The Impact of Link Building

Open to all respondents, this section focused on the impact of link building on organic search, both now and in the future.

On a scale of 1-10, how effective do you think link building is in influencing organic search rankings?

When it comes to the effectiveness of link building on organic search rankings, most people leaned toward links being effective, with 21% saying that links were very effective at influencing organic search rankings. If we extend the scale slightly and include those who answer 8 and 9 out of 10, then 62% of respondents believe that link building influencers rankings.

What the experts think…

It's refreshing that so many people in the space actually agree on something! That, to some degree or another, links still influence rankings. I would personally argue that if people are finding links aren't moving the needle for them it's either the wrong sort of links or they're in a space where they all have phenomenal amounts of links already and a handful here or there is a drop in the ocean.

Measuring the effectiveness of off-site activity remains a perennial topic of debate among not only SEOs, but PR's, brand marketers and just about anyone that this complex activity touches.

It's perhaps little surprise that those taking part in this study typically see link building at very least as effective in terms of impacting search rankings and 21% of the team deem it to be very effective.

What is clear, particularly in instances where a websites technical and on page optimisation is comparable with that of a competitors, brands that achieve a stronger link profile through effective off-site activity will often win out.

Do you think links will be a signal that Google uses in their ranking algorithms in five years’ time?

When it comes to Google’s use of links as a ranking signal in the years to come, 85% of respondents felt that it would still be a signal in five years’ time.

What the experts think…

Woah! I voted 'Yes' as well but I didn't think so many others would. It's good to see that a large number of us are on the same page.

As Google has been using links now for 25 years—and they currently continue to be a very strong ranking signal—it's reasonable to assume that they will still be in use in 5 years.

Do you think links will be a signal that Google uses in their ranking algorithms in ten years’ time?

There appears to be slightly less confidence if we look ten years into the future, with 64% of people believing that links will be a ranking signal then.

What the experts think…

Bill Gates once said:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

I think in this case, many marketers are underestimating what kind of change could happen with the internet in the next 10 years. Will links be a signal to Google in 10 years? I mean... My rational brain says yes but my intuition says the world is going to look a whole lot different. We'll see.

Seems hard to imagine that links won't be used at all. If Google is going to use links to discover the web it needs to crawl, surely they're going to count towards something, no?

Do you believe that link building positively influences rankings?

Designed to force the issue a little, we directly asked respondents whether they felt that links positively impact rankings or not. Confidence was high with 47% saying yes, followed by 30% who said yes but only if there were no other major SEO issues at play.

What the experts think…

How did "but only if a site has no major technical issues" not win? I always think of link building as the 'bonus' that websites get after they've built out a proper technical and content foundation. In my experience, if your site is technically broken, then it doesn't matter how many awesome links you build.

Assuming no other major technical, content, or penalty issues; how long does it typically take for you to see the impact of link building on rankings and traffic?

The question of how long it can take for links to have an impact on rankings and traffic is a common one and we found that over half (51%) of respondents felt that an impact could be seen within 1-3 months.

What the experts think…

I'm glad this question caveats 'no other technical/content/penalty issues'. Nevertheless, 1-3 months feels optimistic for me (at least based on the websites I've worked on). I've come to find that it takes at least 6 months of consistent link building work to start showing impact.

Do you think that buying links can positively influence rankings?

Buying links is clearly against Google Webmaster Guidelines and a controversial tactic, so we wanted to get views on its effectiveness. The majority of respondents (63%) said that they believe buying links does positively influence rankings.

What the experts think…

Personally, I see paid links work all the time - especially for larger brands where the quality of the content can justify the link. And I hate saying this. A philosophical question may be: does Google care about whether a link is paid, or do they care more if using the link makes their search results worse?

I still see paid link building working in all sorts of spaces and that can be really frustrating for clients that don't want to engage in that activity and really want to pursue the sort of sustainable and more creative strategies we're all engaging in.

But I don't see this as an issue that's going anywhere. I genuinely believe it still works. I run tests that tell us it still works and see it in competitor analysis all the time.

I think what's most interesting about this is that 63.1% of respondents think buying links positively influences rankings, and yet only 26.6% of respondents actually buy links.

For what it's worth, I'm sat firmly in the same camp too - I think that buying links can positively influence rankings, and yet, I don't actually do so.

I'm guessing that potentially this is a risk vs reward thing; and/or link buying is outside the scope of many respondents, but I can't help but feel like it says something really interesting about our industry :)

Would you report a competitor if you see them breaking Google Webmaster Guidelines?

Continuing on the topic of tactics being against Google Webmaster Guidelines, we asked whether respondents reported their competitors for breaking them. The majority (80%) said that they didn’t do this to competitors.

What the experts think…

Firmly in the "no" camp here for me and I'm not surprised most of us are. Anyone who started in SEO pre-Penguin probably engaged in it. I did loads of it in 2009 to 2011. So I'm not in the business of outing others still doing it. It might not be a strategy I particularly want to engage in myself, but I don't see it as my place to police everyone else's activity.

