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Do links still impact rankings in Google?

link building state of the serps

Ryan Stewart

I build, grow and sell digital agencies. Most recently, WEBRIS, a 7 figure SEO agency.

30th August 2020

5 Comments

Over the last 8 years, our agency has helped clients build 20,000 links for clients.

We decided to analyze these links to answer a simple question:

Do links still have an impact on keyword rankings in Google?

Fortunately, my business partner here (David Krevitt) is a data automation expert.

Using our Google Sheets link tracking file, he connected SEMrush’s API into that allowed us to connect links built with keyword movements.

This supercharged Google Sheets file allowed us to clearly see the impact of links built on keyword rankings.

This post will explore the findings of our case study, summarized into 3 sections:

  1. What we learned from our study
  2. What’s changed in link building
  3. How we can succeed going forward

I’m calling this, The State of the SERPS: Link Building edition.

Let’s get into it!

1. What did we learn from our study?

This section will summarize our findings and analysis from analyzing past link building campaigns.

 

Links correlate positively with more organic traffic.

  • Our data showed the links we built to our client’s target pages increase in keyword rankings over a 6 to 12 month period (~77% of the time).
  • Amount of traffic varied, we believe it’s because there’s so many factors to consider (including competitors) that you can’t pin down links as the exact cause.
  • Links are still critically important. It’s not enough to just add keywords and new pages and expect them to rank, we need to promote them. Links are still the best way to promote content (from a ranking point of view).
link correlation case study

 

Links are still important, but

  • Just not as important. Pages / websites that didn’t follow proper on-page and content practices didn’t move up the rankings as much.
  • Links are NOT the answer to every SEO issue anymore. SEO is a much deeper process of audience understanding, UX, searcher satisfaction and topical trust. Links serve as a means to support these items. Links will drive rankings IF you can prove the above first.
link correlation study

 

There’s no new hacks or link building tactics. The game is the same.

  • Nothing has changed in regards to link building ‘tactics’. The core concepts of link building (outreach) remain true – strategy, prospecting and outreach.
  • There are no new tactics, just some slight nuances in the market that have changed.
State of the SERPS_ Link Building

2. What has changed in link building?

A look into how we’ve seen the link building industry progress over the last half decade.

 

Bad links are rarely penalized, but instead ignored algorithmically.

  • When Penguin first rolled out in 2012, it demolished the internet. The algo updated “penalized” websites who engaged in link building tactics that Google deemed as spam.
  • The algorithm updated destroyed businesses who relied on organic traffic to bring in customers. Most of these businesses weren’t at fault, as their links were managed by a third part SEO agency.
  • In recent years, the algorithm has moved away from penalties. Instead, the algorithm just ignores links.
  • For link builders, getting “ignored” is worse than getting penalized.
  • Why? I cover this in detail in video analysis (located within our Free Trial modules here).
bad links ignored

 

Outreach = pay to play. There are very few ‘free’ links left.

  • Our agency has sent over 1m outreach emails in the 5 years and we meticulously track responses.
  • We’ve seen a HUGE shift in responses to have some sort of monetary request for a link placement (yes, but…)
    • Marketers ruin everything, including white hat tactics like outreach
    • PBN owners have gotten smart and made their sites more “official”, even a guest post has expenses attached to it
    • True bloggers make money off sponsorships and ads, there’s no money in AdSense and they get plenty of link request emails
outreach is pay to play

 

There’s a new PBN in town…the guest post

  • Guest posts have become the ‘go to’ link, even for outreach based SEOs.
  • Guest posts have gotten spammed out in the last couple of years, prompting a number of statements from Google reps like this one:

“Essentially if the link is within the guest post, it should be nofollow, even if it’s a “natural” link you’re adding there. FWIW none of this is new, and I’m not aware of any plans to ramp up manual reviews of this. We catch most of these algorithmically anyway.”

 

John Mueller, source

guest post new pbn
  • PBN owners have gotten smart, they know they have to make their sites look “real”.
  • Adding “write for us” pages also brings customers to them. They might not call themselves a PBN, but they are…
  • We no longer look for sites who solicit guest posts (i.e. write for us page), this is easy for Google to pick up on algorithmically.
  • If we do work with a guest post site, it has to pass our evaluation metrics first (more on those later).
new pbn for link building

3. How can we succeed?

Our recommendations for landing high quality links at scale for your agency.

