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Field Notes

Field Notes #050: Why We Choose to Focus on Fewer Metrics in Link Building

Field Notes #50: Why we choose to focus on fewer metrics in link building

You only need to make a brief stop in the link building world to be hit with all the jargon about different link metrics.

Consider this example:

“We only build links from Ahrefs DR 60+, Moz DA 40+, Traffic 30k+, Spam score <5%.”

If you’re a client of this link builder, this can feel like real business value—the link builder is building you only the top quality links, vetted through careful filters and multiple tools. If you’re building links in-house, you might be tempted to impose these guidelines for your team. 

I get it. We all need some sort of standard to be accountable for what makes high-quality links, and everyone’s definition of high quality is wildly different.

But, let’s talk about how these metrics came to mean so much to link builders and why I believe that largely, their use has led to a concept I recently stumbled across: surrogation.

Wikipedia defines surrogation as: “a psychological phenomenon found in business practices whereby a measure of a construct of interest evolves to replace that construct.”

Put simply, surrogation is a trap where a strategy is replaced by metrics.

Let’s take a look at an example. We all know that a standard backlink strategy is to build “high-quality and authoritative links on real websites.”

But what is authoritative, and what is real?

Here’s a hypothetical team meeting to define these as goals:

Team Lead: “We need our links to be authoritative. None of those low-quality coupon sites or PBNs…”

Ahrefs lover: “Ahrefs has a great domain analysis tool, and it looks like DR 60 or higher is quite authoritative.”

Moz lover: “I read recently that Ahrefs DR can be gamed by spammers who easily build websites to DR 60. So, let’s use Moz DA 40 to be on the safe side.”

Ahrefs lover: “Fine. We also need to make sure that these domains are real websites and get traffic. So, let’s make sure that they get 30,000 visits according to Ahrefs.”

Moz lover: “Moz has a Spam Score measurement, so we can be sure to avoid building links from spammy websites. Let’s be extra safe and eliminate working with websites that have a spam score of 5% or more.”

Team lead: “Great, let’s make sure our team only builds links from Ahrefs DR 60+, Moz DA 40+, Traffic 30k+, Spam score <5%.”

In this made-up skit, the strategy of building “high quality, authoritative links on real websites” is replaced by metrics. While the chances of building spammy links are much lower, it will also be much harder to find websites that match that profile. And what about the sites you say no to?

Zapier has a spam score of 9%. But you’d be insane to pass up that link. 

If you know the why behind these metrics, you’ll still be able to build the right links. But, in the case of many who don’t know, they’ll just shoot for those metrics and call it a day.

Surrogation in link building is not as catastrophic as the instance when Wells Fargo, because of a cross-selling metric, opened up 3.5 million accounts without their customers’ consent. But it can still make you chase wrong outcomes and make poor decisions. This creates bottlenecks in your SEO program’s success and limits your ability to work with great partners (I despise working with link builders who have requirements like these and I’m sure others do too).

Link building is an extremely abstract strategy, with no clear cause or effect. These metrics were created by SEO analysis tools, which are just “best guesses” at Google’s algorithms and preferences. 

The more artificial benchmarks you put in place, the more expensive and time consuming building links will be. Then, you’ll alienate a lot of potentially great partners, meaning you’ll miss out on some great links. It’s also an excuse not to train your staff on how to make good judgment calls and perhaps why there seems to be a lack of content marketing talent in the link-building world. 

At Omniscient, we believe that links are a tool for domain growth—and you need a lot of them.  We still have one metric to shoot for: DR 50+, well, because… marketing. So, we focus on ensuring that our links have all the hard stuff in the backend, which make it more attractive and desirable for both our clients and partners, creating a relationship flywheel for us.  

So, what are the qualities to focus on?

Besides shooting for a DR 50+, we focus on these qualities:

  1. We build links on partner sites that are actively selling a product or service.
  2. We look for partner sites that are actively managed and growing their own SEO programs.
  3. When finding placements, we check if the site’s page is relevant to our client’s target audience, and that mentioning this page in that post is something a writer would naturally do.
  4. When we write guest posts, we use our content marketing expertise to submit content that has a very real chance to rank and bring traffic. 

This quality is primarily to benefit the client and avoid spammy sites. As a reformed PBN builder, I know that a majority of spammy sites are blogs that are built with the express intent of exchanging links, with no real business case of their existence. Maybe they talk about “tips” and have an ad network to monetize, but that’s it. In targeting sites that have a commercial case of their existence other than web content, we know that they are operating a real business and are not primarily SEO-ing the internet.

Building links is like investing. If you invest in winners, you get richer. When our partners grow their sites, we know that any link we placed on their site will also grow in value. This will ultimately benefit our clients in the long run, as more of their links grow stronger.

This is extremely important to maintain great relationships with our partners, as well as provide a side benefit to our clients. When we suggest links on partner’s pages, we make sure it is in line with their own content goals and that a reader of their article would not encounter a poor user experience. That’s very much appreciated by our partner as it does not “pollute” their article with irrelevant links. Additionally, our client could receive possible referral traffic (though that is never the primary goal). 

I believe the best “ranking factor” of a link is if it lives on a page that gets traffic. After all, how could a page or site not be valuable if Google likes it enough to serve it regular traffic? That’s why our guest posts are special and really fulfill the ultimate intent of what guest posts were supposed to do. Our partners love publishing content from us because it makes their job easier and they get free, product-led content, and clients get the ultimate link as the content matures. 

Upholding these standards is very difficult across a large team but it’s worth the investment. When everyone is focused on the fundamental values of a high-quality link, you get better partnerships and more trust from them, resulting in more links.

One of my direct reports started out with zero content marketing and link-building experience. With the attention to these details, he has now published his own article and received his own opportunities to guest post on sites which normally don’t accept guest posts. 

That’s why we don’t let metrics undermine what really matters. 

Want more insights like this? Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Recommended Reads

  1. Task Solver vs Problem Solver – Benyamin Elias’ take on teaching your reports to solve problems rather than tasks, which mirrors teaching the skills of content marketing rather than being satisfied with hitting numbers.
  2. 10X not 10% – Written by Ken Norton, former Product Lead at Google, whose discussion on loss aversion rings true in content marketing and link programs. 
  3. Finding Business Model Fit, Setting the Right Marketing Goals,… (podcast) – David’s interview with Emily Kramer, in which I especially resonated with the concept that marketing goals should be focused on both short- and long-term growth.