Link Building Measurement and Reporting

How do people measure and report on link building activity in 2020? This section of questions focuses on the metrics that we use, as well as the KPIs which we measure our work on.

Do you use any of the following metrics to
measure the authority and / or quality of a link?

First up, we asked which specific metrics respondents use to measure the authority and / or quality of a link. Domain Rating from Ahrefs performed well again with 48% of respondents saying that they used it, but the clear winner was Domain Authority from Moz, which 65% of respondents said they used.

What the experts think…

I've written about this before, but I worry about the overwhelming popularity of the domain-based metrics here. Don't get me wrong, I get the appeal - they're easy to gather, and are available instantly - but if you're trying to influence rankings, you're at risk of wasting a lot of budget here.

Russ Jones at Moz, who is responsible for designing and maintaining the DA metric, said in early 2019 that "it is stupid to use DA as a primary qualifier for where to get links". Link equity comes from pages, not domains, and it's easy for high DA sites to have some very low authority pages - indeed, lots of them are making a complete mockery of the SEO industry by offering (or rather, selling) features in hard to find, backwater site sections.

Odd that everyone prefers Ahrefs yet uses DA.

LinkScore is Verve Search's proprietary metric which uses 10 different metrics (including Majestic and SEMrush) in order to calculate the ‘value’ of a link. Fundamentally, semantically relevant, followed, in-content links in unique content on authoritative domains yield the highest scores. Using a single metric such as DA to determine the authority of a link may lead to treating all of those links as if they were of equal value.

One of the most interesting parts of this for me is people's view on link scoring and reporting. DA appears to still be the most used metric. We know that certain metrics like these can be gamed. But at the same time, bosses/clients still want a way to measure success and this is something that really remains a difficult topic. I work with businesses who need some sort of simple to track metric and some who are happier to look at a wider variety of factors (like relevance, content quality - more subjective things).

Verve's LinkScore looks a really promising option. But ultimately, there isn't a perfect solution to this and I think the sheer volume of different ways people do it just highlights the complexity of it. Ultimately, I'm typically measured on organic revenue, so like a good chunk of respondents, rankings will be how I measure the effectiveness of link building.

If you could only choose ONE metric to measure authority and / or quality of a link, which one would it be?

Similar to the questions related to tools, we wanted to be a bit more specific here so we asked respondents to choose just one metric which they would use if they had no other choice. Domain Authority was the winner again here, with around a third (34%) of respondents choosing it.

What the experts think…

It's interesting how the most popular link building tool is Ahrefs by far, but the most relevant metric remains DA by Moz.

Personally, I'm much more interested in page-based metrics (as Tom alluded to above.) But for newer pages, sometimes link-based metrics are nearly non-existent and domain-based metrics are a necessary evil.

I'm a little divided on this one because as much as I trust DA as a metric and have used it for many years, I think that PA may be a better measure at the granular page level. Using DA for prospecting to filter large sets of link targets is fine, but I think we need to start shifting to PA to report on links from individual pages.

What is the primary KPI you use to measure the
effectiveness of link building?

Stepping outside of third party metrics, we asked respondents about the KPIs that they use to measure the effectiveness of link building. The clear winner was organic search rankings which 38% said they used.

What the experts think…

Using the volume of linking domains may be a great KPI for situations when you are not purchasing links. When you're buying, I think it's a poor one that encourages companies to inflate the numbers at the cost of quality, and I say this as someone who does buy links.

It's interesting to see Rankings as the primary KPI used to measure effectiveness. From my experience, ranking and volume of linking domains are metrics that mostly appeal to SEO specialists. General marketers and other stakeholders struggle to resonate as much with these KPIs. For them, it's more relevant to show how X campaign affected the company's bottom line.

This means that in order to catch the attention of a stakeholder (who's not specialized in SEO), you need to be able to tie link building results to things like traffic and conversions generated via those links. Often times this is quite a challenge, but being able to prove the value of link building beyond the SERPs can help a lot. That may mean securing more budget for future campaigns or even getting more support and resources from the wider team for delivering better campaigns (e.g. design, thought leadership, research etc.).

