SEO metrics are important in this industry, especially when as a business owner or marketer you are having to vet the quality of outsourced SEO services and need to track progress and results.
Or you may be doing it in-house and need some way to vet the links you’re collecting for your campaigns.
After all, without some kind of solid way of measuring things, how do you know if your link building or SEO is going to progress and turn into actual ROI?
The problem is, there are so many SEO tools and methodologies out there, and with that comes a plethora of different ways that link builders report results, or use as a benchmark for quality.
In this article, we’ll run through the main link building metrics that are being used, the pros and cons of each, and some metrics you should be using as part of your link building campaigns.
When you think of link building metrics, the main ones that come to mind are:
- Moz link building metrics – Domain Authority, Page Authority
- Ahrefs link Building Metrics – Domain Rating, URL Rating
- Majestic link building metrics – Citation Flow, Trust Flow.
- Semrush link building metrics – Authority Score.
Or there may be other proprietary metrics or aggregate scores from tools like LinkResearchTools and Mangools.
At TLG, we do use metrics like this during our process, and there are useful ways in which they can be used. However, when it comes to reporting results or trying to report link quality, these metrics are often used in the wrong way.
There are a lot of articles out there talking about these metrics, and while they may be giving a fairly comprehensive rundown of each type of metric, they are not being fully transparent on the limitations of said metrics. When you hyper focus too much on these SEO tool metrics, and attribute too much importance on these (at the neglect of more tangible ones), you’re setting yourself up for link building campaign failure.
Yes, these metrics are useful during the link analysis stage. For instance, if you’re doing link prospecting and need to cut down a large batch of targets – Moz metrics like Domain Authority, or having a baseline traffic number, can help you cut out junk links, or very small blogs, very quickly.
But it comes with a huge caveat.
These are merely third party SEO metrics and are by no means a direct measurement of success. They hold no intrinsic value, and just because a link has a DA or DR of a certain amount – does not mean it holds more value or will have higher impact than a lower authority link. I’ll share why later in the article.
And other than these link building metrics, there are also other metrics that our team uses when we’re creating a link building report – either externally for clients, or internally within the team to help with driving results.
As we said, link building metrics from these third party SEO tools do have their uses, but they also have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
There are a few reasons for this:
- No authority based metric tool can truly do a relevance link measurement, or determine the degree of relevance. There may be one metric from Majestic which helps a little in this area, but generally, none of them measure this.
- If a website is new (but gaining popularity) it’ll fly under your metric number, and using metrics too strictly will cut such sites out of your campaign. Some make the mistake by only focusing on building links from very “high authority” websites (or what the SEO tools deem as authoritative). Doing this limits the pool of sites you’re collecting and ultimately wastes time and actually reduces the momentum of your campaigns.
- Google actually stopped utilizing PageRank as people focused too much on the metric of just following good practice. SEO tools came up with third party metrics like DA and DR to fill this gap in the SEO industry’s market. This is based only on their own calculations, rather than it actually being based on what Google attributes value to.
Here’s a video where I discuss this further.
The Number One Metric: Relevance
Let’s start off with what we’d arguably say is the most important factor to consider when assessing the quality of a link – relevance.
It’s all very well having links on large sites with high authority metrics, but it is rendered much less important, if they are not relevant links.
For example, if you have a site selling scuba diving gear – you’ll ideally want links from sites in the scuba diving sector and watersports niche blogs. This would be more relevant than, say, a website about camping.
When we talk about relevance, there are a few different areas in which it can be relevant:
- The relevance of the linking website’s domain.
- The relevance of the page linking to yours.
- The context within which your link is mentioned on the page. (i.e. anchor text and surrounding text)
Arguably, having 1 and 2 as well, are more ideal than only having number 3.
Degrees of Relevance as a concept
Now one drawback is that relevance is itself a fairly fluid concept, and it’s not always easy to determine exactly what niche is “more relevant” than the other, or if a link from a site which is domain relevant, is stronger than a link which is only relevant at the page level.
