Link prospecting is an integral part of every outreach campaign. Knowing what factors make a site right for outreach saves you lots of time and helps you climb the SERPs in a faster, safer way. However, Google has undergone very significant changes in the way it gauges the relevance of sites in the wake of the Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates. What was a good link prospect two years ago may not necessarily be a good one today.
Google is done with just looking at on-page factors and backlink profiles when it comes to ranking sites. Brand strength, social signals, co-occurrence and content quality are prime ranking elements in the modern age of SEO. In that light, GDI has stopped looking at link prospects in a simplistic manner. Done are the days when we just checked Domain Authority numbers, on-page relevance signals and outbound links. Now and moving forward, we strive to get a feel of the same things that Google looks at to assess a site’s importance in its keyword vertical.
After all, why wouldn’t we want to get links from the sites that will be ranking high in the next few years?
Below is a list of traditional site qualities that we still use. They’re still important and they’re still valid. It’s just that there are other things that we’ve also begun looking at to give our prospecting operations an edge.
- Relevance – Strictly defined, relevance is the degree of importance that content has to the subject at hand. In SEO parlance, that translates to whether or not a prospect site has a strong topical and contextual relationship to your site and its target keywords. If there is an overlap in the kind of topics that each site covers, then there’s a good chance that the site you’re prospecting is relevant to your niche.
You can tell if a site is relevant to yours by reading its content carefully. Are the topics strongly related to the ones that your site is engaged in? If so, it’s probably relevant. If you want to make sure, you can go to Google Keyword Planner. Go to “get keyword and ad group ideas,” and enter the URL of the prospect’s home page on the landing page field. Take a look at the keywords and keyword groups that come out after you submit it. Does your site share keywords with the prospect site? If it does, it’s likely to be relevant.
- Domain Authority – Introduced by Moz, domain authority is defined as a site’s search engine power based on its age, size and popularity. It’s measured in a scale of 1-100, where 1 has no authority and 100 has godlike ranking power. In GDI, we usually go no lower than DA 20 when we seriously consider sites that we want to target for link acquisition.
There are exceptions of course. In some cases, a new blogger’s site may have low domain authority but you may be able to see that he’s building up momentum in terms of traffic, link gain and social signals. In cases like those, we’re willing to become “early adopters.” We think of it like buying cheap but promising stock. We’re willing to invest in it because we can see the potential for growth. The links we acquire may have little value at the onset, but as the blog gets bigger and more popular, the value of those links rise with the site and its author.
You can check the domain authority of prospect sites in Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool.
- Unique Linking Domains – Unique linking domains (ULDs) pertains to the number of websites – not necessarily individual backlinks – that are referring to the prospect site’s domain. This is important because it gives us a better understanding of how popular a prospect site is. You see, domain authority can only reveal so much. A site can have good DA through age, size and potent links from a few highly authoritative sites. The ULD count gives you an idea of how diverse the source of all that DA/PageRank is.
As you may guess, a higher number of ULDs is a good thing. Less than 10 ULDs for a site with a DA of 30 and above doesn’t look proportional. It may just have a few links from other sites in the same group of companies or organization. More linking domains give search engines a better feel of the site’s reach and popularity. The greater those two qualities are. The more potent the link equity that the site can pass.
Like domain authority, unique linking domains can be viewed in Open Site Explorer.
- Outbound Links – Outbound links are links from within the prospect site that point to pages in external domains. When we prospect for outreach, we take the number of these links into account because it’s an indicator of the site’s willingness to link out.
The the more outbound links there are, the higher the likelihood that the prospect site would be open to activities like guest posting and broken link building. Having very few outbound links is a sign that a site is reclusive and might be tough to score links from.
To see a site’s outbound links, we crawl it with a tool called Screaming Frog. This is a desktop application that mimics search engine spiders and gathers all sorts of SEO-related data on sites that it crawls. To see a site’s outbound links, simply crawl it with Screaming Frog and let the cycle finish. Click on the “external” tab and export the sheet as a CSV file so you can see how many external links there are and what kind of pages the prospect site links to. This should give you valuable insights on what kind of content you have to have if you want to perform broken link building or linker outreach with the site at hand.
Next-Gen Link Prospecting Factors
In addition to the older link prospecting factors, we now consider the following elements when looking at a site that we want to acquire links from:
- Social Shares – Google now looks at social sharing signals. It’s just not clear how much weight they have and how they affect the search rankings. Nevertheless, we look at the counters on the social sharing buttons on pages and blog posts because they’re signs of an engaged audience. Double-digit shares is always a good sign. If the site has social shares in the hundreds, you might want to click on the Tweet counter. Find out if real people are the ones who are sharing the site’s content or if the accounts don’t seem genuine. Thanks to Fiverr, some shady bloggers can make it look like their content is going viral when nobody really reads their posts.
- Quantity and Quality of Comments – On the site’s blog, check out the comments section. Is it properly moderated or have spammers infested it with worthless posts? How many comments are there? Double-digit comments in posts is another nice indicator of a follower base that’s passionate about an author’s work. Just make sure the comments are coming from real people and not fake fans. Real people comment with wit and deep insights. Fake commenters provide general, bland and contextually mismatched statements.
- Brand Search Volume – Log in to Google Adwords Keyword Planner and type in the prospect site’s brand name. Type in the site’s branded product names if it has any. Is there data for it? If so, is it significant? In case you haven’t heard, Google now places a premium on brand signals. Being mentioned and being searched for are clear indicators of a brand’s strength. If your prospect site has credibility in its niche, Google will be able to tell through the queries that people enter.
You can also do this with the names of the site’s bloggers. A good search volume for the names of these people is an indicator that the person is an influencer or a thought leader. If the blogger’s name is too common or if he shares it with a famous person, then all bets are off. Still, checking search volumes for brand names is a fast and easy way to get a feel of the brand’s cache.
- Number of Brand Mentions – As I alluded to in the previous bullet, brand mentions are becoming increasingly important in SEO. In fact, a patent filed by Google clearly equates unlinked citations (mentions) to “implied links.” The implications of this are huge. Basically, it means that brand mentions could become as much of a ranking factor in Google as live links are if they aren’t already.
It also means that you shouldn’t walk away from an outreach opportunity just because the webmaster forbids you from planting links in your guest posts. If you can’t have the actual link, you can just mention your brand and this could very well provide the same boost in the near future. Besides, the true essence of guest posting never should have been the act creation of backlinks. It should be about doing another blogger a favor, getting introduced to his audience and earning new followers to your own site.
One easy way to tell if a site is worth engaging in outreach is to ask yourself “if I won’t earn a link from guest posting on this site, would I still want to do it?” If the answer is yes, that means you have a quality site in front of you. If it’s a no, walk away and find a better use for your time.
To track mentions on the Web, I personally use Fresh Web Explorer by Moz. This one comes with a Pro account, so there’s some financial investment involved. SEO expert Jason Acidre recommends Mention.net for tracking brand mentions. I personally have not tried it but I intend to do so in the next few days.
These are the things that my team and I look at when we narrow down a broad list of link prospects to a handful that deserves our outreach time and effort. It allows us to skip sites that won’t do us and our clients any good while focusing our attention on potential link sources that will really matter in search results. Do you use other metrics to evaluate link prospects? Let me know in the comments section.