Link building is hard! That’s why so many people have abandoned it as an SEO tactic. However, it’s still important for a successful SEO. In order to help you justify the effort you put into link building, let me provide this case study from a link building effort. This data can show you the potential benefits of link building and hopefully justify it to yourself (or your boss) as part of your SEO campaign.
Some people think links are all about traffic. A good link can drive traffic, for sure. However, since Google considers links a credibility factor for a webpage and website, a link will drive more traffic from organic search than it ever gets from any one link.
For example: I once made a connection for a client to write in one of the most prestigious periodicals in their industry. If we only looked at the traffic from that link, we would have been disappointed. However, once we built the link, we started to see more and more traffic from the search engines. This is because the link passed authority to our site and that authority made Google want to serve it higher in the search results.
Let me give you a more recent example. I just helped build a link for a client in the Harvard of their industry. That means this one link had everything a link builder would want from a link: it was organic, used keywords in the anchor text, it was from a highly authoritative website, and it was even from an EDU (which some people think matters a lot, although I don’t).
Here’s a look at the data:
What are you looking at? This graph measures sessions to the page that received the link over a 5-month period. I’ve removed the months and the number of sessions because that’s not really the important part. Why a 5-month period? This graph reflects two months of traffic before the link was built and two months of traffic after the link was built.
As you can see, the traffic to the page from the link itself (Referral traffic, in orange) was small compared to the organic search traffic (blue line). If we were to measure the effectiveness of the link by the referral traffic from the link itself, it might appear to be a lackluster link. However, while the referral traffic was small, the organic search traffic grew.
When it came to the second month after the link was built, referral traffic actually received more traffic than the page got from organic search visitors (see the peak in the orange graph). What’s most important is the continued traffic (and even growth of traffic) after the link’s referral traffic declined. What you’re seeing there is the link’s authority fueling the growth of the page that received the link. Like I said: the value of the link isn’t from the traffic as much as from the authority of the link driving better ranking and therefore more organic search traffic.
Let me show you the effect of the link using some other data, in addition to traffic. Traffic (even from organic search) could be a function of demand. What if, coincidentally, there was an increased demand for the topics on this page at the same time the link was built? That could increase traffic without increasing rank. Can we see rank affecting this traffic?
Rank is notoriously difficult to measure objectively. We can use data in Google Search Console, however, to give us an idea. Here’s the average position for the page that received the link in Google over the same time period (two months before the link, the month the link was received, and two months after the link was built):
Again, I’ve removed specifics to avoid distractions. Since this graph reflects the “average position” (or “rank”) of the page, you can imagine that a higher-ranking page would have a lower number (it’s better to rank 4 than 5 because position 4 comes before 5, for instance). From this chart you can tell that the average position for the many keywords for which this page gets served was slipping a couple months before the link was built (by it rising). The middle point (and highest on the graph/lowest rank) was the month the link was built. After that, the page started ranking better and better each of the following two months than it had for two months prior.
No, this isn’t a #1 ranking- if that were the case, the chart would slip down to near the bottom of the graph. This is also the average position of this page among the many different keywords that could have sent visitors to it- some of which do better than others (presumably the more relevant phrase do better than irrelevant phrases). No one link will generate a #1 position for all the possible keywords for which any page could be served. Nor am I trying to quantify the number of links it might take to improve “rank.” That’s impossible to quantify for all sites and all phrases. I’m trying to show that after the link was built, it started showing up better in Google. That means the link generated more than the referral traffic coming to the page from the link.
The link generated more than improved ranking for the page. It seems to have generated more traffic to the website as a whole- even beyond the page that received the link. Look at the relationship between traffic from the search engines to the landing page (orange, below) against overall organic search traffic to the website as a whole (the blue line):
If you recall the graphs for organic search traffic to the page shown above, you can tell how much more organic search traffic the website received as a whole- so much so that the other graph appears flat overall!
This is where things like domain authority come into play. The idea here is that Google values domains (not just pages) for their authority. There are several third-party metrics (such as Moz’s Domain Authority) that attempt to measure a domain’s overall authority by the quantity and quality of links to the site, not just a page. This graph suggests that links not only help a page rank better for a particular phrase, but help a website rank better for many other phrases.
Now there’s significant limitations to this conclusion. For instance, I did more for this client’s website besides build one link during the month in question. Some of these sitewide improvements could be from other factors- because links are just one of a couple hundred different ranking factors for Google. Each of those factors have a different weight to Google- some are more important for “rank” than others. However, since we know that links are one of the ranking factors- indeed fundamentally confirmed as an “important” ranking factor- clearly the link helped the website gain more traffic from all pages, not just this one.
Some people are still unimpressed. Perhaps they might be underwhelmed by the graphs. Others might say that traffic is nice but want to know how it affected this company financially. I’ve seen clients ask me to quantify the monetary value of a link building campaign before.
I appreciate all those critiques of this data. I actually love it when my conversations with clients turn from esoteric metrics like rank and traffic into ROI. That’s the goal of an SEO campaign, after all, more business! For those asking this important question, I offer this graph:
This chart resembles the others in this report and is limited to goals from the page to which this link was built. As you can see, in the couple months before this link was built saw a couple of new goals (in this case, leads) from people landing on this page from an organic search. However, in the months following the new link pointing to this page, their leads started growing significantly.
What this graph doesn’t show you is that the leads came as a result of increased ranking for the phrase that included the anchor text of the link. In other words, if the clickable text for this link was “get blue widgets” that’s the phrase that improved in ranking. I’d suggest that, because we picked an anchor text that corresponded with a keyword that was likely to produce more customers, that’s what we received- more customers. Because of that, our link building effort had a positive ROI– not even considering the increased number of customers from the sitewide improvement in traffic!
Although some claim that link building is dead, the data here shows it’s still an effective SEO tactic. In fact, I’d argue that link building is a fundamental part of Google’s algorithm so it’s an essential part of any SEO campaign. As you can see from the charts above, links can:
I make all these claims but we have to be honest here: this is what happened from one link to one website. Your results will vary. For one, this is only one link (albeit an excellent link). You might not be able to get the same caliber of link. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve rarely ever gotten links as good as this one in my 12+ years’ experience doing SEO. That might mean you might not get the same results or your results might not be as dramatic. Another limiting factor is that this wasn’t the only SEO activity done for this client over the same time period. There are many ranking factors and (hopefully) I touched some of the others over this five-month period. We might be mistaken to attribute all this success to one link when many other factors could have helped as well.
However, even if your results might vary I think the trends shown in these graphs could be true for you with a little effort into a link building campaign. That’s one of the reasons I removed the numbers from these graphs- the point isn’t whether this generated 10 more visits or 1000 more; improved your rank by 1 position or 10. The point is that these metrics improved to some extent because of a link building effort- and it will help you, too.