Replacing Links as a SEO Reporting Metric

ChangesIf you’re here to get mad at me for saying links don’t matter, let me make it clear, that’s not what I am suggesting. Links matter. Links are still important to domain strength, page strength, ranking and organic traffic. Cool? Cool.

I have an issue with the number of links as a metric for campaign success. 

I’ve been working in an agency setting for some time now and one of the things I have come to hate is having the number of links promised and written into a contract on a monthly basis. Promising any number of links per month is not conducive to growing organic traffic or growing a brand. I don’t care if it’s 3 links or 30, there is a better way to prove value and ROI.

But before I tell you what is, let’s dissect the issue with them, what clients and bosses are looking for in “links” and that will lead us to a new metric.

The Issue with Links

Put simply: Using links as a metric for success makes people cut corners. It causes otherwise good marketers to make questionable decisions to meet a number. Look at any of the top lists to get links, and a good number of the ideas are recovery of past links to content that is now gone, fixing redirects, and taking the links from competitors whose links are not working anymore.

If you actually get someone creating links, the links that are created to hit a number don’t help what the business is actually trying to achieve MOST of the time. I am not saying all of the time, but from what I have seen, 60-80% of the links built to hit a number are not the type a business is looking for.

This is not just a links problem, it happens across business sections when rewards or threats are given based on meeting arbitrary numbers. Look at call center metrics that force the Comcast calls we all hate (specifically in that case amount of time on a call and turnover rate for specific representatives).

So what are businesses looking for when they ask for links?

who is driving my data

More “Free” Traffic and Sales

There is a misnomer that still circulates in some circles, that SEO traffic is free. Business owners know either from first hand experience (8 years ago) that links are what “makes a website rank” or have heard it from a friend. They have either lost traffic over the last few years or are just getting started in the online world. Regardless of their situation, they know that organic search is a profitable channel for them or was in the past, and links are how to get that “free” traffic.

What they are missing is that “doing SEO” involves developer time, marketing staff time, copywriter time, images, user testing, strategic analysis and planning and so much more. It is not a matter of getting 100 links and in comes all this “free” traffic. Organic search takes as much investment as any other channel, even the infamous, highly lucrative, word of mouth. It’s something that takes time and strategic vision to really get right, and as with everything in business, it’s a moving target.

With that said, the next thing we hear is the agency in question or the person on the marketing team needs to prove the value of SEO work. What are they getting for their money, and that’s a toughie.

Proving Value and ROI

One of the reasons we have kept with number of links as a metric for vendor outreach relationships is value. Value is one of the hardest things to prove in an agency/consulting relationship. There is value in having a trustworthy person to go to with questions and get an answer from someone that has the experience and knowledge to back up those answers. But the business needs to provide hard numbers to investors and their own bosses as to the investment they are making in anything.

Return on Investment and Value is always going to come down to bottom line revenue. There are many steps to get to that, but that’s the end goal. If an action by a company is not producing revenue over time, it’s not going to continue.

When a business knows that it needs to grow it’s brand online and would like to grow it’s online marketing channel via search, one of the things it needs is links. But it’s not just links, to grow search traffic, most websites need:

  • Topical research (aka Keyword Research)
  • Search focused competitive analysis
  • Relevant content to the query
  • Optimization of the content for crawl-ability and user experience
  • Outreach and promotion of the content (social, PR, outreach)

Notice that links is not in that list by name, but it’s a result of the last portion. Everything else is either done internally or done in an audit portion of a contract with an agency. The optimization is ongoing, but it’s the “outreach” that we know is the difficult part. Relationship building is tough, especially when so many marketers are pulled in so many directions.

So what do we do to show ROI and value for outreach contracts?

Replace “X Links per Month” with …

The amount of referral traffic from placements per month. If you are super confident and have control over the whole site, content development, and analytics set up, go for conversions from those placements. But rather than focusing and reporting on the number of links built per month or over the course of the contract, set a benchmark for how good backlinks send traffic and convert over time. Use that benchmark to set the standard and goals for the contract period.

Setting the Contract Benchmark and Goals

To set that benchmark, use the referral traffic list over at least a year, maybe more, to identify all external sites sending traffic. Make sure the report you are looking at has the whole referring URL, not just the referring domain. Then remove all the junk. Think about doing a regex of things like brand name, mail, search provider names, social network names and anything else that stands out. You’re looking for real mentions of the business that are editorially placed. I’m including a screen shot of my own site’s analytics:

referral data

Once you have your list, download that list with traffic over time and conversions. Check the full referrer for authenticity and produce a good list (minimum 10) and chart that article’s traffic to the site over time. Note how long it took to get a conversion and on average, how much traffic it gives the site over time. Once you have the benchmarks, set some goals and run with it.

It’s About the Funnel

I’ve only tried this once, but logically I think it’s a better metric because it’s based in getting people from an article they are reading to a resource on the client’s site. This is the start to any good customer funnel, just getting them on the site and thinking about your client/business. Converting from there is a matter of building trust, the relationship, website conversion testing, and developing the right content.

What do you think? Is anyone else using this as a metric? Any other alternatives?

About Kate Morris

Kate Morris is the Director of Client Strategies with Outspoken Media. She is a well seasoned online marketer with a passion for teaching others. For the last 10+ years she has covered the paid, natural, and social sides of search.

  • Spot on! There is no Idea in having number of links as a SEO metric. SEO can’t just be measured in quantitative terms, quality comes first and last for both content and links.

  • I can’t agree more Kate, any form of quota-filling is counter-productive to quality. Even organic search traffic is a better metric, but as you point out, the challenge comes from proving the ROI of that traffic.

    I’ll openly admit that I still build links for links (to drive rankings) and rarely look at the traffic potential. But we don’t work to a quota for the above stated reasons.