Link building remains one of the most important facets of every SEO campaign. To this day, Google and other search engines rely heavily on a website’s backlink profile to assess its authority and relevance to various keywords found in its content. Links give a website much of its ranking power, which also explains why SEOs engage on an endless pursuit to secure link placements from other websites.
Link building takes a great deal of time, effort and resources to do properly. A link builder can literally go through a hundred websites and secure just one or two legitimate link placement opportunities. That would be well and good if you only needed a couple of links every now and then to rank. However, that’s not really the case. Most niches in developed markets are highly competitive and your business rivals are just as likely to be building links as you are. If you aren’t able to consistently acquire multiple quality links per month, the odds of you dominating the SERPs are slim to none.
Any experienced SEO manager would tell you that efficiency is the key to hitting your monthly link targets. By pre-qualifying your link prospects using a set of metrics, you can focus on the sites that will yield real SEO value over the ones that might not matter much. This way, you can expend more energy and resources only on the sites that are likely to yield the most impact.
When reviewing our list of link prospects, here’s a list of metrics that we consider:
Authority metrics is a collective term for proprietary compound metrics invented by link intelligence tool developers such as Moz, Majestic and Ahrefs. These metrics measure a site’s overall authority based largely on the quality and quantity of links pointing to its pages. The more link equity a site has, the more it can pass to others via its own outbound links.
Different link intelligence tools call their authority metrics different names but they mostly refer to the same things. The most popularly used are:
Domain-Level Authority Metrics
Over the years, SEOs have started to realize that there are two distinct effects of backlinks to a site’s ranking power. The first is on the domain level; meaning that a backlink affects every page in a site including ones that are yet to be published. This explains why pages in authoritative sites like Amazon or Apple would rank very well for competitive keywords even when the pages are very new and don’t have backlinks pointing to them yet. The parent domains of the new pages have accumulated too many links over the years and their pages are trusted by search engines even when they don’t have much off-page SEO signals going for them yet.
- Domain Authority (Open Site Explorer) – This has probably been the most popular authority metric since Google stopped updating its PageRank scores. Domain Authority is Moz’s amalgamation of other metrics including MozRank, MozTrust, unique linking domains, raw backlink counts and others into a single score. According to the popular SEO tool maker, greater DA scores correlate with greater ranking power in the SERPs. This also implies that domain Authority can approximate the potency of a link that a particular website can give you. In GDI’s experience, most clients understand and prefer Domain Authority as a metric than its counterparts from Majestic and Ahrefs.
- Citation Flow (Majestic) – Defined by Majestic as “a score between 0-100 which helps to measure the link equity or ‘power’ the website or link carries,” this is a good primary metric that indicates a site’s popularity. In GDI, we consider scores of 20 or better to be good enough to warrant a closer look.
- Domain Rating (Ahrefs) – Like the previous two metrics, this is a measure of your domain’s ranking power in a scale of 1 to 100. It rises and falls depending on the quality and quantity of links pointing to the pages of a particular website. The greater it is, the more potent the link equity it passes – or at least that’s the theory.
These metrics are the ones you should be looking at when you’re building links using techniques like guest posting where the pages linking to you will be newly published. These pages will not have much page-level (more on that next) authorities, but if they come from sites that have good domain-level authority, they’ll still pass on solid link equity.
Page-Level Authority Signals
Second, there are page-level authority signals. This is the extra ranking power that a page gains when a link is pointed straight to it. This would explain why some smaller sites would beat bigger sites in some SERPs. Sometimes, the combination of their domain-level and page-level ranking powers is enough to overtake pages from popular sites that don’t have backlinks pointed right at them. You can measure a page’s ranking power with the following metrics:
- Page Authority (Moz) – The measure of a page’s overall authority based on the inbound links pointing directly to its URL. The greater the page’s authority is, the greater its ranking power and the more potent the equity it passes.
- URL Rating (Ahrefs) – This is basically the same thing as Moz’s Page Authority. It’s a score of 1-100 that gauges a webpage’s ranking ability. The greater it is, the more potent the link juice it passes to pages it links to.
If you’re building links using techniques like broken link building, resource page inclusion, list inclusion through outreach or any other method that will land you a link in an already-existing page, this is a metric that you should pay attention to.
Over the years, Google has consistently proven that not all links are good. If your links are coming from shady websites or if they look like they were acquired using unnatural methods, they can end up hurting your rankings. Authority metrics alone can’t be totally trusted since some webmasters have figured out ways to boost them using questionable means. To guard against that, link intelligence tools now provide trust-related metrics so you can have a better feel on whether or not a site’s links might be helpful or toxic.
