it feels will help them improve the results for their end users. The little discussed issue here is that these tools have completely different goals and uses than Google. As an example, when Google comes across 70 million pages in a blog network in Russia, it’s in their best interest to crawl them to learn whatever they can from it. However, a third-party backlink tool is not going to crawl 70 million pages that ultimately don’t serve any value or surface any link targets for their paid users. You can see the conflict here. In Google’s case their algorithm actually improves by crawling the crap, because it learns from it. The third-party linking tools however, have a different goal; they need to please paid subscribers by surfacing link targets. This is just one of the issues at play here, and I have spent hundreds of hours explaining to clients and others just how different do use tools work from Google, and just how careful one must be in how they utilize that data”
Eric Ward, Link Moses
- They can be easily manipulated. Ahrefs have even said this about DR on their own site. Since the metrics are fairly simplistic, simply pointing a large number of links at a site (even with low quality, spammy links) will cause an increase in the DA/DR.
- Too restrictive for link building. If we look at this from a link building point of view – and particularly at the prospecting level – by only focusing on the DA/DR, you may be cutting out a lot of good quality sites, purely based on a third party tools measure of the domain strength. The reality is, a site with a small DA or DR, could be hyper relevant to your site or audience, have exactly the right traffic that aligns with your business goals – but is cut out purely based on it not having enough links.
Manipulation of Domain Authority & Domain Rating
As we said above, these domain authority metrics are based mostly just on the amount of inbound links going to the website.
The reason sites do it is often so they can inflate the domain metric, making the site look better than it is.
Well, often it means they can claim that a link from them will be really valuable, and they can charge more. It becomes more of a bargaining chip for them when negotiating prices, rather than being a true measure of link value.
So, there are a few manipulative techniques some people employ in order to do it:
These are domains that used to have an active website on it, but at some point the domain was not renewed. The domain then expires and ends up back on the market, and there are some expired domain marketplaces, which are quite popular within the SEO community.
Now, the domain itself may not be of much value, however, from an SEO performance point of view, the website’s backlink profile can be of value. People will then take an expired domain, and point the domain at their main website, in order to leverage the link equity from that old site’s backlink profile.
By having these links pointing at their main website, its domain authority or domain rating , will then increase.
Expired domains have their uses, and especially when they have high quality links, and its relevant to the target domain, it can have a positive effect. The problem is that people can leverage expired domains to inflate their DA/DR score, and give the impression that an otherwise low quality site is better than it is.
This is a purely manipulative technique that doesn’t have any inherent SEO value. It involves leveraging a redirect notice page from a high authority site, and pointing it at the target website.
It is characterized by seeing entries like this in a site’s backlink profile
This is how a Google redirect notice looks:
Spammers will then build loads of tier 2 links at the redirect notice, in order to steer third party metric tools, towards crawling and indexing these types of links.
Ahrefs apparently do not count such types of links within their DR calculation, however, it may still have some impact on Moz’s DA metric.
This is more evident if you dig further into a site’s backlink profile, but is the one major, limiting factor of the DA and DR metric scores.
A site’s backlink profile could be made up of many low quality links. Tools like Ahrefs and Moz are not adept (at least not to the level of search engines) to effective determine a proper assessment of the quality of a link. While they can make some calculations based on the number of links, it is not definitive.
Ahrefs themselves have even admitted this. Stating:
So a spammer trying to manipulate their domain rating or domain authority score, could just blast it with a large number of spammy links, and see the score go up without any issues.
This question is a bit of a fallacy, for the reasons we’ve covered so far.
Third party metrics are not something you should be aiming
to increase, but are merely a by-product of the link building work you are doing.
|At The Links Guy, we also don’t consider third party metrics in a vacuum, and use them only as a minimum benchmark when we’re doing analysis on the prospecting scale. We can’t manually check the quality of every single website we’re prospecting (since we’re extracting countless thousands of sites every day), but we can set a benchmark of a minimum DA score, and then that cuts out (in theory)the website’s we’d consider too small.
However, there is a possibility of cutting out good quality sites when you do this, so use this with caution.
It’s important to note, Google probably does have their own internal measure of “domain authority”, which is probably based on the old “PageRank” metric which is now not shared publicly. I believe the reason is that PageRank cannot be defined to a single numerical metric.
Google also wanted to people not to focus on metrics like PageRank as shared by Susan Moskwa:
Your aim should be to instead focus on following good SEO practice, creating high quality content, and building high quality backlinks. This will in turn, improve your SEO performance, and lead to better traffic and rankings.