It's probably not something that's straight forward as we think it is, proving it, gathering evidence, taking up the time and resource - is it worth it?

What factors do you think are most important when determining whether a link is topically relevant or not?

Coming back to the topic of relevance, we asked respondents what top three factors go into determining if a link is topically relevant or not. The most popular factors were the topic of the page where the link is placed (55%) and the topic of the domain where the link is placed (52%).

What the experts think…

For me, topical relevance comes mostly from the match between the campaign content and the topic of the page (and more widely the section of the site) where a link is placed. How relevant the overall topic of the site has varying relevance. It may be a very relevant industry specific publication or a more general top tier one, which both of them would be valuable sources.

This is interesting, I definitely feel sometimes clients can focus too much on the domain rather than the page.

Wow. I'm totally surprised that "anchor text" performed so poorly in these results, even beneath "text surrounding the link." In part because anchor text remains a confirmed ranking factor, while these other influences are less defined in Google's use.

This is quite a big topic of conversation at the moment in the industry. I'm interested to know though, if people feel like it's the topic of the domain that makes a link relevant or not - what topic does a site like The Guardian or Stylist or BBC News have? They covers such a broad range of topics that I'm not sure that argument stacks up.

Do you believe that links directly to a target page (such as a product or category page) are necessary in order for that page to rank? Or is the onus on the strength of the domain as a whole?

Here, we wanted to learn if respondents felt that in order to rank, a page needed links directly to it or if it was more about the domain strength as a whole. Opinion was pretty evenly split here with links to a target page marginally winning with 51% of the votes.

What the experts think…

I'm quite surprised by this result, for me and my clients a category link is the holy grail!

Not the result I was expecting!

In my experience, in most instances you don't need external links direct to product or category pages in order for those pages to rank. As such, I'd expected to see "links to the domain" win out by a clear margin here.

In terms of the "domain" effect of link building impacting the entire site, a wise man once said "A rising tide raises all ships" (I think it was Rand Fishkin)

What attributes of a link do you focus on when it comes to positively influencing organic search rankings?

Respondents were asked which three link attributes they focused on the most when it came to influencing rankings i.e. which attributes were strongest. The most popular answer here (71%) was links from sites specifically related to the niche of the website getting links. Next, it was a fairly even split between links from domains where you hadn’t got links before (50%) and links from domains that had high authority (48%).

What the experts think…

With brands I've worked on, a large focus was on 'closing the link gap' between us and our closest competitors.

Personally, I am a huge fan of "links that send traffic" and "links that get click on." Google's systems are designed to reward the most relevant links to users, and actual user engagement with the links you build can send a clear signal that these links are indeed important.

How confident are you that your link building is delivering results?

We pushed respondents again on the effectiveness of link building and their confidence levels with link building delivering results. 44% of respondents felt positive that link building has delivered results and 39% felt fairly confident.

What the experts think…

It makes me sad that people aren't sure or confident that their work is making a difference and I wonder whether that's because their link building isn't being tied together with SEO results. It's so easy to just get the links and move on, but really it's the rankings and organic traffic we're all doing it for so it's so important for these results to be investigated and shared with the well as the client.

It's great to see that majority of respondents are confident that their work is driving results for their clients or brands. The value of link building is something that is often difficult to quantify to the c-suite so my hope is that a lot of the marketers who are confident in the results are also able to articulate the reason their work is so important. It's great to talk about rankings, SERP visibility, DA50s, etc.. But it's even more important to talk about how those rankings resulted in an impact on the bottom line.

Over the last year, have you seen any impact on your link building results as a result of the pandemic?

We took the opportunity to gauge feelings on how much the pandemic has affected link building. 36% of respondents didn’t notice any difference at all but 27% then said it was harder but only in certain industries.

What the experts think…

I think the pandemic has certainly affected link building, with the news agenda becoming completely saturated with Coronavirus content early last year. This meant PRs were required to change strategies entirely and in some industries did make it harder to get links as publications became less responsive to certain types of content.

As the year progressed, however, I feel the pandemic opened new opportunities for newsjacking and lighter pieces of content, as readers began to get sick of the same stories. Overall I feel there has been an increase in difficulty for some industries but this has presented a new challenge in creating campaigns which can break through the noise.

I don't do outreach myself, but PR people I worked with in the last year, especially in the US reported greater difficulty in getting links to general interest pieces that had little to do with the pandemic. It's as if there had to be a COVID angle, otherwise, the piece wouldn't be picked up.

I definitely agree with some industries being much harder, I think the more niche it is, the more affected it was by furlough which goes back to the age-old problem of not doing campaigns that are too hyper-relevant in terms of themes.

In the housing market, the biggest challenge was having to constantly pause outreach and campaigns due to new governmental announcements coming out.