But, we believe that the key thing is that link building campaigns should always be constructed with relevance at its core. By doing so, all links you’ll be building will be relevant in one of those 3 areas, and will be infinitely more impactful than a campaign which has a scattergun approach, or is about pigeon-holing links in anything you can get your hands on.
Google also considers relevance as part of its algorithm, and I can only see this becoming ever more important as time passes. In fact, if you look deep in their patents, this is confirmed in “Method for node ranking in a linked database”.
Number 2: Number of Links
Link building isn’t purely just a numbers game of course, but the volume of backlinks definitely does have importance.
There’s a few ways this metric is important.
- You will want to keep track of the number of links you have at that moment in time, in comparison to your competitors in the SERPs. By having an idea of the volume of links you have, and are actively building – this acts as a good rule of thumb of knowing where you stack up against them.
- The number of links you have, will also give you a gauge of whether you are losing links anywhere. Link attrition becomes an issue depending on how old those links are, the tactics you used to build them, and how large your site is.
- Number of links that you’re building or earning each month, can also be an indicator on how your campaigns are going. If things are staying flat and you’re just not getting as many links, it may be a sign you need to look at something within your link building campaigns (i.e. maybe you’re targeting the wrong people or your content isn’t resonating), or with earned links maybe your content just isn’t as “linkable”
Also Read: How many backlinks you need to rank?
Number 3: Number of New Backlinks & Link Velocity
We touched on this in the previous section, but the number of new backlinks you’re building each month becomes really important for your SEO results.
Again, the quality and relevance of a backlink is still the most important aspect, but let’s assume we are matching a competitor on link quality and other SEO factors.
Only by building more links, can you increase your site’s overall authority, and close the “link gap” against larger competitors – but also, building links to very specific pages will help those pages rank more effectively with competing pages.
As well as this, the freshness of the links is an important factor. If you’re going up against a competitor that has a larger base of backlinks, but you are able to close the gap with them, you may find you can outrank, if they have not been building links as actively as you, in recent months/years.
This is a concept known as backlink velocity.
Backlink velocity is essentially, the number of links you’re building,on average, over a time period. The better you can improve this number, the more effectively you can compete on your target keywords, and gain rankings, and traffic much quicker.
Here’s a snippet from a backlink analysis report we did. As we can see we have 3 competitors here, and after filtering out the low quality links, we can see:
- Competitor A has 356 unique dofollow backlinks and is building an average of 11 links per month
- Competitor B has 185 unique dofollow backlinks and is building an average of 6 links per month
- Competitor C has 180 unique dofollow backlinks and is building an average of 6 links per month
If we are Competitor B, we can see we have a link gap deficit of 171 backlinks to make up.
However, Comp. A is also building 11 links on average per month, which will further widen that gap against our 6 links per month. So we also need to close the gap there.
Let’s imagine we want to close that gap in 12 months.
Comp A in a 12 month period: will be at 356 links + (12 months * 11 links) = 488 links
488 links – 185 links = 303 links.
303 links / 12 months = 25.25 link velocity per month
So Comp B will need to build around 26 links per month, for the next 12 months, to beat competitor A.
This is a domain level analysis, but the same principle applies at the page level as well.
Number 4: Domain Strength (Domain Authority & Domain Rating)
Domain strength as a metric, gives some high level measure of the authoritativeness of a website- which can give you some way of estimating how easily, a domain can rank on search engines.
Google’s PageRank used to measure this, but since that was removed from public view back in 2016, other SEO tools filled that gap and now have created their own proprietary algorithms which measure the domain strength of a website.
Moz’s Domain Authority (DA), is one of the oldest, and most widely used. It measures the relative domain strength of a website, based on various algorithmic calculations, and displays it as a numerical score, on a scale of 0 to 100.
It is primarily link-based, but the DA metric for link building, leverages the vastness of Moz’s Link Index, and uses a variety of internal metrics like spam score, to calculate the strength of a domain against its relative competitors.
For instance, if we check Hubspot, the Moz link analysis, produces a results of DA 93.
