Local Link Building: Quality vs Quantity – Which Is More Important?

Local Link Building: Quality vs Quantity – Which Is More Important?

In his first guest post for BrightLocal, Gyi Tsakalakis settles a long-standing SEO argument once and for all, and digs into a case study that holds some surprises for fans of authority metrics.

TL;DR: It’s Quality

There was once a time that “build all the links” was a mantra for success. But those days are long gone. Today, it’s actually pretty clear that link quality is much more important in terms of earning meaningful traffic from search engines.

Build all the links meme

But don’t misunderstand me; in competitive SERPs, like legal for example, you still tend to need a significant quantity of quality links.

As we should all know by now;

“Intuitively, pages that are well cited from many places around the web are worth looking at. Also, pages that have perhaps only one citation from something like the Yahoo! homepage are also generally worth looking at.” – The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine 2.1.2 Intuitive Justification

If you think about it, it’s actually pretty obvious (at least it is today). You can build tens of thousands of low quality links to no avail. If you’ve been building links for even for a short time, the chances are that you’ve already learned this fact.

What is Local Link Quality?

Before we dive into the details, it’s worth exploring a few ideas surrounding link quality. Unfortunately, too many link builders seem to place too much weight on acquiring links from high Page Authority (PA) pages and Domain Authority (DA) sites.

That’s not to say that we should completely abandon tools that attempt to quantify a page’s or a site’s relative popularity or authority. They most certainly have their place.

However, in my experience, there seems to be a lot more involved in assessing link quality than PA and DA.

In fact, on balance, giving more weight to topical relevance, geographic relevance, position, and anchors, has tended to yield more effective results in many campaigns with which I have been involved.

It’s also important to recognize that link quality isn’t binary; it’s a spectrum. As David McSweeney puts it over at Ahrefs, there’s a lot of wiggle room between low quality and high quality links.

Local Search Ranking Factors Study

But just as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously knew obscenity when he saw it, most of us know pure spam when we see it:

  • Comment spam.
  • Forum spam.
  • Social bookmark spam.
  • Article directory spam.

As we know, even huge quantities of these types of links simply won’t do much of anything (except anger webmasters), and some of these links can actually hurt. To me, this alone ends any debate of quality versus quantity.

In fact, many, if not most, SEOs have already recognized the effectiveness of a smaller quantity of highly relevant links. Even a single link, from the right page, in the right spot, with the right anchor, can make a noticeable difference.

Respondents to the 2017 Moz Local Search Ranking Factors survey listed the Quality/Authority Of Inbound Links To Domain as:

  • #1 Competitive Difference Maker.
  • #1 Local Organic Factor.
  • #4 Local Pack Finder Factor.

Even the BlackHat World folks are talking balancing quality and quantity. In fact, in researching this post, I really couldn’t find any pages with a strong chorus of voices advocating quantity over quality. The best evidence I was able to find to support quantity over quality is from Local SEO Guide’s Local Search Ranking Factors study:

“What I think is most interesting about this data, is that websites that rank tend to have low quality and low authority links. I mean, how else would having low Citation Flow and Trust Flow correlate with positive results? Because most businesses that tend to rank in packs are low in trust themselves, and as such, have links from other low trust and low-value websites. There are obviously significant exceptions to this rule, e.g., brands, but this could also be why brands tend to clean up in local search results.”

Local SEO Guide Ranking Factors

Admittedly, this isn’t really a strong case for advocating quantity over quality. In fact, one might argue that it demonstrates a significant gap and opportunity for small local business owners.

In my view, this is also a reflection of the limitations of backlink analysis tools and proxy metrics for quality (like Citation Flow, Trust Flow, and Domain Authority). It’s not that I don’t think these metrics are directionally useful, it’s that it seems to me that too many SEOs give them undue weight.

In any event, perhaps a better answer to the question of link quality versus quantity is, “it depends.” For example, if you’re looking for short-term search success, perhaps you may find success ramping a quantity of lower quality links. However, if you’re playing the long game, you may recognize that the risks associated with low quality links outweigh their long-term value.

After all, spam works, until it doesn’t.

An Example of a Low Quantity, High Relevance Link Building Campaign

But enough with opinions and surveys. Let’s look at a specific example of a low quantity link building campaign that focused on quality links, defined by topical and geographic relevance to the target queries and content.

