How Your Reports Make Your Link Building Suck

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Within business, language affects behavior, and reports are the language with which you communicate success to your clients. As such, the metrics you decide to report to your client affects how you’re executing your link building. I want to explore the good and bad methods of reporting successes as a link builder, and how certain types of reports can lead to bad link building tactics.

Bad ways to report

Ranking reports

Ranking reports are common. Although this is a good metric to track, it does not provide a direct measurement of success.

Just last week I was having a conversation with someone about link building work done for them. The report they sent over was impressive to say the least. They had major gains in rankings for targeted terms, which according to this report was a major win. But this bubble was deflated by asking one simple question: “Have you seen increased sales from organic traffic for that product group?” The answer was no.

The problem here is both one for the client and the SEO executing the work. Both feel it’s a job well done, but ultimately, there was no measurable change in the client’s business. Ranking reports can easily disguise an SEO fail as an SEO win.

How ranking reports lead to bad links

There is one surefire way to drive up rankings for specific keyword phrases: aggressive keyword focused anchored links. These are hard to get in a legitimate fashion. Just ask any good link builder how hard it is to get hundreds of perfectly anchored links to a subpage without an ounce of gray hat. Measuring success with only keyword specific ranking reports provides incentive for poor link building practices.

Fails associated with ranking reports
  • Aggressive anchor text: Ranking well for a specific phrase, without high domain authority or vast linking domain diversity, requires aggressively focused anchor text. This is a good way to set yourself up for link-based penalties.
  • Lack of diversity: As a result of aggressive targeting, an SEO may not effectively work diversity into your anchor text distribution.
  • Low quality links: Since highly targeted links are hard to get, it makes low quality, easy to obtain links attractive. Although these may work in the short-term, they don’t provide long-term SEO value.
  • Ego phrases: Focusing on specific keywords leads people to worry about ego phrases. These are terms that make you feel good about yourself, but ultimately have no real value to your business.
  • Narrowly focused strategy: Being too focused on a handful of phrases puts on blinders. Don’t forget about the mid- to long-tail, which can bring in massive gains in traffic and conversions.
  • Paid links: Buying links is an easy way to get perfectly anchored links, and they work, but come at a high risk. Just ask JCPenney.
  • Brand signals: Google has been increasingly focused on brand signals. Such a heavy keyword focus approach does not lend itself to worry about brand signals. I commented during my presentation at SMX on the value I have seen building branded links in combination with targeted links. I saw a similar concept presented by Patrick Altoft from Branded3 (look at slides 34 to 37: pure win).

Although I’m giving ranking reports a hard time, I don’t think they’re without value. However, I do believe defining rankings as the only success metric for a campaign leads to bad SEO.

Links built reports

One of my first projects when I started at Distilled was to evaluate the link building practices of a major e-commerce site with a larger number of internal staff executing link building. My job was to evaluate their processes and provide recommendations on improvement. What I found was a lot of really bad link building. I believe this stemmed directly from their internal reporting of “links built per week.” Link building teams were evaluated on meeting specific link quantity goals. This was a recipe for bad SEO.

I’ve seen similar problems agency side as well. I’ve been asked before, “Do you have a goal for the number of links you’ll build this month?” My answer is a firm “no“. The number of links acquired each month may have no direct correlation to success.

Fails associated with links built reports
  • Focus on volume over quality: Comment spam, forum links, profile links, etc. All easy to get in volume, but do not provide defensible long-term value for a site.
  • Focus on automated methods: Producing large volumes of links at scale is hard. Scalable solutions like leveraging your community are great, but this isn’t possible with all sites. This leads a lot of SEOs to look at automated methods for producing links in bulk.
  • Leads to shortcuts: When the end of the week or month is approaching, it may be tempting to take shortcuts to get enough links to meet a quota.

Don’t add undue stress on your link builder by requiring them to hit X number of links each week or month. Focus on link quality over link quantity.

Good ways to report

Since I talked about how to not report, I’d like to cover some of what I think are better alternatives for reporting link building success. I believe the combination of these metrics provide a much better gauge for success.

Organic traffic over time

This is a simple and straight-forward metric. Am I increasing the volume of organic traffic to the website? Have we seen increases when looking at the same month last year? Are we upward trending?