Other SEO tools have their own versions based on their own calculations. The main ones being:
- Ahrefs: Domain Rating (DR)
- Semrush: Authority Score (AS)
- Majestic: Trust Flow (TF)
Ahrefs’s Domain Rating is probably the second most popular domain strength metric, but is primarily a more simplistic link-based metric in comparison with Domain Authority. The more links a site has, the higher the DR will be, so it is a metric more open to manipulation.
All of these metrics are just different ways of calculating domain strength, but in the context of link building, can be used in a few ways:
- To filter out small targets during the prospecting stage. If you’re doing something like the skyscraper technique, you might find you’ve got huge amounts of data to sift through. Using a domain strength metric and setting a baseline of 20+, can help you filter out most of the junk/scraper links, or sites that are really slow.
- To split your prospecting lists by priority and perceived value. This is a very general rule of thumb and would only be recommended if you’re doing it at large scale. But you can take that large dataset of prospects and split it into groups. Let’s say anything up to DA 30 would be sent a templated email. Anything between DA 30 to DA 60 would be segmented, and sent a more customized email with a personalized section. While DA 60 plus, would be considered a high authority site and would be very ‘high touch’ outreach with personalization and unique content ideas.
- To track your site’s overall progress. You shouldn’t expect your domain authority metrics to skyrocket overnight, but metrics like these can be helpful to look at, when you want to see how your backlink campaign is progressing over time. As you build links, you should be gaining more authority over time and those metrics should also increase with time. But, be mindful that they are only third party metrics – Correlation does not imply causation.
To add to this, there are URL metrics, such as URL Rating (UR) from Ahrefs and Page Authority (PA) from Moz. These operate in a similar way as the domain metrics, but simply measure the strength of that page, rather than the domain.
Number 5: Anchor Text Profile
Anchor texts are an extremely important aspect of links, as it is what is used by readers, and search engines, to indicate the topic, and context of that link.
The better the relevance of the anchor text to your link, and how it relates to your target keywords, generally speaking, the better the impact that link will have on your SEO.
So, if someone links to your page with an irrelevant anchor text, or something like “read more” or “click here” it may not create as strong a signal. And conversely, if you engage in link building tactics where you use certain anchor texts too frequently (such as aggressive use of exact match anchor texts) it may have a detrimental impact, and cause some devaluation of links.
So over optimization is definitely something you have to avoid as well.
If you look at this example, you can see a large chunk of the links are to do with the brand name, the domain, or naked links.
There are also some long tail keywords in there as well. But you can tell from the anchor text profile, that they have a lot of branded links (probably mostly to the homepage) which is natural.
But, wherever possible, you will want to try and steer your link building in a way where you can get links to specific target pages, with anchor texts that are similar to your target keywords. They don’t have to be an exact match for the keyword, but natural variations are often good enough. This is especially important when you’re trying to rank a page for a highly competitive term.
You can analyze the competition to get an idea of the kind of anchor text ratios at play there, and that gives you an idea of the kind of percentages you need to shoot for. Again, the idea is to gently nudge things along, rather than over optimize.
So you want to always be asking yourself – what does your backlink profile consist of – and if it’s in line with what will take you closer to your keyword goals.
Number 6: Referring Domains
When we talk about link building and the number you’re building each month, it’s useful to talk about things in terms of linking root domains, or referring domains.
The reason is that search engines will attribute more link equity to a link, if it’s a unique link. To be more precise, a unique, dofollow link.
As you start to get more than 1 link from a domain, there will be a point of diminishing returns. In fact, it’s probably not worth pursuing more than 3 or even 2 links from a site, as it won’t have any further link equity benefit.
Now, if you get more than 1 link from a site, it probably won’t do any harm – unless it’s as a result of sitewide links (such as in a linking websites footer, header or sidebar). Having a large number of backlinks like this, may cause issues, if it causes over optimization of anchor texts.
It won’t always have a detrimental impact, but at the very least, if you have a lot of duplicate links like this from low quality sites, they’ll just be devalued and won’t have any impact.