Here’s some search console data for a law firm website. The data is filtered for the target page that’s been marketed to earn relevant local links:

Google Data 90 Days

Google ImpressionsMost of the links for this campaign appear to have gone live in October and November, which is a reminder that there can be a delay between when a link goes live and when Google crawls it. Here’s some corresponding Google Analytics data for the page around the same time period:

Landing Pages analytics

The content for this campaign was not particularly sophisticated. It included an optimized page, relevant imagery, and an infographic. Further, the outreach efforts for this campaign were hardly grueling (~75 contacts). In fact, at the time or writing, the campaign earned only around six new linking root domains.

The key, from my perspective, was the research focus in prospecting the link targets and contacts. Put simply, the overwhelming majority of the targets were both:

  • Topically Relevant, and;
  • Geographically Relevant

They weren’t from huge, well-known publishers. In fact, my guess is that, based on most commonly used link building metrics, most SEOs would skip these sites altogether.

This demonstrates the importance of defining link quality, as well as keeping perspective when using proxy metrics for link authority.

In the example above, none of the target sites had very impressive DA. Frankly, the DA is downright dismal. However, the target sites were mostly topically relevant to the content (and target queries), geographically relevant, or both:

  • DA: 15, but topically AND geographically relevant.
  • DA: 12, but topically AND geographically relevant.
  • DA: 33, but geographically relevant.
  • DA: 39  but geographically relevant.

This campaign illustrates the limitations of proxy metrics in the context of local link building campaigns. Furthermore, even with only these very few relevant links, our target URL outranks other pages / domains with higher authority.

Keyword Explorer

Again, acquiring relevant local links can move the dial in search and help you compete with higher authority pages with many more links.

Hopefully, if you weren’t already, you are now persuaded that quality link building trumps quantity. Furthermore, I encourage you to expand your notions of link quality. If you’re a local link builder that has traditionally focused on page and domain authority when prospecting link targets, switch gears and test a couple campaigns by ignoring these metrics and focusing on relevance. You might be surprised by the results.

Gyi Tsakalakis was once told that people would never use the internet to hire lawyers. Now he helps lawyers win clients from search. His companies, AttorneySync and EPL Digital are committed to bringing more agency-client trust to the search industry.

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25 thoughts on “Local Link Building: Quality vs Quantity – Which Is More Important?”

  1. Great read, Gyi. On the point about link spamming. I still find that a lot of people still use comment spamming. Perhaps it’s done sparingly nowadays, but still done. Would you say it’s the volume that is more harmful?

    1. Thanks Donovan! I might need a clarification on your question. Are you asking whether “comment spamming” is harmful generally, or just when done “too much?” By definition, “comment spamming,” seems to me to be at best a waste of time, and often, potentially harmful. On the other had, I strongly believe that authentic commentary on relevant sites, articles, posts, and pages (think topical and geographic), is very effective both in terms of meaningful attention, as well as, SEO signalling.

  2. Nice article Gyi. Any thoughts on whether Google is now tracking the differences between domains and pages that are actually read by humans vs. domains and pages that have been created for blogs that are not necessarily read by humans, but rather for the purposes of link building (aka “link selling” or “link buying”)? Many of the “guest post” opportunities I’ve found as a lawyer are from webpages and blogs that simply don’t look like they actually have visitors. They have reasonably high DR/DA, but the individual pages have very low UR/PA, and the content is Powder River (i.e. a mile wide, but an inch deep). I call them “ghost town blogs.” Sure the menus, pages, posts, and structures are all there, but I doubt there are actual readers stopping by to peruse the rather glib content. Is there any evidence that Google is valuing pages with actual visitors and dwell time stronger than other pages (assuming DR/DA and UR/PA are otherwise completely equal)?

    1. Hey Michael, thanks for dropping by. TL;DR answer: They’re trying really hard. Unfortunately, spam, including link spam, works, at least until it doesn’t. In the Penguin world, the majority seem to be of the mind that many of the links from these “ghost town blogs,” aren’t “counting.” Of course, if they’re brought to the attention of someone who can apply a manual action, there’s a shot that those links could actually hurt. Further, it’s worth thinking about how Google polices these kinds of links. For example, they’re getting pretty good at identifying well-known publishers that have “pay-to-play” link opportunities. On the other hand, the link folks, particularly the PBN crowd, continue to improve their sophistication levels too. Only the dead have seen the end of the spam war.

      My take: I see spam working, that’s not supposed to, all of the time. Particularly in legal. The question of whether to pursue these tactics is balancing risk and reward. For the overwhelming majority of lawyers, I tend to recommend taking the long view. Even if you win today, you’re not guaranteed to win tomorrow. The good new is that focusing on high relevance local links tends to be more effective, and here’s the kicker, a whole lot more affordable, on a per link basis.