Do you report on nofollow links (including
sponsored and ugc attributes)?

Next up, we were interested to know whether or not respondents reported on nofollow links, including the relatively new attributes of rel=sponsored/ugc. Almost
half (48%) said that they do.

Do you think that nofollow links (including
sponsored and ugc attributes) influence
organic search rankings?

Following on, we wanted to know whether or not respondents felt that nofollow links had an influence on organic search rankings. Historically, Google has said that they are effectively discounted from the link graph; but, just before the survey was released, they announced the introduction of the rel=sponsored/ugc attributes and possible changes to how nofollow links are used. We can’t know how the answers to this question may have differed prior to this unfortunately!

As you can see, half said yes and few (18%) said that they didn’t influence rankings at all.

What the experts think…

I was most surprised to see the volume of people who believe nofollow links impact rankings. With Google's recent change to highlight the difference between these and UGC/sponsored, there might be something to those thoughts. I can't say I necessarily agree or disagree with the thought, but definitely aren't unhappy when a high traffic publication adds a nofollow link to our clients.

The recent changes by Google give us a glimpse into what they are thinking in regard to nofollow - they could matter enough to warrant consideration as a signal. I've long suspected that Google isn't silly enough to have a fixed rule in place which ignores links that are nofollow but have only seen fleeting examples of nofollow link appearing to impact rankings.

I think the 50% here is probably a reflection of this but totally agree with Ross in that I'd take nofollow links if there is an additional value such as traffic or secondary links as a result.

I have seen nofollow links appear to improve
rankings for a site I have worked on

Here we wanted to know specifically whether or not respondents had seen nofollow links influence rankings for the websites they’d worked on. Things are a little split here with the 37% neither agreeing or disagreeing. 44% either agreed or strongly agreed that they’d seen nofollow links appear to improve rankings; 37% neither agreed nor disagreed, and just 16% either disagreed or strongly disagreed.

I believe nofollow links from high tier, trustworthy sites do contribute to improved rankings

We went a bit more specific with the next question which was similar; but asked specifically about nofollow links from high tier, trustworthy websites. It also focuses on belief as opposed to seeing the impact on websites a respondent has worked on. This hints toward whether or not Google makes exceptions on the use of nofollow for websites which they trust more than others.

In this case, the vast majority (70%) either agree or strongly agree that nofollow links from high tier sites contribute to improved rankings

What the experts think…

Whilst I’ve never been in a position where I could conclusively prove that it was the case that the no-follow links from high tier news sites contribute to ranking improvements, I’ve long suspected that this is the case. (This stuff is near impossible to prove, because a successful series of campaigns will often generate both follow and no-follow links from news sites simultaneously).

Over the past few years we’ve seen high-tier sites increasingly implement a blanket no-follow on all external links. At some point this was always going to cause problems for Google, as, if algorithmically, they continued to treat nofollow as they said they did, they’d be left with gaping holes in the link graph.

Whether or not Google have been selectively taking into account some of these nofollow links for some time we can’t possibly know, but I wasn’t too surprised to see their announcement about the evolution of nofollow - if nothing else, I believe you can take this announcement as a reasonably strong indicator that this is data that they need and they are using in some way within the ranking algorithm.

The nofollow issue is always a point of debate. I've personally seen no follow links go live shortly followed by rankings gains around those pages. But as is the case with SEO in the wild consistently, you can never say for sure it's that one thing having the influence. However, with so many media outlets nofollowing links so consistently, you could argue that it makes sense for Google to find some means of using these links in one way or another - particularly if a site has News inclusion where it has been through a manual review process to get there. Impossible to say for sure - but I certainly see correlation between nofollow links and improved organic performance.

Nofollow links mattering is not news to link builders. Even though Google and large sections of the SEO community insisted that nofollow links didn’t used to matter, lots of the people building the links say otherwise.

