Any of my colleagues here at The Search Agency can attest to the fact that I’m a big fan of authority metrics -– specifically, Majestic’s Flow Metrics. Whether I’m auditing a client backlink profile, lifting a manual penalty, or training my team, you can put money on the fact that I’ll eventually start talking about Trust and Citation Flow. In fact, I originally planned on writing a post to help you quickly and easily identify potentially harmful links –- using authority metrics alone -– to assist with link cleanup projects. Sounds cool, right? (That post will come, I promise). [Update 7/31/2018: As promised, my latest blog post – “How to Prep a Disavow File (Quick and Dirty Guide to Finding Bad Links)” – is now live!] However, as I began writing, I realized my love of Flow Metrics was shining through a bit too much: I was putting so much emphasis on authority metrics, I was unintentionally promoting authority-first logic (or worse: authority metric blindness).”
The Problem with Authority-First Logic
While authority metrics like Trust and Citation Flow are very handy, the best link builders know that following authority blindly can be detrimental to the success of a campaign. Old-school SEO tells us that when faced with the choice of getting a link from Big Site A or Small Site B, Big Site A wins every time. Sounds right to me… you might be thinking. But what this authority-first logic fails to consider is one of the most important factors in determining the value of a link: relevance.
The Plight of the Old-School Link Builder
If you’re a fellow link builder, you’ve probably heard the ominous question, “Would you still build that link if Google didn’t exist?” As link specialists, it sometimes feels like we’re faced with an impossible challenge: We’re expected to build links at scale, but we’re also expected to make our efforts look “natural” and hide the fact that a link was ever “built” at all. We’re expected to build links — without building them. Too few links? You don’t rank. But build too many links with the same anchor, too many links at once, too many links from sites in the same IP subnet…? Time to pray you don’t get hit with a manual penalty. So, we do a delicate dance with link prospects: We want the link, but we can’t let on that that’s what we’re after. How? We ask without asking -– we hide links in “guest posts,” we embed links in widgets, we stroke the ego of prospects by personalizing our outreach templates with “I came across your site, and I really loved your post about [INSERT RECENT POST TOPIC]” -– anything to get that link. But if the savvy blogger you’re reaching out to questions the link, abandon ship! You’ve been caught; you lost the game.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone -– in fact, I found myself frustrated with this delicate link dance not too long ago, and I’ll offer some advice to those in the same boat: If you can’t win the game, change the rules. Lose the authority metric blindness (Domain Authority >40), stop tying yourself to quantity (x links/month) and start resetting expectations. If you’ve got the link-building blues, it’s time to adopt a relevance-first mindset.
The “Glory Days” of Link Building?
In a digital environment where uncontested truths become baseless overnight, there is one thing you can count on: that link-building tactic that you just discovered will soon become wildly popular, then mercilessly abused by black hats and lazy link builders –- and, just as you’re mastering the process and high-fiving yourself for getting some links, you’ll open up Search Engine Land and learn that your shiny new tactic is the next target of Penguin’s wrath.
To illustrate my point, I’ll share a quick story with you: I started working at The Search Agency at the end of 2012 -– the heyday of “guest blogging” as a link-building tactic (in quotes because, let’s be honest, this wasn’t real guest blogging: it was paying for a blog to post your content that just so happens to have a link to your client [wink]). And it worked! By the end of 2013, I thought I was a pro. Then, in January of 2014, Matt Cutts said in plain English, almost as if he were talking straight to me, “Stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.”
Immediately, I went from cocky link builder to an empty-handed, badly-bruised SEO. I was faced with a choice: chase after the next “shiny new tactic” or change the rules of the game. I scrapped client deliverables that focused on quantity of backlinks in favor of more quality-focused reporting. I introduced secondary link metrics to our audits, providing deeper analyses on the value of relevant links vs. sheer volume of links. And I vowed not to let the next post from Matt Cutts derail me like that again, by designing a sustainable, full-funnel content marketing strategy that uses links as one of several KPIs of a successful campaign -– not as the end goal. Links are an output, not an outcome. Remember that.
Link Building and Today’s Digital Landscape
Link building is more about relationship building than anything else, and outreach is 90 percent of that relationship-building work. As one of my agency’s resident inbound marketers, one of the things I often remind clients is that links, and links alone, are not the golden ticket to shoot you to the top of the SERPs. Links are not the only thing you should invest in or focus on. It’s NOT that you just need “more links” to be successful online. It’s crucial to invest in technical SEO, the structure of your site, the strength of your content, the removal of spammy/irrelevant links in your backlink profile, etc. It’s about doing everything holistically (or finding an agency that takes a holistic approach to SEO to do it for you). Links are just one ingredient in the secret recipe that is Google’s ranking algorithm. Links are not going to be effective if you’re not taking care of the bigger picture.
The question then becomes, “How can we develop an internal link-building process that will gain momentum, be self-sustaining and be naturally scalable?”
Success in the digital marketing world is not about links, or keywords, or even rankings: It’s about delivering the right content, to the right person, at the right time. It’s about getting your audience to achieve a desired outcome by moving them through the sales funnel and helping them along their journey from unaware prospect to brand advocate. From a tactical content marketing perspective, it’s really all about 1) creating killer content, 2) promoting the hell out of it to influencers and 3) optimizing nurture paths to conversion.
What About Relevance?
How does a relevance-first mindset fit into all this? Well, have you ever tried reaching out to influencers with irrelevant content? Were they eager to help? I didn’t think so.
- Relevant links are easier to build: Outreach is easier, because links make more sense.
- Relevant links are how the web is connected: Relevant links are what Google wants, so building relevant links will never get you penalized.
- Relevant links are more valuable in achieving larger business objectives: Readers are much more likely to click on links they feel are relevant to them. This means more traffic, more qualified traffic, and, if you’ve optimized your nurture paths, more conversions.
Relevance: Links You’d Build if Google Didn’t Exist
So, what qualifies as a relevant link? To put it simply, relevant links are links that should exist to make the worldwide web a better place. Relevant links improve our digital experience by making the web easier to navigate, they help make our quest for information easier and more productive, and they provide value outside of inherent link equity.
While authority metric blindness limits your outreach, putting relevance first helps to capture those opportunities that may not meet your authority requirements, but are highly relevant to your target audience and will be more likely to drive qualified traffic to your site. When prospecting for outreach targets, ask yourself, “Is this domain relevant to my target audience (domain:domain relevance)? Is this page relevant to my audience (page:domain)? Is this page relevant to readers of my post (page:page)?” Once you start link-prospecting using relevance as your guide, you will notice that you’re doing less mindless “link building” and more purpose-driven “relationship building” with sites that are in your niche — and thus much more likely to engage with your emails than a high-authority, low-relevance recipient.
I began this post with this: Old-school SEO tells us that when faced with the choice of getting a link from Big Site A or Small Site B, Big Site A wins every time.
But what if Small Site B is hyper-relevant to your niche and building a link from here would expose your site to a passionate, engaged audience that is more likely to send qualified referral traffic? And what if that link from Big Site A was hidden on a page buried deep in the site and failed to send any traffic your way?
My point is this: Authority signals are important, yes, but following authority blindly can be detrimental to your success as a link builder. By putting relevance at the forefront of your link-building efforts, then moving on to authority and engagement signals, you can build the links Google WANTS and you NEED.
Are you using relevance to guide your link-building efforts? Share your experience in the comments below!