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Relying Solely on Metrics for Link Building Can Be Futile & Dangerous – Here’s Why

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Link metrics are (understandably) the starting point that most SEO professionals begin with when assessing a number of outreach targets.

While link metrics are not full proof by any means, they provide a useful way to broadly collate your outreach targets into some kind of order of priority.

However, becoming overly reliant on link metrics alone can be, at best, less impactful and, at worse, be a downright dangerous strategy that could end with catastrophic consequences for the site you’re link building for.

Finding the right balance between authority, relevance, and traffic value is key in developing a successful link building strategy.

Effective link building is instrumental in getting sites to rank well in Google. When targeting a list of potential link partner sites, how do you separate the good from the bad?

The answer is to use link metrics with caution and only in conjunction with your own expert judgment.

Common Link Metrics

There are many different metrics SEO professionals can use to measure their link building activities.

As with everything in life, some are better and more valuable to us than others.

In essence, link metrics provide you with a programmatic measurement relating to the site you are looking at.

For example, the kind of insights you can ascertain include:

  • The volume of backlinks a page or site has.
  • The quality of backlinks a page or site has.
  • The approximate amount of traffic a site gets.
  • How spammy a site is or isn’t.

Below is a summary of the most common metrics SEO pros tend to use when undertaking an outreach campaign:

Page Authority by Moz

Page Authority (PA) is a score that has been developed by Moz and is a figure that depicts the likelihood of a certain page ranking.

The page is scored between one and 100 using a logarithmic scale. The higher the figure, the more likely a page is to rank.

For example, a popular page on the BBC website could have a Page Authority of around 50+ (once it’s been live for a few months), whereas a new page posted on a local newspaper website would have a much lower PA.

A “good” or “bad” Page Authority is subjective in reality and the score is best used comparatively in order to find the most effective page or site to build a link from.

By building quality and relevant links from pages with a higher PA score, you’re more likely to positively influence the authority of your own page.

Always remember though, a new page on a website will start with an initial PA of 0.

Once the page is indexed and scored by Moz, you will (over time) start to see the true PA of the page. This can take a few weeks at least.

Domain Authority by Moz

Domain Authority, or DA as it’s commonly referred to, is another Moz metric that operates in a similar fashion to Page Authority.

However, instead of measuring the likelihood of a page ranking, it predicts how likely an entire domain will rank.

DA is a popular metric used to measure the authority of a site. Many clients and SEO teams will set a minimum DA when link building and it’s generally a useful marker when initially deciding which sites to earn backlinks from.

Sites with a higher DA tend to have a number of high-quality backlinks pointing to them.

Again, sites like the BBC, Google, and CNN have a high DA, while smaller businesses and startups generally won’t yet have accrued anywhere near the same volume authoritative backlinks and therefore will have a lower Domain Authority.

Quality Over Quantity

Obtaining a higher DA relies upon quality over quantity. A large number of low-quality backlinks will in fact be harmful to your score, particularly if the links are coming from irrelevant sources.

One point to note about DA is that it is also important to consider where on a website your link appears.

For example, you could earn a link on a news publication with a DA of 95 from a singular new page, that is one of a hundred or so new pages published that day.

If no other domains link to that page, then it will effectively become siloed.

Contrast this to getting a link from a DA 70 site but on a page that has been live for 15 years and is linked from the homepage.

A link like this is likely to be much more valuable than the one from the news publication as it is well linked internally and will have already accrued lots of authority.

Spam Score by Moz

Spam Score is a metric that gives an indication of the percentage of spammy links pointing to a site.

The score, which can be accessed through Moz’s Link Explorer tool, uses 27 common features taken from sites that have been penalized or banned by Google.

You can then breakdown your inbound links, monitoring their Spam Score, which can then be investigated further and disavowed if you so choose.

Some of the factors Moz consider in their Spam Score include:

  • Number of Pages: Domains with a small number of pages are common in spammy sites.
  • Google Tag Manager: Tag manager is rarely present on spammy sites.
  • Contact Details: The presence of a telephone number and email address is usually a sign that a site is real.
  • HTTPS: Few spam sites are investing in SSL certificates, so if a site is HTTPS it is usually a good sign.
  • External Outlinks: Spammy sites often have either unusually high or low external outlinks.
  • Presence of Poison Words: Spammy sites are often associated with certain niches and Spam Score looks out for poison words within topics such as adult content, gaming, and pharmaceuticals.

In our experience, Spam Score is a somewhat unreliable metric as we have found sites that for example may not have updated their SSL certificate but are still ranking well with good content.

Furthermore, some of the automated factors it looks at, such as a “telephone number and email address” just create too many exceptions. In short, we find traditional link metrics much more useful.