Google’s launch of rel=sponsored, rel=ugc is an
attempt to recapture link graph data in response
to many high tier sites no-following editorial links

One view on the launch of rel=sponsored / ugc attributes from Google is that this new level of granularity may help them better understand links that were traditionally marked as nofollow, in particular on top tier editorial websites that often blanket nofollow links. We asked to what extent people agreed that this may be the case and the majority (65%) either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. A combined 6% either disagreed or strongly disagreed.

What the experts think…

As to whether people typically think rel sponsored and ugc might be an attempt by Google to recapture some of that data. Like over half of your respondents, I think it could be!

Whilst it may not be the only reason, the challenge of many top-tier, influencial and generally trusted publications having a blanket nofollow in place has probably meant that Google have missed out on some valuable signals. So it may well have played a part in their thinking when rolling out the new attributes.

But let us not forget, the reason that many top-tier publications blanket nofollow links is because of Google penalising them all back in 2013 for selling links!

Do you report on brand mentions (i.e. no link)
which occurs as a result of link building activity?

A consequence of link building is that sometimes, you will do your outreach but the coverage you receive includes a mention of your brand but no link. We wanted to understand if respondents still reported on this despite it not actually being a link.

Half of the respondents said that they did report on brand mentions with no link.

Do you think that brand mentions influence
organic search rankings?

Leading on from this and the same question in relation to nofollow links influencing rankings, we wanted to know if respondents felt that brand mentions influenced rankings.

Nearly one in three (32%) either agreed or strongly agreed, 41% are on the fence (could be construed as a not sure), and 25% disagreed.

What the experts think…

Funny enough, it looks like linkbuilders and traditional local SEO’s are aligned on something, that non-linked brand mentions are important for organic ranking. This is something that has been a component of SMB ‘linkbuilding' campaigns for years.

Unlinked mentions and nofollow links are a frustrating but natural consequence of outreach, so the fact that so many respondents don’t report on them at all is a surprise. If it’s an editorial write-up framed around the company or the campaign, it still has benefits for the client outside of its impact on SEO.

I find it hard to believe unlinked brand mentions could improve client rankings. That said, as marketers we should be tracking growth in our brand mentions/direct traffic. I am going to feel damn good about my rankings increasing over time if those are (naturally) increasing as well.

Increasingly, these are metrics us as SEOs should be pointing decision makers to to help them understand a lack of brand awareness/brand-building activity can be crippling to their long-term growth and thereby, search traffic. I am seeing fewer and fewer examples of websites with almost zero brand traffic crushing it in search.

I have seen unlinked brand mentions appear to
improve rankings for a site I have worked on

Leading on from this question, we wanted to know if respondents had actually seen brand mentions influence organic search rankings for websites they’d worked on. Opinion here was very split as you can see.

What the experts think…

I think one of the reasons this could be so split is due to the techniques that respondents previously said they were using to generate links.

In my experience, unlinked brand mentions (and nofollow links) from publishers and high-traffic sites can definitely have an uplift in rankings and organic traffic. However these mentions do need to be maintained over time for the rankings to also be maintained.

I suspect that if the unlinked mentions are coming from lower quality/traffic sites however that they would not have the same uplift in rankings. Therefore unlinked mentions from directories or guest posting for example would not see the same results.

This is quite a tricky one to answer, so I see why opinion is quite split. Suspecting that brand mentions influence rankings and actually knowing that they do are very different things.

My view is that they do influence rankings because the nature of the web means that brands get mentioned and sometimes, won't get a link. But that brand mention may still be an endorsement of that brand and not having this count at all as a signal doesn't seem right. After all, Google is looking for as many signals they can find, I don't think they'd ignore this one.

I have seen negative SEO (e.g. when low quality
links are pointed at a site by a competitor)
appear to negatively impact rankings

This question focused on negative SEO and asked respondents to what extent they’d seen low quality links affect a competitors search rankings. Things were relatively split with a nearly half disagreeing and 48% saying that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.