(Actual numbers have been removed from the graphs below, but they demonstrate actual results from a link building campaign.)

Organic Traffic Graphic

I would much rather see upward trending in organic traffic than ranking reports; this lets me know. I’m actually effecting change for my client. Now, this is just overall organic traffic and can easily mask a few things, so let’s dig deeper.

Non-branded organic traffic

Build out a list of branded terms and exclude traffic from these terms. This leaves you with your non-branded traffic. It’s important to know if your link building is resulting in more people entering the top portion of the funnel.

Non-branded Organic Traffic Chart

The number of keywords sending traffic

I think the graph below does a great job of demonstrating the results of good link building. This is the number of keywords that have sent traffic each month. As you can see, in August and September this site was receiving the majority of their traffic from branded terms. In October, they experienced a switch and have never looked back. Each month they’re being discovered through more and more terms, with increasing growth in non-branded terms over branded terms.

Branded vs Non-branded Keywords Graph

Conversions and Goals

Although traffic is up, the question is, am I pushing the needle in a way that means success for client?

Goals from Organic Chart

We don’t rank page one for their golden phrases yet, but we more than doubled organic conversions. Those are the type of results that convince companies to increase SEO spending. The majority of this increase came from increasing the overall domain authority and improving rankings across a large volume of focused medium to longtail terms.

Ways these reports lead to link building wins

Forcing yourself to communicate results in these terms makes you focus on executing link building that will produce results for clients, since you’re tying your efforts directly to measurable business goals.

  • Instead of focusing on link quantity, I focus on the distribution of Page Authority and Domain Authority of the links I acquire each month.
  • I focus on a holistic strategy including both branded and social signals.
  • Large focus on increasing overall domain level metrics like Domain Authority, Domain mozRank, and Domain mozTrust.
  • Focus on linking domain diversity (lots of win to be had here).
  • Focus on bringing everything up, including targeted terms, branded terms, and longtail terms.
  • Focus on contextual links.
  • Force yourself to think strategically. If you’re aggressive, be smart about it.

I still track rankings and links built, but I find these to have more value as an internal report. It helps me track wins and monitor progress, which allows me to think strategically about how I’m building links. (Do I have too many of X type of link? Are this month’s links shifted too much toward low PA or DA? How is my anchor distribution looking? Have I focused too much on branded links this month?) However, I don’t use this data as a means of tracking success for clients.

I believe better reporting makes you a better SEO. It makes you focus on results and metrics your clients care about. It helps make sure you’re not setting yourself with a false sense of security about the effectiveness of your tactics. Some tactics may increase link counts, or drive up rankings, but are they positively growing your site’s/client’s business?

Justin Briggs is the SEO Manager at Big Fish Games. Follow him on Twitter at @justinrbriggs.

  • Chris

    Great post Justin! Thank you for sharing your insights about long-term valuable link building. It is always nice to hear how the “insiders” do their job.

  • Justin, This is a very useful post. I’m always looking for better ways to measure and communicate success to my clients with our SEO efforts. I will certainly ask myself these questions going forward. Scott

  • This post was excellent. I have actually been thinking a lot about linking lately and how to properly track our efforts in a way that isn’t “link-quantity” driven.

  • Justin

    Thanks guys!

    I would say it does have its shortcomings at times, which is that a considerable amount of effort sometimes has to be applied to break a new barrier and see growth. Like in the graphs, the first two months saw little growth, so I made sure to report rankings and links built, as well as descriptions of executed work. But I tried to keep my focus on the bottom line.

  • Thanks for this post. This is a good summary about how to 🙂

    This is important to separate brand and non-brand traffic.

  • Sparkdog

    I’d like to add one more thought to this excellent article: I like to make use of the referring sites report to focus link building efforts. If the links are creating real visits, they will show up in this report and correlate with increased organic traffic. If you working to control anchor text too heavily, the result is often links with weak traffic; thus by comparing % traffic from referring sites to % of search traffic you can get a really quick idea of what needs fixing. Said another way: work to move the need on % of traffic from referring sites and you’ll likely be encompassing the work described in this post.

  • philip

    Incorporate this into Raven reports and you guys would be golden!

    • RavenCourtney

      Which parts, Philip? We incorporate most of these now and are working on the others. 🙂

  • nice article Justin !