Trust Flow by Majestic

Trust Flow is a metric from Majestic that measures how trustworthy a site is by calculating the number of other trusted sites link into that particular page.

Majestic collated a number of seed or trusted sites and state that “sites closely linked to a trusted seed site can see higher scores, whereas sites that may have some questionable links would see a much lower score.”

While a higher Trust Flow is intrinsically a good thing, it should be used in tandem with Citation Flow.

Citation Flow by Majestic

Citation Flow works hand in hand with Trust Flow as mentioned above.

As a standalone metric, it isn’t one that is overly worthwhile reporting back to a client, as it doesn’t really become as relevant unless compared with the same domain’s Trust Flow.

A ratio of 1:1: is very good. In cases where the Trust Flow score exceeds that Citation Flow score, the site can be considered particularly authoritative (although not always desirable).

However, if a site has a Citation Flow that far exceeds the Trust Flow, it’s a sure sign the site has a high volume of low-quality links pointing at it.

Domain Rating by Ahrefs

Domain Rating is a similar metric to DA but is delivered by Ahrefs.

Highlighting the strength of a website’s backlink profile on a scale of 0 to 100, the metric looks at the “link popularity” of a website.

The way it is calculated is by analyzing how many unique domains that have a followed link to a particular site. The Domain Rating is then taken from those domains and a score is calculated using Ahrefs’ own formula.

Nofollowed links aren’t taken into account with DR and only the first link from a particular domain affects your DR score.

Organic Visibility by SEMrush

Knowing the organic visibility of a website is essential when building links and often something that is often overlooked.

We have found that earning links from sites with high traffic volumes are more lucrative compared with links from sites with lower traffic volumes.

Although this is just our experience and not a definitive rule, one thing you must avoid is getting links from sites with no visibility whatsoever as it is likely that sites like this have been penalized.

SEMrush defines their visibility metric as “showing how often your website is found on the Internet”.

The metric calculates every keyword the domain is ranking for and then produces a traffic score accordingly.

The Limitations of Relying Solely Upon Link Metrics

While it’s important to use metrics to sift through an initial list of outreach targets, there are a number of important limitations to be aware of.

Many link building metrics won’t tell the whole story, and in many cases, SEO professionals can become so transfixed on metrics they forget the overall goal – increasing visibility, rankings, and traffic.

When looking at link metrics, it’s prudent to consult a range of different tools in order to gather as much information as possible.

That said, your own judgment and assessment are equally as important as any set of metrics data.

Below are some examples where an over-reliance on link metric(s) could lead you to make a bad decision about whether to outreach to a site or not.

  • You may have a high visibility score according to SEMrush, but the domain in question could be attracting completely the wrong target audience. Here, you need to look at the topical relevance of the site, something which Majestic can help with but again, the human eye is really what you should be relying upon
  • Sites can have strong link metrics but have little value in terms of traffic and visibility. These sites should certainly be avoided and are even likely to have been, or be, penalized. We have seen sites with DAs of over 40 or 50 with almost no visibility.
  • Moz’s Spam Score is affected by (among other things) outbound, nofollow links. This can be a problem when building links with real blogs that see plenty of engagement in the comment section. They could be viewed as spam and have a negative impact on the metric, despite the fact users are engaging with the content positively. Moreover, Spam Score is also impacted by whether a site uses SSL. It means that sites like http://law.uky.edu/ which has a DA of 71 get a spam score of 7% (despite it being a law school at a university).
  • A brand new site may have a low level of authority but this might grow quickly in the future if they create great content. In fact, you may find it easier to get featured on a site which is relatively new as fewer people will be aware of the site itself.
  • Dropped domains (or domains that have a number of other sites redirecting to them) are often used to hoodwink visitors into thinking the site is more authoritative than it is. The link metrics of the site will reflect the equity of the redirected domains but often this will not be reflected in the visibility score.

Examples in the Wild

Site Domain Authority Trust Flow Citation Flow SEMrush Traffic
theroxyonsunset.com 44 17 42 N/A
thealmostdone.com 41 18 31 3,600
botw.org.uk 32 34 45 1,100
articlecity.com 48 51 44 1,100

Above you can see four sites whose link metrics are in no way commensurate with the SEMrush traffic score.

While you might say an article submission site is an extreme example (given that most SEO professionals worth their salt would not go near one), this does demonstrate the fallacy of relying entirely on link metrics alone.

The site with no visibility at all (theroxyonsunset.com), used to be a local theater in Hollywood, but is now being used as a travel site.

When we crawled it, we found it was linking out to several reputable travel and tourism businesses (whether they sanctioned or were even aware of links is another matter).

The point is a link from a site like this is extremely undesirable – you are basically getting a link from a high “authority” site that has no visibility whatsoever.

Should We Just Abandon All Metrics?

Do you agree with what we are saying?

