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Smart & Fast: How to Assess a Link

Link building is still important to SEO, but you have to approach it with a lot more skepticism than you used to. Here’s a quick list of factors to check before going after a link.

Safety Check – Don’t Risk Your Site For A Link

These are the things you check first to make sure this link won’t come back to haunt you. Few things suck like spending a sunny afternoon doing manual link removal requests.

Is the site indexed?

Don’t laugh. I’ve had this happen to me. You look at a competitor link report and spot a good candidate. You immediately go there and start looking for a way to contact the webmaster. But then you do a “site:” query to get a feel for their site structure and discover that they aren’t anywhere to be found.

Depending on your tool, link indexes can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months old. A lot can happen in that time. Make sure a site is capable of passing link value before spending time on link acquisition.

Is the site on autopilot?

This was the crux of the issue for the person I was on the twitter chat with. He’d found an appealing place to get a link, but the site seemed fully-automated. If the site lets you submit a link without some form of manual review, then it’s on shaky ground. Human-reviewed and curated link lists have been able to hold onto visibility and rankings despite dozens of Google updates, but all the SEO directories have become graveyards or cleaned up their act to get back in the game.

This applies mostly to directories, but also be weary of online communities that let you post content with no quality control.

Are you in good company?

Click around your potential link partner’s site. Do you come across a lot of 404 pages? Is your new friend linking to parked domains? Is there layout broken? If the site is a mess or it’s linking to poorly maintained sites, then be careful. A lack of selectivity is not an automatic red flag, but its a sign of problems that could lead to penalties for that site. If they get banned or penalized, then your link will be worthless.

How many outbound links?

Link value is infinitely divisible, but there is a point when it’s not worth your time. If a page has 200 outbound links, then you are not going to get much juice from it. There are exceptions like government sites, .edu sites or major players (think Fortune 500 companies), but generally the more links the less value a page can pass.

If these things look good, then you can start thinking about the real value in the link.

Getting As Much Value As Possible From Link Building

Once you know a link partner is safe, you need to figure out the potential payoff. Use the questions below to prioritize your link opportunities.

Is the page relevant to your page?

So many people ignore this because they obsess over PageRank (bleh) or another metric for link valuation. If the page has nothing to do with your business, then leave it alone. There is a little more leeway on this with respected publishers & big publishers (not the same thing), but relevance is the first sign of a good link. If it doesn’t fit your audience and topic, then what are you doing there?

Is there any traffic there?

I weight this more now than I used to. If the PR was high enough, then I used to pursue it no matter what. Now I think about traffic because it’s no guarantee that a link will keep passing value. Pretty much everyone knows how to “nofollow, noindex” a link and most sites would rather stop passing anything than risk Google’s ire.

Is it a “follow” link?

Follow links are not that common, but they still happen. I personally will do a follow for anyone I cite. I consider it good manners. You can also get them from partners and or nice people that aren’t in the game. If you can get a follow link from a reputable source than go for it. Just remember that all the other questions on this list still matter.

Keyword optimized anchor text?

This one is tricky because Google will take a closer look at you if you seem to be acquiring a lot of keyword-rich anchors quickly — you’ll want to diversify your anchor text to keep in good standing. Assuming you aren’t doing anything shady, then a link with a good keyword is a high priority.

Link in the body copy?

Generally links within body copy are more valuable then ones in the footer or a sidebar. The best links tend to be within paragraphs of text. For a directory, being higher on the page will be more valuable then being at the bottom of a list of 300 links. If your link is going to be stuck out in the boonies, then the site isn’t going to be giving you much.

Link Building Gets Harder Every Year

It takes a lot of work to get a relevant, traffic-generating, follow tagged, keyword-optimized link in the body copy on someone’s site. These links are generally earned rather than acquired through link building outreach. That doesn’t mean you should stop looking and asking, but be aware that they are rare. Be ready to accept a link that gives you 3 out of 5, or may 2 out of 5. It will depend on the mix: I’ll take a nofollow link from a site that can give me a lot of referral traffic & I’ll take a generic (domain name or click here) follow link.

Google is pushing us to be publishers of content and providers of value rather than link builders. This is a good thing for the web, but a pain for anyone responsible for building rankings quickly. I think we’ll eventually get to a point where only big name brands, online authorities, and trusted authors can pass value. Until then, we keep sending outreach emails and seeing what we can get.

Feature image courtesy of Beth Knittle on Flickr

Published in Working Blog

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