Referring domains comes in useful when you’re trying to make a like for like comparison. So if you’re comparing your site against a competitor, or a specific page against a competing page – you need to look at things more as unique dofollow referring domains, rather than simply just on a backlinks vs backlinks basis, since either website may have secured multiple links from the same sites. Dofollow referring domains, will give you a more accurate measure of the true link gap.
Number 7: Position of Links
Search engines like Google will also look at the position of a link, when trying to attribute value to a link.
The more “front and center” your link is on a website, the more likely that the link will be seen as a quality link. So this is why links that are hidden away in areas like footers and sidebars, just don’t have as much value as an in-content link.
As well as this, the higher up a link is on a page, potentially more value may be attributed to it. This is also mentioned within one of their patents, “Method for node ranking in a linked database”.
I wouldn’t recommend focusing too much on this, or using tactics specifically to force all your backlinks to be as high up on a page as possible. It’s more to illustrate that if there are multiple links on a page, that talk about the same topic and have other similar quality signals – the one that’s highest up, may receive more weightage.
Google may even look at the position of your links, to see if there are any indicators of low quality link building. That again, tends to be if there is an abundance of links coming from sidebars or footers. So if for example, you have a lot of inbound links from free widgets that you distributed, that is something you’ll want to keep an eye on. A small %of your backlinks from such sources are fine, but too large a proportion, could be picked up by Google as a sign of unnatural link building.
We’ve talked about some of the more obvious metrics that the industry uses, and you’ll probably be using those metrics within parts of your process, and within your reporting.
However, there are other metrics to consider, which may be so obvious. These may not be metrics that you would use in your reporting, and may be more fluid, or subjective metrics.
But they are very important for your internal process, to ensure you can gauge the quality of the links you are building, and improve the efficiency of your link building process.
Let’s dive in.
Traffic & Traffic Quality
The amount of traffic going to a site is an important consideration. After all, if a site is getting more traffic, it will usually indicate it’s a healthy site with a real audience – and subsequently, that means any links from that site should pass value, and potentially even referral traffic.
Tools like Semrush and Ahrefs can measure traffic coming from organic search, and even paid search, which helps you get a quick gauge of this.
Here’s how it looks in Ahrefs.
You can even use their batch analysis feature if you need to assess a list of websites.
So by using a baseline of traffic, lets say 500+ per month, you can cut out sites which are small – but of course bear in mind a good site may be getting traffic from other sources…
There are some caveats that come with only looking at the traffic metrics from SEO tools:
- They are not always 100% accurate. SEO tools have a limited database of keywords and as such, it’s not always going to give you an accurate picture of how much traffic that site actually gets. There have been a few studies on this, with reports saying that Semrush and Ahrefs can misreport true traffic levels anywhere from 50 to 70%.
- That traffic number is just an organic search estimate. It doesn’t take into account traffic from other sources, such as social media, direct traffic or referral traffic.
- Traffic numbers may not correlate with traffic quality. For example, if we look at this example below. While on paper it may look like a good site, digging further into the traffic it does receive, reveals the following:
We can see most of the traffic is from Asia, and it’s a collection of random topics. This isn’t even one of the worst link farms, and you’ll often see link farms where the traffic number looks good, but it’s inflated by a lot of junk keywords and random topics relating to things like torrents and even adult terms. The purpose of these link farms is often to just inflate the metrics for the purpose of selling more link placements.
So rather than just looking at the search traffic numbers, we also need to scrutinize the traffic quality, when we assess websites at the prospecting stage.
Once you’ve found a site which could have an audience overlapping with your own, you’ll want to check for signs of engagement.
You can gauge this by looking at the social activity with a tool like Buzzsumo and Semrush to estimate the amount of traffic coming through to the site.
If people seem to be commenting on the posts as well, it’s also a good sign of engagement.
These sites may also have low Citation or Trust Flow metrics, however, that is often the case for very new, but popular, up and coming blogs.
Here’s an example on this horse riding blog:
These hints of engagement where people are commenting, and the writer, or owner is replying back, can be a subtle sign of a site which is actually getting traffic.
