We (the agency I work for) often get SEO briefs that request link targets, or want number of links as a metric for SEO “success” and certainly many clients are still seeing volume of links as a tangible output of delivery, and in turn, an indicator of “value”.
However, I think for the most part, the industry are united in this not being a legitimate, useful or helpful thing for us to provide and I wanted to take this opportunity to open the discussion on the subject and try to provide alternative solutions.
I’ll break this post down in to two things:
1. Why number of links is not a valuable metric for an SEO/outreach campaign
2. What can be done to measure success instead?
The first question is the easy one and can be broken down in to three primary areas.
1. Number of links is not a reliable ranking metric
Take any keyword example, in this instance, I’ve picked “beef salad” because I’m hungry and have one in my bag. Below is the table of rankings vs number of links (highest ranking to the left) – there’s no pattern here and that’s hardly surprising, because volume of links alone has not been a reliable standalone ranking factor for a very long time.
We all know that long gone are the days when a thousand bad links were more powerful than two good ones. The key metric now, absolutely has to be quality over quantity. (There’s a lovely, much more comprehensive article on BuiltVisible about this here).
2. Focusing on number of links is a bad distraction
I’m not only saying that number of links isn’t a valuable metric, I’m going as far as to say it’s a damaging one. If, for example, I tell my client I’ll get them x links in one month, or one quarter or whatever timeframe, then this moves my focus again from quality to quantity. Moreover, if I don’t hit those targets I’ve backed myself in to a corner whereby I’m much more likely to go for lower level, more achievable links that are likely to be damaging long term. The consistent message to clients and internal teams has to be that number does not drive you value – quality drives value and quality relies on people, and that times time. Which leads me on to my third point
3. It’s out of your hands
Harder one to swallow this, but bear with me. Let me say, I love a good target. I’ve zero problem proving traffic and revenue targets, if anything I like it; however, I don’t like targets that I don’t feel I have a significant impact upon and number of links falls in to this (unless, of course, I’m submitting 500 articles). Moving to a content first, link earning approach means that ultimately, you’re reliant on other people (bloggers, media, influencers) and while you can mitigate this through understanding your audience, getting buy in for targets sites in advance of creation, driving reach through paid social and all the other lovely content outreach and amplification tactics we have up our sleeves, it’s hard to commit to numbers without the risks I mention in point 2.
So, if link targets are not the answer then how do we measure success of an campaign? Or, more specifically, how do clients know that our content is working for links?
I’ve got this grouped by tiers, in order of preference:
1. Traffic and Revenue
In my opinion – SEO should be measured on organic traffic and what that translates in to in terms of revenue only.
All the content I’m creating, links I’m earning, engagement I’m driving and er, reach I’m reaching is all with the ultimate aim of improving traffic and revenue. That is, and always has been, the end game and that is what we should be targeted on; the rest of it is just tactics to get us there.
Though I do concede there’s mini goals within this wider framework and if a client invests in a certain content or campaign idea then we need to provide an understanding of what good is. (Though again, the continued education should be that the content alone is there to ultimately improve organic traffic/revenue).
2. Set objectives at a campaign level
If we’re not paying for links or placing content through guest posting then generally, our link generation is tied to some piece of activity – an infographic, a blog post, an entire singing dancing multi-channel campaign, whatever it is we need to ensure we’re setting objectives in advance of this alongside the client. The difference being objectives are goal orientated as opposed to numbers, for example;
Online Q&A with blogger experts
Earn links through event coverage on invited bloggers sites
Generate social content through images/videos created
We’re still providing goals and making it clear what we’re looking to achieve from the offset, though we’re avoiding numbers to prevent any pressure to let quality slip later down the line.
Then once the campaign is completed, report and give transparency against those objectives. To be clear, giving transparency on the success of content is not problematic – only the setting of a number of links targets in advance is.
3. Use paid social and forecast return based on spend
If you’ve a client that really likes numbers, then another option is to use paid social for our content seeding, where we have a little more control over the output. Both myself and Laura Crimmons have previously written posts on using paid social promotion to earn links and this is a good example of where we can better forecast return a little more confidently. For example StumbleUpon ads work on a cost per visit basis making it easy to forecast a return, again, however this is looking at visits as opposed to links.
4. Copy PRs
Linkbuilding, as we know it, is becoming increasingly like traditional PR and our tactics are becoming increasingly similar – however our means of reporting remain very different. A somewhat lofty solution is to try and align any “link building” activity with PR campaigns and just piggy back off their sucess metrics. There’s a nice guide on PR measurement here and here you may want to take inspiration from.
5. Without wanting to sound like a motivational poster … Educate
Ultimately, the main problem many of us are facing at the moment is one of education. Helping clients and businesses understand why we’re creating content, why number of link targets gets us in to bother and why forecasting a number is really tricky just takes patience, practice and conviction.
The SEO industry is a fairly new one and it’s changed considerably over a very short time period and we’re still trying to figure things out, so any additional input, thoughts, suggestions, disagreements on this topic is hugely welcome. Happy link earning!