SEO: The link economy

Links have long been the currency of the Web, thanks in no small part to Google and its PageRank algorithm (named after Larry Page, cofounder of Google). The popularity and success of a Website in the search results is both a result of and measured by its incoming links.

Like anything of value, link authority is bought, sold, leased, bartered, brokered, swindled and stolen. But while the fact that links are valuable is widely accepted, no search marketer or link builder can definitively say what that value equates to in real dollars.

Under the right conditions, you can attribute sales revenue to direct click-through traffic from a given link. But what about the search engine optimization impact of that particular link — how does it affect the page it links to? Or even harder to measure: the “rising tide that lifts all boats” effect that the link has across the site by boosting nearby pages, sitewide PageRank and domain authority. Is that value quantifiable?

  • The ROI of links and their effects

    When done properly and with the right technology, link building is a high ROI-generating activity with a measurable and trackable impact. You can see the results of your link conquests easily enough with advanced link building tools like Raven (, SQUID (, and BuzzStream (

    But even with these tools, it’s still quite another matter to assign a specific, accurate and verifiable dollar value to the links. While it’s easy to show generally that more incoming links equals more sales, it’s difficult to determine the full bottom-line impact on each individual link or link-building effort over time.

    For example, say you are paying a retainer of $20,000 per month for a link bait and seeding service (ideation, research, writing, seeding, competitive intelligence, phone and e-mail reach-outs). And as a result, hundreds or perhaps thousands of quality links per month result from those activities. What’s the ROI on that $20,000 spend?

    You might be tempted to point to a rise in raw sales numbers, but that only shows a general impact; and it’s not specific to this campaign, nor does it show direct results.

    Now, to complicate matters, say the link builder works to acquire specific high-value links one at a time, in a “brute force” fashion using handcrafted e-mails and phone calls. Which links account for which lift in rankings? Even ascertaining which links were discounted due to spam signals is difficult to impossible, at least in any scalable way.

    Consider the “Free Business Cards for Life” ( contest that Overnight Prints ran. It involved creating business card designs for a popular Internet celebrity, Jeremy Schoemaker. a.k.a. “Shoemoney” (

    The winning entry, chosen from more than 400 submissions, was amazing, and Overnight Prints received some great links with great anchor text from it.

    Can anyone doubt that this has had a positive impact on Overnight Prints? Yet no one can say exactly what it is, especially in the long term.

    Calculating ROI from link campaigns is an inexact science. Organic rankings and search traffic across your keyword portfolio, pre- and post-campaign (by at least 90 days), is a good starting point, but is by no means sufficient for the ROI-focused marketer. Both the revenue line and the cost line must somehow be pinned down.

    A professional link builder would likely counter with the argument that revenue is too many steps removed from what he actually has control or influence over, and that growth in the quantity and quality of the backlinks is more appropriate in gauging success and justifying his salary. This all assumes that the fruit borne from his efforts can be isolated from other marketing activities (such as e-mail marketing, direct mail), and from naturally occurring link growth.

  • Finding link builders and brokers

    All this makes selling a client or boss on the value of link building a tricky proposition, and it dissuades that decision maker from allocating budget or authorizing the project. Nobody wants to simply “take your word for it” and whip out his or her checkbook.

    Despite the aforementioned lack of direct and quantifiable results, the linking ecosystem continues to thrive. The suppliers — from the expert individual practitioner to a reputable link broker — are inundated with work.

    Plenty of disreputable firms also feed at the trough, whether they be link spammers out of India polluting the blogosphere with their useless blog comments and filling Webmasters’ inboxes with annoying link requests, or the software companies that provide link spam programs to aid and abet them.

    Given the attribution challenges, it can be tempting to scrimp on the vendor, consultant or service hired for this all-important job. But the wrong choice may ultimately do more harm than good.

    With no independent clearinghouse to vet link-building services, the most important step you can take is to do your homework on your potential vendor — reference checks, backlink analysis on them and their clients, and other basic vendor research your firm typically performs.

    You must evaluate the business practices, business model, effectiveness and business viability of your potential vendor.

    Countless link-building services have come and gone, so you want to be sure you’re backing the right horse. Professional link builder Eric Ward ( advises that “cookie-cutter, packaged link-building services will never put you in the best light.” Each link target should require an approach tailored to the unique nature of the target and the requester (features, content, audience, etc.).

    The only major problem happens when link builders are held responsible for missing ROI targets, regardless of how reasonable those targets might seem. Unfortunately, link builders are not in control of the outcome — the link placement, URL target, anchor text, and whether the link request is granted in the first place are all out of their control.

    In fact, the higher the credibility of the linking site (and thus the greater the trust, authority and importance in the eyes of the search engines), the less influence the link builder tends to have. Ward describes such high-caliber site owners as “passionately picky about what does and does not get on their pages.” And he would know; he’s built links for more than 1,000 sites during the past 15 years.

    Furthermore, the “wing it” approach to link building is no longer viable, if it ever was. You must apply the scientific method to your link campaigns — isolating control groups (both keywords and pages) that can be compared with the experimental group in order to gauge effectiveness of various tactics and campaigns.

    Competitive SEO now requires the examination of large amounts of backlink data from multiple competing sites to tease out what is meaningful in the inbound link graphs.

    This takes a lot of brainpower and decent math skills, but this is where the next generation of auditing tools is headed. SEO technology such as Covario’s Organic Search Insight offers the ability to track, monitor and assess on-page and off-page elements for you and perhaps even your competitors, all in a single place. Automating the process of analyzing and quantifying the depth and quality of inbound links is essential to achieving any kind of scale.

  • The link economy’s future

    All SEO activities — not just link building — can be valued and ROI calculated in aggregate. But what about on a link-by-link basis? You want to be able to say with some certainty that a particular link is worth $X and another link is worth $Y.

Indeed, within the campaign — and other solutions, too — links can have different values based on the keywords they are connected to. Each keyword has a different click and transaction value, and so does the link.

Technologies such as those mentioned above will herald a new age in which acquired links are tied to particular keywords, assigned a cost-per-click and/or conversion value, pegged as incremental over the baseline, attributed to the referral traffic from direct clicks on the links as well as from the search traffic derived from the rankings lift, and so on. This will do wonders for legitimizing link building to the direct marketers of the world.

So by all means, predict, goal-set, track, analyze and cost-justify your link-building initiatives. Just don’t hold your link builders accountable for editorial decisions made on sites they do not control.

Stephan Spencer ([email protected]) is the vice president of SEO strategies at SEM/SEO software and services provider Covario, and co-author of the O’Reilly book The Art of SEO.