Now it may just be that it’s the kind of content and niche, where there won’t be a lot of comments, but in cases where the traffic metrics (according to SEO tools) seems a little low – its useful to factor in these things, to see how engaged that traffic is, and potentially, if there is traffic coming from other sources like social media, paid ads or others.
In this example, for instance, Ahrefs says it only has 345 visitors a month. It may not be getting a huge amount of traffic, but by clicking around, we can see there is some decent content that is worthy of some engagement. Certainly not a site to be ignored if the niche relevance is there.
We also need to scrutinize any link targets from a more subjective, human standpoint. Is the content good quality, is the site designed well – i.e. does the site provide value and good user experience;
So we want to check for things like:
- Passionate and valuable writing
- Some human personality to the writing
- Some depth of knowledge/expert opinion
- Good design
- Easy to navigate
- Fresh content always being added
This also helps you filter out low quality link farm sites pretty quickly at the prospecting level.
Depth of Relevance
As we said before, relevance is a very important factor in link building. But, in order for a link builder to build niche relevant backlinks, they have to take a more audience-centric approach to it.
So the questions you/they have to ask are:
- What is the core business and who is the target client/consumer?
- What possible websites are those target clients/customers already browsing?
- Which sectors intersect with the business and where we have potential for audience/content crossover?
And the links need to be built with aspects 2 and 3 in mind.
This is a much more involved, “publicist” like approach, but is a metric you need to shoot for if you want to build the best links.
Now within that, some niches and websites will be more relevant than others. So it’s important to have “degrees of relevance” in mind. You will have your most ideal niches where you want to get links, but in order to expand the pool of sites where you can get links, you will need to create link strategies that are tangential as well.
Here’s an example of a strategy map we made for a retail POS company:
We knew the biggest audience was the small business sector. So Food and Beverage news, Retail news, Restaurant & Hospitality and Ecommerce News is probably our most ideal ones, as we know it sits firmly within our target audience focus.
But, there is definitely relevant content crossover with Supply Chain, Logistics & Procurement and even other B2B SaaS sites (since some of those SMEs will be using some SaaS products). They may not be the highest priority, but we should keep them in mind as well, as we never know if all our target niches will be a highly “linkable” audience.
One other way of vetting sites is to assess the amount of inbound links they have, outbound links, and how the ratio matches up.
The theory behind this is based on the fact that sites that link out a lot, in proportion to the number of backlinks they have – tend to be lower quality sites. I.e. link farms or private blog networks that are selling en masse with a lack of editorial process, and low number of backlinks.
How strict you want to be here, will affect the amount of targets in your final lists, so just ensure not to be too restrictive. We’d recommend setting a ratio of 2 outbound links:1 inbound link, or a 3:1 ratio.
Trust Flow and Citation Flow are metrics that are from Majestic. While these are simply hird party metrics, I find Majestics approach a lot more scientific and believe they have really raised the bar when it comes to SEO metrics.
Citation Flow essentially will measure link equity, while Trust Flow is a measure of how authoritative that site is based on the authoritativeness of its backlinks profile.
From this, we can extrapolate another value – Trust Ratio.
Trust Ratio = Trust Flow / Citation Flow.
- The idea is that if the Citation Flow is high and the Trust Flow is low,that means the target website has a lot of link equity, but its links are not trustworthy. So the site has gained those spammy links that Majestic does not deem as close to authoritative sources.
- On the flip side, if a site has a high amount of Trust Flow and low Citation Flow, means that the links pointing to that site are from authoritative/ trustworthy sources. So this would be an example of a good site.
So what we tend to find is that very good authority/trustworthy sites have a Trust Ratio of close to 1. Huge sites may be much higher than 1. While a very low quality site will have a much lower TR.
- Hubspot: Trust Flow = 73, Citation Flow = 77, Trust Ratio = 0.95
- Forbes: Trust Flow = 83, Citation Flow = 78, Trust Ratio = 1.06
- SearchEngineLand: Trust Flow = 45, Citation Flow = 52, Trust Ratio = 0.87
- Lovekitchentoday.com/ (low quality link farm): Trust Flow = 5, Citation Flow = 20, Trust Ratio = 0.25
You still have to take Trust Ratio with a pinch of salt, as at the end of the day, it is only based on numerical calculations on what it thinks is a low quality link vs high quality link.
