When I started in SEO around 2010, you could make anything rank. All you needed to succeed were backlinks and a bit of on-page optimization. The value of backlinks was undisputable!
Fast forward to today, the impact of backlinks on SEO has made space for content and user experience, but it’s still one of the most important factors in some verticals.
Google’s PR campaign against link building has been incredibly effective. The Penguin updates traumatized a whole generation of SEOs, even though I haven’t seen a manual link penalty in years. These days, Google’s algorithms have advanced to a level where they can simply devalue many links they deem spammy. Another reason link building is not en vogue anymore is that they matter in some verticals more than others. As a result, many SEOs shy away from building links.
I think that’s a mistake.
My experience is that many companies hold themselves back by not investing in link building. And, it’s not know-how that is the problem. It’s buy-in and funding. SEOs have a hard time convincing decision-makers to invest in link building because they come to the table with the wrong arguments. This guide gives you several paths to unlocking funding for link campaigns.
I’m not just sharing my own experience but also the deep expertise of:
- Shane Hampson, Director of SEO at Neighborly
- Brian Shumway, Director of SEO at UpWork
- Garth O’Brien, Director of SEO at Epic Games
- Hala Ali, ex-Director of SEO at Klaviyo
- Alex Tachalova, Founder and CEO of Digital Olympus
- Links still matter a lot for SEO Integrators and brands without a strong level of awareness
- Some sites hit an inflection point at which they naturally attract links and can tone down efforts
- The old playbook based on cold outreach doesn’t work anymore and has been replaced by link worthy content and amplification
- Isolating the impact of backlinks from other factors is impossible
- SEOs can lean on 3 angles to measure the impact of backlink campaigns
- 1/ Performance: organic and referral traffic, ranks, conversions
- 2/ Brand: brand search volume, brand and social sentiment, media mentions
- 3/ Link quality & quantity: DR/DA/DS compared to competitors, URL Rating, # links built
How much do backlinks even matter in 2023?
When you ask 100 SEOs whether links still matter, 50 say “of course” while the other 50 say “nope”. Why? It’s not that one half knows something the other half doesn’t. Both are right, for different reasons.
Links matter for some companies but not all.
You can find case studies of companies that grew without actively building a single link. The same playbook fails at other companies, and the reason is that they’re typically operating with a different type of site and level of brand awareness.
The two types of sites are SEO Aggregators and Integrators. Both have different needs for backlinks.
For SEO Aggregators, companies that can scale landing pages with UGC (user-generated content) or products, backlinks are not critical to compete. That doesn’t mean links hurt, but SEO Aggregators can leverage internal linking to provide Google context and indicate the relative importance of their pages. For SEO Integrators, companies that have to create content themselves, links are critical to compete. They can’t come up with the same internal link volume as SEO Aggregator because they have a lower number of pages. SEO Integrators also typically target very competitive head terms that demand stronger link profiles, whereas SEO Aggregators go after longer tail keywords. So, if you have to create the content yourself instead of leaning on users or products, there is a high chance link building is important for your SEO success.
The level of brand awareness decides how much effort companies need to put into link building.
A few brands hit a point in their life cycle at which every move it makes gets attention. They get links simply because of their size or they have a disruptive product. Before they reach that level, recognized brands have a spotlight moment lifting them from known to popular. That moment can be a product release, market share or sustained success over time (notice the base is always an outstanding product). They get a lot of media attention, which leads to valuable backlinks, which leads to more traffic (if the site is optimized), which leads to more customers, which leads to growth, which leads to more media attention. The flywheel spins. We can see a clear inflection point in the number of linking domains when that happens. Sites that reach that kind of flywheel don’t need large investments in link building anymore.
Ramp, Shopify or OpenAI are examples of globally recognized brands that get backlinks just by developing their products and commenting on their core topics.
Brian Shumway, Director of SEO Product at Upwork, agrees:
For smaller startups, mid-sized companies, and smaller brands, it is an important part of the overall SEO strategy. For large websites, businesses, and brands, I think it is less important and would rather focus on internal link building as it is easier to test/control, and the results I have seen over the years have been dramatic.
So, if you work at an SEO Integrator and don’t have a globally recognized brand, chances are slim you get away without a link building strategy and sooner or later hit a traffic plateau.
Old link building playbooks don’t work anymore
The second reason SEOs disagree about the effectiveness is an outdated playbook. Some SEOs have been in the game for a long time but never change how they go about building links.
Back in the days when link building was mainly cold outreach, infographics and link buying, SEOs had a lot more control over the process. But in 2023, cold outreach success rates are exceptionally low at 1-3%. We’ve all become blind to cold emails like banner ads (hat tip to Alex Tachalova for the analogy). No one is impressed by infographics anymore. Link buying still works, but many SEOs and executives are scared of being penalized. Big brands can’t lean on cold outreach because of the reputation risk of being publicly exposed. They’re popular targets.
You can’t use links to manipulate search rankings anymore. The old playbook is done. The new playbook is content-driven:
- Publish content for keywords with high link intent (statistics, checklists, templates, calculators, etc.)
- Promote the content through social, email, paid and direct traffic
The content-driven approach is much more passive and offers less control. Further, competition is so fierce that the bar for link worthy content is very high these days. To create something truly worthy of links, companies need to invest in copy, design, data and amplification.
