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.
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.
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.
And, more recently, Whitespark’s edition of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey put links joint third according to the experts.
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.”
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:
Most 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:
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.
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.