Your website’s authority (i.e. its true authority in the eyes of search engines like Google) will increase, as a result.
Will your domain authority or domain rating increase as well?
Does it matter if it doesn’t increase? Probably not.
But, if your traffic, rankings (and revenue) increases, then you won’t care anyway.
As we’ve said, DA and DR are not actually ranking factors. It’s possible to outrank a site that has a higher authority score (which often means they have more links.)
Links are a very important factor to consider and you should factor in that when the overall authority isn’t very high, your ability to influence search engine results with links also relies on things such as:
- The relevance of those linking root domains to your website.
- Where the root domain isn’t as relevant, the relevance of the web pages linking to your website’s pages. (i.e. URL level relevance), and the contextual relevance of the link and anchor.
But outside of links there is also the quality of your content, and how best it serves the search intent. That’s a bigger topic, but is also something to consider.
Here’s an extreme example to illustrate. We have the keyword “buying pharmacy” on Google UK
PharmacyPortal has a DR of only 0, but is outranking site’s with DRs of even 49 and 52. We also see the site in position 5, that only has 2 linking domains, is outranking the site that has 4 linking domains.
You’ll see this play out on a lot of search engine result pages, where a relative minnow in the results, is beating a larger competitor.
Here’s a previous client we worked with some years ago, who is still outranking larger competitors for the keyword “recycle ipad”
We built a lot of domains to the homepage, which was optimized for that page, and you could argue, serves the search intent better as well. It outranks much bigger competitors like MusicMagpie (DR 71) and CompareandRecycle (DR 47).
While we’re on the topic of serving intent – outside of just links, it is also about the website’s authority in that niche. For example, for certain keywords, search engines like Google can often favor a certain type of website in the SERPs, as the algorithm believes it to be the best fit in terms of intent. For example, for a keyword like “link building agency”, you will see a heavier weightage of agencies pop up in the search results, as opposed to SEO brands who are just writing a roundup post, or talking about the topic in a more general way.
There are other factors you should be focusing on, other than DA and DR, when you’re prospecting for target site’s, to use within your link building process.
As we said before, DA and DR may be ok to use as a benchmark, but at TLG, we would always recommend not to blindly use SEO metrics.
So what should you be looking at then? Here’s the main ones.
In an ideal world, you will want those linking websites to be as close to your niche and audience as possible.
Sometimes you can’t always get them in your exact industry, but I would recommend niching up, or going into crossover sectors. The idea is, they still have some logical relevance and topic crossover.
Added to this, it should be possible to ascertain what the site’s niche actually is, in order to infer some relevance. If you look at the site and it’s not possible to tell exactly what niche it is, because of the huge scope of content they cover – that is a warning sign.
For example, a common theme with so called “link farm” sites, is they have a wide spread of categories like this
There just isn’t enough logical relevance between these categories and why a site would want to cover all of them. On top of that “Wall Post Magazine” as whole, seems like a generalist blog that writes about everything, and it’s hard to really pin down what its about.
In comparison, here’s a site called ShippyPro. If we do some surface level data analysis, we can see it only has around 700+ visitors, and a DA of 37. Nothing amazing.
But, it is a website with a clear business purpose as an ecommerce shipping software, making it highly relevant to the Logistics and Supply Chain sector of our client. This site also passes most of the hallmarks which are required to meet our quality checks, which we’ll cover throughout this article.
Following on from the last point – sometimes you will have websites where they just look very “weird” and something looks obviously off. This is what you may call the “sniff test” when you do link prospecting.
Just some of the red flags to look for:
- It seems to cover all different types of niches with no clear direction.
- You can’t tell who’s behind the website, with nothing on the about page, or anywhere else on the site.
- Random, very niche topics with no relation to anything else – particularly out-of-place crypto topics, gambling or online slots, epoxy resin, to name a few.
- Every post has low quality content with keyword match anchor texts, and stuffed with commercial links. You may even see links that are not even related to the overarching theme of the content piece and are forced in.
- Most of the content on the site is riddled with errors or written in poor English.
- A very basic website theme, riddled with ads, and maybe even popups.
There are some exceptions to the rule, and you may come across a decent site where you can’t see who’s behind the site (perhaps the author is quite private). However, if you keep all of these red flags in mind, when you quickly browse through a site, you’ll become pretty accurate at sniffing out such sites.