      1. Thanks Gyi. As an aside, I was recently speaking with a firm that assists in finding guest post opportunities and links, and they wouldn’t even take legal. It appears were next to being lumped in with locksmiths, online casinos, and porn.

    2. Unfortunately, many of the stigmas that exist in the real world, tend to carry-over online. Needless to say, as both a lawyer and an SEO, I have been called many names over the years.

      Constructively, we’ve found that overcoming that initial stigma is possible. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work. However, one thing that definitely matters, is “what’s on the website.”

      We’ve found that lawyers’ sites that scream tasteless attorney advertising, have a very difficult time earning links.

      On the other hand, those that talk advocacy, community service, and take an educational approach, tend to have a lot less trouble. Hope this helps.

  3. Oh dear. I’d really thought that a post on BrightLocal would be accounting for the fact that in Local search, normal PageRank does not apply.

    Let me repeat:

    In Local search, the normal PageRank stuff isn’t counting, and instead other forms of citations tend to take more priority. This was an essential thing for the sake of small villages and towns on the outskirts of more densely populated (and popular) areas, whose local directories, local newspapers, and local guides would all tend to have a much larger pool of users to gain links from, and thus could cause sites that they linked to, in the cities and larger towns, to always outrank more local services, even where the local service was superior.

    ALL of the link analysis tools on the market, such as Majestic, Moz, SEMrush, AHREFS, are geared towards the regular link analysis, and thus are completely out of their game in the one search algorithm where PageRank, or any tool that attempts to create a similar guide of weight ot authority, is meaningless.

    TL/DR: You cannot tell anything about links, in general, from looking at the one search type where they are discounted. And the tools you might use to try to do so are of no use in Local search.

    1. Hi Ammon, thanks for the comment. All I can say is that when we see sites acquire local links, they appear more prominently in both local pack results, as well as, traditional localized results. Obviously, this does not amount to causation, or confirmation of what’s in the algorithm.

      Also, even Google seems to at least imply that links play at least some role in local search:

      “Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business from across the web (like links, articles, and directories). Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.”

      Perhaps it’s not PageRank in the traditional sense, but my experience tells me that links are “counting” somehow, even in local.

      1. It’s not PageRank, but rather a whole different system for handling citations, which for Local includes ones that are not links, and ones that don’t even use an unlinked url (the domain) as text, but rather any local citation that can be determined to relate to the appropriate entity.

        There’s a bunch of papers and patents that I recall, but I don’t have Bill Slawski’s uncanny ability to recall which patent had which info. But I’d be certain he could tell you very quickly if you wanted to do a follow-up with more research for the sake of the readers.

    2. Hey Ammon – Thanks for following-up. Not sure if this comment will thread correctly, but I digress. In case there’s any confusion from my end, I’m not arguing that It’s PageRank. At the risk of stating the obvious, Google can use an entirely different system for handling citations and still use link signals “in some way.”

      Bill is the pro at patents, so I’d leave it to him to comment on that. For the sake of the readers who are interested, here are some potentially relevant posts of his:


      Note, these are from 2006 and, as we all know, a lot has changed in that time. It’s also worth noting that patents do not equal implementation. In other words, just because Google patents something, doesn’t mean it’s “in the sauce.”

      But all this is really academic, since I’m not claiming to know what’s in the sauce. All I’m saying is that when we build local relevant links, we tend to see improved positions. Could it be something else? It sure could.

      Just so I’m clear, are you suggesting that links play no role at all in ranking in local pack and localized traditional results?

      Thanks again for your time and thoughtful comments.

      1. I’ll be as clear as I possibly can.

        The link tools, all of them, were built to as closely as possible emulate the kind of link weighting of PageRank.

        The one thing we know for certain is that Local search is the one place PageRank is discounted, to the extent that the only part of a Google result that has less to do with PageRank is the Adwords listings.

        There may indeed be other methods of weighting, rather than just counting, the wider kind of citations used in Local search, but they are not PageRank based, and so none of the link analysis tools will be of ANY reliability to assess anything about those links.

        There will be a huge amount of correlation – sites that invest in successful SEO of one sort, or have great marketing, brand awareness, and popularity to succeed in one form of SERP will often also do well in others. Sites that do well in Local search may very well tend to have better citations and reviews than other sites in Local – not least because their higher position mean more people have tried them.