Do you have your own opinions on metrics and how we should measure the domains we are looking at for link building?

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.

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Want to speak at SMX West? Here’s how

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Want to showcase your knowledge of search marketing to our SMX West attendees? We’d love to hear from you, and if you wow us with your proposal we’ll invite you to speak at the conference. To increase the odds of being selected, be sure to read the agenda. Understand what the sessions are about. Ensure that your pitch is on target to the show’s audience and the session. Please also be very specific about what you intend to cover. Also, if you do not see a particular session listed, this is because there are no openings for that session. Use this form to submit your request.

PLEASE NOTE: We have changed the pitch process. We’ve put together session titles that we plan to run at the show, and we’re looking for you to tell us what key learning objectives and takeaways you’ll offer to attendees. Detailed instructions are on the pitch form.

As you might guess, interest is high in speaking at SMX conferences. We literally sift through hundreds of submissions to select speakers for the show. Here are some tips that will increase your chances of being selected.

Pitch early: Submitting your pitch early gives you a better chance of being selected. Coordinators accept speakers as soon as they identify a pitch that they think best fits the session, just like colleges that use a rolling admissions policy. So pitching early increases the likelihood you’ll be chosen.

Use the form: The speaker pitch form (http://marketinglandevents.com/speaker-form/) is the way to ask to speak. There’s helpful information there about how your pitch should be written and what it should contain.

Write it yourself and be specific: Lots of pitches come in that are not specific to the session. This is the most effective ways to ensure that your pitch is ignored. And this year, we’re no longer accepting pitches written by anyone other than a proposed speaker. If you’re a thought leader, write the pitch yourself… and make certain that it is 100% focused on the session topic.

“Throw your best pitch:” We’re limiting the number of pitches to three per person, so please pitch for the session(s) where you really feel you’ll offer SMX attendees your best.

NEW: SMX Insights Sessions. What are they? 8-10 minute solo sessions that pack a punch and wow attendees with content they can’t and won’t see anywhere else. Tactical. Specific. Actionable. Speakers are challenged to deliver the goods in a limited amount of time: one must-try tactic, one nugget of sage advice, or one takeaway that makes you more productive. Have a gem to share with your colleagues? Pitch your idea and you may make it to the SMX stage!

You’ll be notified: Everyone who pitches to speak will be notified by email whether you are accepted or not.

And don’t delay—the pitch forms for each session will close as sessions are filled, with everything closing Friday, November 29.


About The Author



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Video: Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison of Search, on his transition from Search Engine Land to Google

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We have a special video interview for you all at Search Engine Land. We interviewed Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Land and the search community, in a two-part series.

In part one, we asked Danny about his early days in the industry to him ultimately deciding to retire from his role at Search Engine Land / Third Door Media. Then accepting a job a few months later to work with the Google Search team as the Google Public Liaison of Search.

Part two is more about what it is like to work at Google and how he sees things differently as a Googler than when he was working on search from outside of Google.

Here is part one:

I started this vlog series recently, and if you want to sign up to be interviewed, you can fill out this form on Search Engine Roundtable. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking here.


About The Author

Barry Schwartz is Search Engine Land’s News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on SEM topics.



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Google Ads Editor update includes support for Discovery campaigns

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Yes, the editing pane is still awkwardly placed to take up a giant chunk of the right side of the screen, but Google Ads Editor’s latest version does offer some handy updates.

Edit pane. Speaking of that edit pane, now you can at least condense some fields to hide them so there’s a bit less scrolling. (That doesn’t mean irrelevant sections no longer show, however. You’re still going to have to scroll past a grayed-out “Shopping settings” when you’re in a Search campaign, for example.)

Shared negative keyword lists. If you’ve built out broadly applicable negative keyword lists, you can now share those across accounts in the Shared Library in Editor. (Shared Library is located under “Account-level” in the left navigation pane.)

Search for errors. You can search for similar errors across your campaigns or accounts. In the search bar, type “rule” or “violation” and you’ll see a list of options. Similarly, when you find an error or warning, you can click on the “Show violations” link at the bottom of the screen to see them all.

New campaign support. If you are running App campaigns for engagement or have access to Discovery campaigns in beta, you can now create and edit them in Editor.

Why we should care. These changes are relatively minor, but may save you some campaign management time, particularly if you’re using the newly supported campaign types. It’s also a pretty good sign that the Discovery campaigns beta is coming along. At the very least, it’s a good reminder to check how and if you’ve applied your negative keyword lists.


About The Author

Ginny Marvin is Third Door Media’s Editor-in-Chief, running the day to day editorial operations across all publications and overseeing paid media coverage. Ginny Marvin writes about paid digital advertising and analytics news and trends for Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today. With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Ginny has held both in-house and agency management positions. She can be found on Twitter as @ginnymarvin.



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