 

Be mindful of target site quality + relevance.

  • SEO metrics (like DA, DR, TF) can be manipulated or reanimated easily, looking at those metrics is NOT enough.
  • You should include a manual evaluation into your prospecting process, and it should be the most important part (waaaayyy more important than SEO metrics)
    • Is it a real website? What is its purpose?
    • Are there clearly paid / SEO placements in their content?
    • Is the website topically focused?
    • Are the articles relevant to each other? Are the external links within articles relevant?
target site quality relevance

 

Be mindful of link destination + link type.

  • Different page types reacted differently when links were built. We used to hammer ecommerce product pages with links. Google is very smart at not only sniffing out low quality and paid links, but also irrelevant links.
  • When building your links, you have to match link type to content type. For example, let’s say you’re selling shoelaces. Who / what would link to a product page? Very few organically.
    • Product reviews (be careful tho)
    • “Best of” listicles (“best Xmas gifts for men”)
    • Quora, Forms, Reddit and blog comments (people discussing and recommending)
link destination link type
  • We found that product pages did not react overly well to direct links, only the types listed previously.
  • Content (i.e. in depth articles) react much more positively to links. We believe it’s because getting a link to an in depth piece of content is much more natural than a product / service page.
  • This isn’t surprising, as a true link serves as a citation purpose – content is a much more natural link placement than a sales / product page. That means content plays a critical role in link building as well.
link destination and type

 

Our focus has shifted…

  • Links are a necessity for SEO, there’s no debating that. However, trying to get unpaid links for an entire portfolio of clients is increasingly difficult.
  • Currently, we rely on link vendors to fill out our supply.
  • Why? Their inventory was turning out to be the same quality as our outreach, but it’s free.
  • The remaining links come from high quality guest posting, influencers, sponsored posts, sponsored links (again, some form of paid).
link inventory

 

There’s really only 2 options for link building now…

Option 1: True organic outreach.

  • You find, contact and negotiate placements on a website for clients (unpaid).
    • Resource pages
    • Broken links
    • Promotional exchange
    • Podcast placements
    • New article placements (PR)
  • Your function is more of a PR agency than link building. The only way to make this work economically is to charge premium for placements, $1000 and up.
  • You need a dedicated team of in house experts to pull this off, I don’t recommend it for smaller agencies who haven’t figured out the core SEO practice yet.
link building options
  • Vendors + SEO links. The right vendor will do a lot of the work for you, saving you both time and money.
    • Guest posts
    • Link insertions
    • Sponsored posts
  • Most SEO clients / webmasters won’t pay $1k+ per link (enterprise only), so you have to figure out a way to get links at a rate they’re willing to pay for.
  • The KEY is knowing to how to cherry pick the right links from their inventory, bc most of it is crap.
  • This can be managed completely by an offshore / intern level staff and can get big results for clients while turning a profit (without headaches).
more link building options

 

Need help with your link building?

Check out The Full Blueprint, aka link building in a box

  • How to do true outreach. Every link type you can imagine, step by step.
  • How to use vendors. Leveraging 3rd party sources to do the heavy lifting.
  • How to build + manage links. The economics behind building links for SEO clients (charging, managing, PM, hiring)
link building blueprint

COMMENTS (5)

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  • Robert Portillosays

    Thanks for the article. You quote Mueller. Can anything he says be trusted?

    • i know where you’re coming from, but honestly, yes i do trust him. mainly bc i see it within our data as well

  • DevBDsays

    So now Google can find out low-quality Guest post 🙁
    That is why a few of my client sites didn’t get that much boost even after we create guest posts.
    Dammmmm

  • James Z Dooleysays

    I reckon you are right to utilise the link vendors for the heavy lifting and then getting a team literally to filter out the list of domains you dont want from their prospecting list.

    The real quality is not in the prospecting anymore because like you say you just find 95% of the domains you prospect to are just part of the larger link building agencies databases.

    So utilise their database list but then make sure you have a layer of checks by your team to make sure placements are only made to the better quality sites available.

    Too many chase DR metrics which are so easily manipulated and they dont check the site has 10,000 new OBLs on it lol