Link building is hard, I get it.
Fussy search engines,
spammy savvy marketers selling guest posts, black-hat link builders burning bridges — it’s tough. Simply counting links isn’t enough when it comes to performance — you need other measures of success. When you hit it out of the park, your off-page SEO campaign deserves to be celebrated.
But how do you know when your link building work is successful, and, more importantly, how do you prove it?
By using the following KPIs, you can measure and report on the success of your link building efforts. When combined, they present a powerful case for whether your link building campaign was a shining, glorious, singing unicorn, or a damp, tone-deaf chihuahua. Trust me, you’ll have both along the way.
Let’s look at the data before I get metaphorical again, shall we? Here are a handful of KPIs you should monitor as you measure the performance of your link building efforts.
Quantitative KPIs for Link Building
There is security behind hard data, and with link building, you can find performance progress right in the numbers.
Here are the data-driven KPIs that are hard to argue with when progress is made.
#1 Organic Search Traffic
Up and to the right is precisely the kind of movement you want to see for the site that you have been consistently running link building campaigns for. It is important to note that if link building is not the only SEO work you are doing, there are likely other factors playing a role in the movement you see: on-site technical SEO and content improvements will also impact organic search, so make sure to factor that in when measuring the impact of link building.
When reporting this growth, be sure to annotate in Google Analytics when link building campaigns begin, and focus on percentage change of improvement over an extended period of time.
#2 Referral Traffic
Sizeable referral traffic doesn’t always happen with link building. More traffic is a good thing, and qualified traffic that stays on your site is even better. If you want referral traffic, it’s important to mix up your link building strategies.
Guest posting and HARO links rarely generate much referral traffic. HARO links just source a quote, so no one clicks on them. And site editors discourage their readers from leaving the site (I’ve seen a lot of hidden anchor text in posts lately), so guest post links don’t tend to generate much traffic, by design.
If you get 15 referrals in a month from a guest post, you should stand up by your desk and do a little dance. High referral traffic for a guest post is a unicorn—it’s rare. In a survey of over 500 guest post bloggers, more than 35% of reported guest posts only got 10 or fewer referrals.
Content promotion, on the other hand, has the potential to perform well, generating a lot of referral traffic if done right.
Content promotion is driven by highly promotable (read: “newsworthy”) data-driven content in the form of a report, tool, or long-form writing. Promoting that content through Digital PR efforts is much more likely to bring significant referral traffic. This occurs when your content gets picked up and covered by a media outlet of any kind, and they link to your site as the source of this newsworthy content. When reporting content promotion results, be sure to include:
- The media outlets that covered your content
- Domain Authority of each site that covered your content
- Referral traffic for each link
- Traffic behavior (time of page, bounce rate, pages visited)
- Total number of links placed
The graph above shows the potential impact that content promotion and digital PR can have. During the three-year life of this site, the first digital PR campaign we launched was responsible for 33% of the site’s lifetime referral traffic. It’s important to note that in this campaign’s case, a majority of the links earned (177) were no-follow. While not quite as ideal from an SEO perspective, no-follow links shouldn’t be underestimated. If we were keeping score (which, c’mon, you know we are), no-follow links should be considered “half links.” They can be used as part of a more long-term link building strategy since a mixture of do-follow and no-follow links create a healthy backlink profile.
In this example for our client, we received a ton of no-follow brand mentions. Brand mentions have been proven to be a ranking factor, so they should be considered a success. Be sure to report no-follow brand mentions too, even if they don’t link to your site (but be sure to follow up anyway and ask for a link).
Utility and resource link building, along with similar link building strategies might garner referral traffic over time as users find and click on the links, especially if they are helpful and on moderate-to-highly-trafficked sites. The great thing about utility link building is that it can often generate conversions because the links target consumers at the lower end of the conversion funnel and drive them to pages aimed at conversion. While improving organic traffic is the ultimate goal of link building, this qualified referral traffic is a great cherry on top.
#3 Traffic to Target Pages
As mentioned previously, in every campaign, whether it is guest posting, content promotion, or any other form of link building, you should have target pages to which you build all your links. The traffic, visitor engagement, and organic rankings for these pages should be monitored and reported on.
Be sure to report changes in traffic and behavior over time to these pages. Below is a snapshot of traffic to Portent’s SERP Preview Tool. You can see where traffic over time has increased to this page by 48% YoY which would make any stakeholder happy, especially if a page is designed to convert users.
Qualitative KPIs for Link Building
While the quantitative KPIs mentioned above do a nice job of putting hard numbers to performance, there are a couple of qualitative factors to monitor when tracking the performance of your link building efforts.
Although it is not nearly as measurable as other KPIs, the relevance of the links you build should be an important focus for any link building campaign. The domains on which you build links on should be relevant to your website’s brand and industry. Landing a link on a competitor’s blog is the sparkly, magic kingdom every link building team should aim for, but it’s hard to get there. Linking on pages within your direct industry is a close second on the list of coveted link placements.
The text surrounding your backlink should be natural, highly relevant, and full of naturally-occurring keywords (relevance). The anchor text that directs the reader to the content on your target page should inform the reader of exactly what information they’re going to get when they click on your link. Guest post content should be informative and well-written (and hopefully your target page is too).
#5 Domain Authority, Domain Rank, Trust Flow
We all learned a big lesson recently about how tenuous it is to rely on Domain Authority (DA) as a primary metric. With Moz’s DA algorithm change on March 5th of this year, marketers in the SEO world got a big wake-up call. While DA still gauges the authority of a site in a very reliable way, it is important to take into account the relevance of the page when evaluating whether a link you place is valuable. To a small HVAC company, for instance, a link on Inc. Magazine with a DA of 92 (on a scale of one to 100) is not nearly as valuable as a link on their biggest competitor’s blog in the HVAC industry with a DA of only 32.
Domain Rank (DR) on Ahrefs and the Trust Flow on Majestic are both similar gauges of your referring domain’s authority, as well as your ability to rank as compared to their competitors.
Use DA/DR/Trust Flow to point out the authority of the sites you’re placing backlinks on, and to point out that you’re building a natural backlink profile. Make sure you always take this information with a grain of salt, realizing that they are relative, proprietary metrics. You should work to build links on sites from 10-100 DA and DR, and relevance should always be your primary KPI here.
Relevance and authority are what I would call soft KPIs. Your DA will rise very slowly (it’s like watching water come to a boil if you do it right), and it shouldn’t be a primary (or even a secondary) indicator of success. Monitor how your DA tracks in comparison to your competitors to get the most out of any DA numbers.
Go forth, armed with cold, hard data
It isn’t hard to prove the success of a good link building campaign. Link building is a long-term digital marketing strategy and should complement the on-site technical SEO and content efforts you put forth. So don’t get discouraged if your efforts are slow to reveal themselves. Resilience is the most important character trait of a good link builder and patience is a must. Use carefully-selected link targets, mark your progress, and prove your hard-won success with a handful of the KPIs outlined here. And always remember to celebrate those unicorns—whether or not they can sing Queen.