We have analyzed data, and found that it can miscalculate sites as well. Giving a link farm a TR = 0.7, while an official government site has a TR = 0.13.
But Trust Ratio comes in useful later, when you want to analyze a link building campaign, and get a rough gauge on the quality of the links being built. For instance, we analyzed a clients campaign of over 300+ built links, and it came to an average Trust Ratio of 0.77.
Outbound Link Probability
During the prospecting stage, it’s hard to know if a site will be willing to link to you or not. Even if you have a great piece of content, and their site/content looks perfectly aligned, there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested.
In fact, they may even have a strict policy of not linking to others on the basis of unsolicited emails, or just a blanket policy of no outbound links.
This is especially important if we’re dealing with a sector which is very protective of their sites and links, or something very high value like government, educational institutions or organizations.
So one thing we can do is to run an analysis on the list before we reach out, to see how often they link out, and the breakdown of who they link to.
For example, let’s say we have a bulk list of university resource pages, and we want to see how often they all link out, and if they link only to government, organizations and such sites. The Resource Pages that don’t link to what we may deem a “normal site” like ours, we may want to cut out from our list. While the ones that do link to normal sites, we would keep in and attempt outreach.
There are browser plugins for this like Link Parser – but it’s often not practical to manually check, if you’re dealing with large lists. So at TLG, we have created a tool with PowerShell which does the entire process automatically.
So once you run the numbers on your list of pages or domains, you’ll then be better equipped and have some gauge on the sites which you can cut out, or have to be segregated out and approached differently.
When it comes to reporting on link building campaigns, link builders, be it internal or agencies, will have different approaches to this.
And what they report on, may depend on how they’re KPI’d, or how much transparency they want to give. But we’ll run through a few tools you can use for reporting the results of campaigns.
Majestic & Ahrefs
Specifically, when it comes to backlink analysis or reporting on the impact that your link building has had – that is where these 2 tools come in.
- Ahrefs is useful when you want to get a high level overview on the impact of links that were built during a campaign, on Domain Rating (DR). It is fairly accurate when you need to contrast and compare the backlink or referring domain numbers between your site and competitors – either at domain level, or page level.
- Majestic though, wins hands down, in terms of its link analysis ability, and having the best backlink data. Its metrics like Trust Flow, Citation Flow and Topical Trust Flow, are also unmatchable in the industry, when it comes to getting deeper insights on links, and assessing quality.
Pitchbox is a link building software & CRM tool, but has also a neat little reporting function built in as well.
- It can generate a full link building process report, based on how a campaign has been performing over a certain time period, the win rate, reply rate, amongst other metrics.
- It gives very granular detail, so it may be too much info, if you have a manager or client that just wants to simply know what links went live.
There are a lot of fancy dashboards and tools out there for reporting links and progress of campaigns. But this is all window dressing. Sometimes, it’s a case of just keeping things as simple, and easy-to-use as possible.
- Google Docs/Sheets is a pretty robust and effective way to track backlink prospecting and outreach work – but also to show the final results as well.
- At TLG, we keep things extremely transparent, and share clients into a special Google Sheet dashboard, which we are working on in real-time. This displays all the prospected targets, the different stages each lead is at, and from that, any links that are live or soon to go live.
- We even take it a step further, and consolidate the data into a pivot table report, based on all the work we did, and this gives an idea of how the campaigns are developing over time. This kind of approach also lets you identify peaks and troughs in campaigns, and potential root causes.
Now that we’ve helped shed light on all of the main link building metrics to keep track of, this should hopefully give you more insight on how those metrics can be used for best effect – as well as the strengths (and weaknesses) of those metrics.
It’s important to always keep in mind that no metric can be considered in complete isolation, but rather, should be used as one part of a link building process that leverages both metrics from tools, and more ‘human’ parameters.
By doing this, you can not only build links that look good on a link building report – but actually have a real impact on your results as well.