You can’t isolate the impact of links
The challenge is executives want to see a projection of the estimated impact to unlock funding. However, you cannot separate the egg white from the yolk. Isolating the impact of links from other factors like content, technical optimization or user experience is nearly impossible. Factors like content and user experience have gained weight in Google’s algorithms. On top of that, Google’s understanding of good vs. bad links has become so advanced that it’s impossible for us to reverse-engineer. Sometimes, there is a time lag, and Google rewards the links a company has built during the next Core Update.
Shane Hampson, Director of SEO at Neighborly, was so kind to share a rare case study that comes as close as possible to isolation links as a factor:
This is an example of a website with severe CMS issues. We could not do anything besides digital PR for a few months, and the organic traffic doubled. A more relevant and higher quality link - not just high DA and high PA - has really moved the need on this website.
To get buy-in from executives, SEOs must measure the impact of link building campaigns with the right metrics.
How to measure the impact of past link building campaigns
Metrics are lenses through which we measure the world, but everyone comes biased to the table. Picking the right metric to evaluate past campaigns is key, and the trick is picking a worldview that fits the background of decision-makers. If your CMO is very brand-focused, for example, performance metrics might not resonate. At the same time, a head of Growth might struggle to see the connection between brand metrics and revenue.
I want to offer three world views you can pick from to evaluate link campaigns:
#1 Evaluating link campaigns from the performance angle
Organic and referral traffic, ranks or conversions are performance metrics. Each has the caveat of being influenced by many factors.
- Organic traffic can be influenced by factors like seasonality or search demand. Narrow organic traffic down to the page you built links to and compare time periods before and after the campaign (normalized for seasonality) with each other to get a sense of performance.
- Referral traffic is hard to track accurately without tagging backlinks with UTM parameters.
- Conversions are influenced by factors like how good your sales team or checkout process is.
- Ranks can fluctuate due to SERP fluctuations or a change in user intent.
You can measure traffic and conversions with tools like Google Analytics or Knotch and ranks with Ahrefs, Semrush, Moz or Sistrix.
Mind you, it’s very difficult to get a full list of all links to your site.
Brian Shumway illustrates how hard getting a full download of all links can be:
I thought I had a decent list with tens of millions of links for disavowal. When the subsequent reconsideration request was denied, we wrote a script that pulled all log requests for a certain asset from the past year. We crawled these pages to determine that the link was actually present and then compiled a massive list of confirmed links and compared it against the combined list from the link tools. There was less than 0.05% overlap at the domain level, which was surprising and eye-opening. In one instance, we used the list and disavowed nearly 30,000 domains and the reconsideration request was approved shortly thereafter.
#2 Evaluating link campaigns from the brand angle
As SEOs, we often forget about all the non-SEO benefits of backlinks: increased brand awareness and positive sentiment. Metrics reflecting the impact on brand are:
- Brand search volume
- Brand and social sentiment
- Media mentions
Tools like Qualaroo, Qualtrics, or Brandwatch can measure sentiment. Ahrefs, Semrush, Moz or Sistrix can measure search volume. For media mentions, use tools like Mention, SproutSocial or BuzzSumo.
Hala Ali, ex-SEO Director at Klaviyo and former SEO Director at Away, explains how Away successfully built links through influencer partnerships and PR:
Away became an Instagram sensation and built its growth by focusing on just its brand story, voice and value. They built partnerships with influencers and operated effective PR and affiliate campaigns that continued their growth trajectory until they disrupted the market to become a leading DTC brand. No backlinks bought, no blogging done and no link exchanges. What was tracked was the NPS score, affiliate/referral traffic, social media sentiment, growth of the brand search volume and revenue from direct and organic channels.
#3 Evaluating link campaigns from the quality and quantity angle
Lastly, we can look at past link campaigns through the angle of link quality and quantity by measuring metrics like:
- DR/DA/DS compared to competitors
- URL Rating
- # links built
Majestic, LinkResearchTools, Ahrefs, Moz or Semrush are good choices here.
Alex Tachalova, Founder of Digital Olympus, explains how to measure progress against the link gap:
For each page, we intend to build links to, we assess the link gap (the number of links required to reach the top 3 results) and the timeframe we aim to close the gap within. Using these two metrics, we can project potential traffic changes. Typically, if the link gap is under 40 links, we see a 10%-20% increase in traffic at the page level after the first two months. However, if the link gap exceeds 50 links, we may only see growth in impressions and positions.
Changing the narrative
Before even thinking about numbers, you need to locate whether the site you’re working on is an SEO Integrator and how strong its brand awareness is. Once the need for backlinks is clear, measure success based on a performance, brand or backlink angle, depending on what best resonates with the company. If numbers don’t work, I can offer one last alternative: change the narrative.
The right narrative or cue can help decision-makers understand the importance of links and why impact is hard to predict. One narrative is looking at links as an entry ticket to play or the cost of doing business. Instead of seeing links as a factor we can isolate and quantify, see them as a ranking gateway, enabler or tax.
Part of this narrative is measuring returns on the channel level (SEO) rather than the page or keyword level. You can measure the cost per link against the ROI expected from a page. Say, a link costs $500, and you figure out you need 5 links to rank #1 for your target keyword. Now, you can measure the potential ROI (potential traffic * conversion rate * conversion value) against the cost and see if you come out net positive to make the case for links.
Another narrative is lumping backlinks in with related marketing activities, like PR or comms. SEO is already enough of a Black Box, and complicated link metrics can create cognitive noise. Most executives are much more familiar with “media mentions” than backlinks.