Link farm sites will often be filled full of low quality content, as there won’t be much (if any) editorial process for assessing quality, and so they’ll just be accepting and publishing anything that they’ve been paid for.
So it obviously follows that a good site will take more pride in content that has a positive effect on their website’s performance, that speaks to their readers and/or serves a business purpose, other than just selling links.
The Link Space
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the outgoing links that are on the website’s content, is something you want to scrutinize. If they are selling links to everyone that will pay for it, it does beg the question – do you really want to be considered in the same “neighborhood” as those sites?
Low quality, spammy sites, will inevitably also tend to have spammy outbound links. The rule of thumb we use for assessing this at TLG, is looking at the amount of questionable links that are going out from a site. One quick way of seeing how spammy a site is, is the amount of casino links they have. An abundance of those, usually means they don’t have any qualms about what they’re linking to, and there’s a lack of editorial process or vetting.
The more spammy behavior like this they engage in, the more likely that particular website isn’t looked on favorably by search engines. If they haven’t already taken a dip in traffic or been penalized – they probably will get hit in the future.
Here’s an example of a tech blog with a volatile traffic history:
While it is possible for a legitimate and high quality site to have some dips and spikes in traffic, this is also a common factor you’ll see with link farms. Especially as they’re more likely to engage in risky activities, manipulating the SERPs, inflating traffic, and then eventually being caught out with some of those practices.
If you get spammy links on sites like this, while it may not necessarily mean you will be penalized – it could still just result in you wasting money on a link which isn’t going to really benefit your site.
Traffic, Traffic Quality, and Keywords
If a site is receiving a decent amount of organic traffic, its much more likely to be a good site worth getting traffic from. Even if they aren’t a very high traffic site, you may find they have a particular page which receives organic traffic, and as long as its relevant to your resource, its a link well worth having.
However, the question of organic traffic volume comes with several caveats:
- This doesn’t take into account other traffic sources like social media, direct traffic, paid ad traffic etc. SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush won’t really give you traffic estimates of these factors.
A tool like SocialBlade can come in handy here, if you want to get a measure of their social presence. However, if you have a site which doesn’t seem to have a large amount of organic traffic, but it still appears to be a good quality site, its worth checking their social media followings and making a judgment based on that. For example, here’s a site called FrostedEvents:
Registers around 11.8k visitors a month on ahrefs, but you can see they have a fairly large social following, with 38k on instagram, and 60k on Pinterest. They claim to have 46k monthly readers. While we can’t verify this, it’s important to remember we need to take a more holistic approach to things. SEO tools are going to be inaccurate and it won’t show the full landscape of their traffic profile.
A site like this, even aside from what we can read on an SEO tool, may be worth collaborating with due to their social presence, and we could potentially negotiate a social share to drive even more traffic.
- As we’ve alluded to, traffic from SEO tools doesn’t always correlate with actual traffic. Ahrefs themselves admit there are going to be inaccuracies. Such tools have a limited database of keywords, which reflects on the traffic estimate. Ahrefs at last check had 19.2 billion keywords. But consider the actual number of keywords searched on Google must be in the several trillions of keywords by now.
- Traffic quality. More important than just the amount of traffic being reported by those tools – where exactly is the traffic coming from? This is where we have to dig into that target site’s own search engine rankings.
When we talk about traffic quality, at least in the context of traffic we can see using third party tools, we can use tools like Ahrefs to get an overview of where the majority of it is coming from.
Using the “Top Pages” feature, you can get a measure of where most of the traffic is coming from. A common factor with a lot of PBNs, link farms, is traffic which has been inflated by keywords like these.
Often very random long tail keywords, outdated keywords which may have some volume, but are probably not being searched anymore, or things related to torrents or other questionable adult-related terms. You may even see them rank on Google Images for some terms with good traffic volume.
So even if they are getting traffic from such keywords like these, it’s not really of any value. On top of that, if that’s the only keywords they’re being considered for by Google, it obviously doesn’t really consider the site much of an authority for their niche.
A metric like Traffic Value from Ahrefs can sometimes be an indicator, but you should use it with caution. A site could still be picking up an abundance of traffic from keywords which are questionable, outdated, and just of low value to what we’re trying to achieve. This can accumulate, and give you what looks like a traffic value of a few thousands dollars – but when you delve further, you see it’s mostly irrelevant keywords and traffic.
Here’s a travel site which has organic traffic with a perceived value of over $7,000.