- Trust Flow (Majestic) – Trust Flow provides a good approximation of a website’s quality by checking how closely linked it is to Majestic’s handpicked seed sites. These seed sites were manually reviewed and deemed to be legitimately reputable. These sites also only link to pages that are truly deserving, making it hard for anyone to manipulate their ratings for this metric. In our experience, sites with a trust flow of 15 or better are generally good and worth your time if you’re pursuing links.
- MozTrust (Moz) – This is a score that is similar to MozRank in that it measures link popularity, but it’s tied to trustworthiness because it gauges the reputation of a site’s link sources. Acquiring links from sites with .edu or .gov root domains, or getting linked to by respected corporations, can boost a site’s MozTrust.
If you’re trying to stay away from PBN sites and bad link neighborhoods, these metrics can definitely help you. They’re not 100% accurate but for the most part, they can set you on the right direction.
Inbound Link Count
While trust and authority metrics give you a general idea on a prospect site’s link popularity, you can also get valuable clues about the legitimacy of a site’s metrics using its inbound link counts. Most link intelligence tools provide statistics on how many backlinks point to a single domain or page, but you’ll notice immediately that the counts can differ wildly. This is because their crawlers behave differently and some are better at discovering links than others.
In our experience, Ahrefs seems to be the best at discovering links. Its link counters are the most frequently updated and they tend to discover more links across the web. Majestic comes as a close second while Moz comes a distant third.
These stats come in handy when you’re trying to verify the trustworthiness of a site. If the prospect has thousands of links but has relatively low authority and trust metrics, that could be a sign of unnatural linking activities that you should investigate. Check where its best links are coming from and deduce how they were acquired. If they look suspicious to you, move on to the next target.
Unique Linking Domains
Another mark of a good link prospect is the number of unique linking domains that point to it. The diversity of a site’s link sources correlates well with how well it ranks and how often it’s referenced by other websites.
Authority and trust signals can sometimes be misleading because a website can score pretty well on them despite having just a handful of links from powerful domains. However, link equity is passed more strongly by websites that have a broader set of unique domains with distinct IPs linking to it. This shows search engines that more people of the site and engaged in its content. When choosing which sites to prospect more closely, it usually makes sense to prioritize those with more linking domains.
Organic Traffic Trends
When looking for qualified link prospects, the last thing you’ll want to do is to approach a penalized site. Unfortunately, some link builders fall into that trap because of overreliance on authority and trust metrics.
You see, ink metrics found in tools are approximations of Google’s actual algorithms but they’re not the same things. Like Google’s algorithms, authority and trust metrics from tools can be made fooled using unnatural means. When Google strikes down a site with a penalty, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the tools will indicate the situation. Many penalized sites will retain the same domain authorities, Trust Flows and Domain Ratings they had prior to their falls from grace. As a result, link builders who only check link metrics might unwittingly build toxic links to their sites.
A good way to quickly check a site’s standing on Google is through SEMRush’s domain search tool. It displays approximations of a site’s organic traffic performance in recent months. If you see a sharp decline in the graph, you’ll want to hold off on reaching out to that site. Conversely, you should look more for sites with traffic patterns that are on the rise like this one:
Of course, there are other factors that may cause a sharp fall in a site’s organic traffic graph. Redesigns, domain migrations or hackings can play a role in a site’s traffic downtrend.
If you don’t have a paid SEMRush account, your next best bet is probably Alexa.com. The free, long-time Internet statistics tool can show you some trends on a website’s global traffic ranking as well as some clues as to how it’s doing in the organic search arena. These can give you ideas on the site’s recent performance and possibly some hints on penalties and gains.
All you need to do is visit this page and input the prospect site’s home page URL. Check out the site’s traffic graph as well as its Alexa global and local ranks. If you see any significant traffic drops, you’ll want to have a closer look at the site’s condition and see if the site isn’t penalized.
Number of Indexed Pages
If a site has good link metrics but seems to have low traffic stats, traffic declines or is experiencing significant Alexa declines, you’ll want to take the next step of checking its indexing status. A site that has very few indexed pages compared to what it actually has.
To check, simply do a site:[URL] search on Google with the URL of the prospect site. If its home page or some of its main pages aren’t listed on page 1, that may be a sign that it’s in trouble with a penalty.
At the end of the day, link metrics are important for weeding out websites that are sure to be unqualified as link prospects. However, they’re not 100% accurate and they can’t definitively say if a site is a good link source or not. At best, they can pre-qualify sites that are worth reviewing manually. A close look that checks for legitimate reader and user action is still the best way to vet for worthy link sources.