        However, it’s not just the usual issue of warning people not to misunderstand correlation as causation – there’s also a lot of cases where the specifics don’t follow the trend, and where the correlation is only a casual one, with plenty of cases there the two things don’t even correlate at all.

    3. Great Ammon! Thanks for taking the time to clarify. At the risk of overreaching, I think we’re generally in agreement. If PageRank, traditional notions of link signals, don’t apply in local, that could explain why links with such low proxy authority metrics seem to help more than we might expect them to. Put simply, those traditional metrics simply don’t apply at all. So, in terms of getting local, relevant links, you can ignore those metrics completely. Which, anecdotally, has been my personal experience.

    1. Thanks Tina. The outreach was primarily email. It was highly personalized. The key, from our perspective, was the time spent on researching. Too many outreach campaigns seem to focus on volume. We’ve found that smaller campaigns, with a lot more research work, tend to produce better results in terms of responses and links.

  4. Thanks for the post Gyi. I really enjoyed reading it and seeing the real data from 1 of your clients – thank you for sharing that. It interesting to see the major impact that just a few additional links had, and more so that these links were not from high DA sites.

    Given how hard & time consuming it is to earn links from high DA sites – especially when you’re a local business and not a ‘brand’ – this will give lots of encouragement to SEOs to target smaller, relevant sites that might be more amenable to linking to their clients.

    1. Thanks Myles. I am regularly (and pleasantly) surprised by how effective lower DA (and other conventional metric) links can be. Now don’t get me wrong, if you can earn high DA, topically relevant, and geographically relevant links, do it!

    1. Hey Andy! Thanks for the comment. My guess is that the “quality conclusion” wasn’t much of a shocker to most. However, I do think it’s useful to think about quality factors beyond DA.

  5. Thanks for the article. I have just signed up as trying to promote my whiteboard animation company at russlaw.co.uk

    I am starting to write articles for my blog that will be useful and need to work on these links, but where do I begin.
    I want to target London and the UK, but I get clients from all over the world.
    Do you have a guide on the process of finding the place to put my link, and then roughly what/how that link should look?

    Many thanks

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thanks for your comment. Although there’s a fair amount out there on this topic, I’d recommend this post from Neil Patel (https://neilpatel.com/blog/7-proven-strategies-to-increase-your-blogs-traffic-by-206/) and this one by ourselves (https://www.brightlocal.com/2016/12/31/content-curation-war/).

      If you’re talking about writing or submitting content to external sites in the hopes of getting a link back to your site, we’ve actually got a great post on this coming out next week, on the topic of analyzing your competitors’ links to find opportunities for your business, so look out for that!

      I hope this helps!


      1. Thanks for the 2 links.
        I look forward to the new post. This has become an interesting ‘hobby’ for me to work on between my animation projects.
        I would certainly be hoping to get a link back to my site, yes.
        As for my article writing, I am going to start out fairly simple, and stick to what I know, so my first plan of action is to write to simple articles that explain each of the explainer videos I created for companies like OFCOM, MONSTER and the International Nurses day. I shall try to gain some insights from their visitors experience of watching a whiteboard video, rather than reading a page of text, and also try to get some feedback from the companies as to just how beneficial they felt the videos were.

      2. Hi Russ,

        It’s true that writing articles that answer common questions could potentially get your site in the Google answer box, and an accompanying video always helps – in fact, that’s a great way to make two different types of content (text and video) with one swing of the bat!

        Wishing you luck in your content journey!


  6. Quality over quantity…I think most already knew this.

    It also kind of depends on where the website is in its life. A new site versus an established site will usually require different tactics for establishing a better link profile.

    For new local sites, you want to build out the citations and quantity is actually not a bad thing here. Some of those citations will count as links and having more than a few of them is only beneficial.

    Once you have the baseline link foundation with citations, you can start focusing on the quality local links where you may have some influence over the anchor text and this is where quality counts over quantity.

    1. Hey Adam, yeah, generally speaking, most folks would probably agree that quality trumps quantity. However, I know some disagree (would like to hear from them here too). In any event, one of my main points here was to flesh out some additional factors to consider beyond common link metrics.

    2. You’d be surprised how many people apparently still don’t know that! Just take a look around any of the popular internet marketing forums that have a services section. Some of the most popular services are still the ones that promise thousands of links, with those links of course being very low quality. It just shows that there are still tons of people out there who think how many links you have is more important than the quality of said links.

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