It is bringing in some traffic, but a lot of the keywords making up most of their site are really going out of the site’s core purpose and seem to just be articles they picked up because they were easy to rank for.
Now, what is considered “within the niche” and “out of the niche” can be a more subjective area, and its not something I’d recommend indulging too much time into. Its just something to be mindful of.
The more a site goes out of your niche, and is just “ranking anything for the sake of bringing in traffic”, the lesser the value of the traffic and authority of that site becomes.
Now let’s dig a bit deeper into an example with TravelTweaks.
At a glance and to an untrained eye, it seems to cover the travel niche and has topics all in that area.
A good site right? Not quite.
If we check the keywords its ranking for, we see the following:
While there are some travel industry-related keywords in there, we see some which just seem completely unrelated. There is also a really long term which is apparently bringing in over 1,200 visitors a month. This is more likely to either be a reporting error, or it’s as a result of something like CTR manipulation or some other black hat technique.
What you actually want to see is a site ranking for things which are relevant to their niche and better yet, has some crossover with yours as well.
Now let’s say we were trying to assess the suitability of a site in the fitness niche. This is the type of keyword profile we’d want in such a site.
Not everything is directly related to us, but there’s a good abundance of relevant topics and traffic there. We can say with reasonable confidence that this site would be considered an authority in this health and fitness area, which then means it will be an impactful link for us.
The Inbound:Outbound Link Ratio
As we’ve explained , lower quality sites tend to be selling links to a lot of sites, so you’ll find a large proportion of their posts are linking out externally.
At the same time, they also won’t have a lot of inbound linking root domains, and it will look disproportionate.
For example, this site below when we run an analysis on it:
It shows they have 2,960 domains linking to them, but 5,195 going out. So they’re linking out almost twice as much as they have coming in. There could be many reasons for this, but when we dig a bit further into the quality of the site, we found other factors like poor content, out-of-place anchors to make us confident we could avoid this site.
Now this can be a tricky metric to put a hard rule on, as legitimate sites, such as industry news sites, will be citing a lot of sources, references etc. And it would be expected they have a lot of outgoing links.
This isn’t bad in of itself. But, it’s something which can just indicate that there’s something you’ll want to check into further, and you’ll want to consider other potential red flags, in combination with this.
If you want to do prospecting at scale, and need to cut your lists down in size, you could do this analysis in bulk. For example, some may use a 3:1 ratio as a benchmark. I.e. sites that have no more than 3 times the number of outbound links, as they do inbound links. That’s probably a reasonable benchmark.
Restricting it too much, may cut down the size of your list too much, and leave out some pretty good sites.
Quality of Backlinks
Aside from just the quantity of links a target site has, is the website’s backlink profile. The better the links they have, the better it is for us.
It also follows that you’ll want to avoid a website, if the site’s backlink profile is really poor.
This can often be an indicator of a good quality site. Even if they aren’t registering a very large traffic profile, or a lot of links – some strong, relevant links should also mean some authority passes through to us.
For example, looking at this site, they only had just under 1,000 visitors a month (according to Ahrefs), and only 160 unique, dofollow referring domains.
However, the few links they did have were very high quality ,and better yet, extremely relevant to the niche we were going for – which was ecommerce and logistics.
As you know by now, the domain rating or domain authority of the linking root domains isn’t what we’re looking at here, but in the true authority and relevance of the links they have. As a general rule of thumb though and when you want to take a quick glance at a site, if they seem to have links from recognisable sites which have a good domain authority score, it’s often an indicator they have been engaging in digital PR or some quality link building themselves.
When you start a link building campaign, hopefully this article has helped shed a bit more light on the role of domain rating and domain authority. DA and DR are not the be all and end all, and there’s so many other factors you need to consider.
If you look at the quality markers we’ve shown above such as relevance, traffic quality,
While this does seem like a lot to analyze and to take in, the reality is – the overall concept of where you should be getting links from, is a lot simpler.
Focus your link strategies on creating target lists which are relevant and have a logical crossover with your own content and industry, filter out low quality sites or spam links with good prospecting technique, and you won’t go far wrong. DA and DR scores can be there to act as a benchmark when building lists, but don’t follow them blindly.
TheLinksGuy have these processes and philosophies baked into our day-to-day work – helping our clients build high quality, natural links at scale.
So, if you’re fed up with low quality link building agencies trying to pass off spam links, or sites with inflated DR scores to you, reach out and we’ll happily take over.