Have you ever tried to unravel spaghetti? It is hard and messy and just so tempting to throw it against the wall to see what sticks! What does that have to do with SEO link analytics you might ask? Everything and, well, nothing. While not as tasty as spaghetti, understanding backlink profiles can be just as messy. And not to mention, a huge time suck, as well. Before I throw anymore jargon at you, though, let me recap what I've gone over so far in my SEO Analytics series to set the stage for this post.
A Quick Recap
In the last three years, Google has introduced several changes, including semantic search and long tail search to improve user experience. The side effect has been that its algorithm has become very complex for SEO teams to get their heads around. The days of using top 30 keyword lists are long gone. To measure how your SEO efforts are doing, you need to up your analytics game. For more background, read the introduction to SEO analytics. And if you haven’t read the other articles from our SEO Analytics series, check them out:
Now that you’re all caught up on SEO analytics basics, demand analytics, and conversion analytics, let’s go into more detail about SEO link analytics. In this post, I will describe how to make sense of link profiles and how to take action. Before I get into that, let’s cover the basics.
The Role of Links in SEO
External links or backlinks to a site are (still) one of the more powerful indicators Google uses to determine the authority or search position of a site for a keyword. Over the years, as SEO and Google played the cat and mouse game, the Internet got cluttered with spammy articles and links. In the recent past, Google’s Penguin and Panda algorithms punished sites that had these spammy links.
Today links that are obtained organically, are from relevant articles and sites, and are not part of a link exchange or other similar schemes are highly valuable in getting sites ranked in Google Search Results.
The basic concept of using links to measure the importance of a site still seems to hold value. The idea, however, is that these links need to be of high quality, relevance, and such. There is a whole slew of factors used for determining the importance and relevance of links. And one can spend a lot of time figuring just that out. Fortunately, there are tools out there that make this task simpler.
Tools We Used for Link Analysis
Our goal with this exercise was to quickly find the minimum number of links required to see movement in SERP ranks. For this, we used the following tools:
- OutWit Hub to scrape Google Search Results
- Majestic for backlink profile analysis
- Majestic for basic SEO optimization checks on URLs
- Excel to analyze the results
While you could easily replace OutWit with your favorite SERP scraper, the one reason we really liked Majestic for this task is the speed at which we could get our analysis done. How quickly? In about 30 minutes, we knew exactly what needed to be done to see SERP movement for both keywords. I’ll walk you through the process in just a bit. Before we do that, let’s go over a quick reminder about the Google Search Algorithm.
The Complexity of the Google Search Algorithm
The Google Search Algorithm is very complex. For more details on what I mean by that, read my first post on SEO analytics.
Don’t for a moment think that any of us could reverse engineer the search algorithm from the outside. With every release, it gets more and more complex. So when we look at the link analysis, keep in mind that we are making assumptions that all other things outside backlinks are more or less equal across the reference sites we look at. Is that a good assumption? Possibly. Think of this link analysis process and subsequent action you take as two important steps in the long process of optimizing for search. These steps are critical, but they are definitely not the only steps you need to take.
Alright, let’s get into the details of link analytics for SEO.
How to Find the Minimum Threshold of Links Needed - Fast
Links are votes for your site or page. These votes indicate that your site/URL is an authority on the topic. Over time as people tried to game the Google Search Algorithm, they created more and more irrelevant links to their sites using techniques such as link wheels, carnivals, link exchange, article spinning, and more. This resulted in a very, very spammy web. And Google has been helping clean up the mess by punishing the sites with spammy links through Penguin and Panda algorithms.
Unfortunately, what happens when one starts looking at backlink profiles through tools such as Majestic is that they show all the links acquired by these sites over time. So you could end up looking at a competitor site with a zillion links and not know what to do! So figuring out what the minimum threshold for links becomes a daunting task.
Here’s how to make it simple, fast, and un-daunting:
- Play within your league – If your page is ranking on page 8 for a keyword, look at the results on page 7, 8, and 9 to figure out what needs to be done to move out of that neighborhood. Don’t look at position 1 on page 1 yet.
- Look for the broad brushstrokes – We are not looking for accuracy at this point. All we want to know is what the minimum threshold is to play just above our current level. That’s it. We don’t care about the how yet.
Let’s go through an exercise with a couple of example keywords.
The keyword we looked at was “Web Analytics Services.” This is a low volume keyword with about 40 searches a month. The volume of search doesn’t change the analysis much, though, it does change the level of competition.
Step 1: What does your neighborhood look like?
At the time of writing this article, one of our site’s pages ranked at position #15 for Web Analytics Services. So we looked at the SERPS 1-30 as a way to get a feel for the competition at this level.
What we found was that there was a mix of sites that overtly optimized for this keyword and those that did not. Even a tool such as Majestic has its limitations – It didn’t provide full backlink coverage for the top 30 SERPs. That is still OK. Remember, we aren’t look for a scientifically accurate answer here. We are looking for an indication of what it takes to see movement.
Here is what this neighborhood looked like. There are some tenured agencies ranking for the keyword. Needless to say, just looking at this list could make it overwhelming until we peel off the layers.
Step 2: Look at Similar Sites
Next, we narrow down the site to those that we have SEO scores for. By SEO scores, we mean sites that have the minimum basic optimization on the page such as titles, keyword in the copy, etc. Majestic recorded scores for 18 of the sites.
We went ahead and added in the Bay Leaf Digital URL even though Majestic hadn’t scored it!
In looking at the referring domains in the last column above, we see that the average number of domains is 115! So according to this data, all else being equal, a site would need at least 115 external links to rank in the top 30 for the keyword “Web Analytics Services.”
That’s too much – let’s narrow this down further. Let’s remove the URLs that are root domains and let’s remove the sites that are blog/informational sites that aren’t really competition.
In removing, the links, we now see that the average number of referring domains dropped to 1.7! So on an average, a site needs 2 backlinks to rank in the top 30 SERPs for the “Web Analytics Services” keyword.
Sounds a bit fantastic, doesn’t it? Look closely at #15, #25, and #30 in the graph above. Those sites do not have any referring domains pointing to the pages that rank. So why are they in the top 30?
As I mentioned earlier, backlinks are one of many factors Google looks at to rank a site or URL. These sites have done better at other factors that are considered for ranking. Of course, if these sites did get a few backlinks, they would probably move up in in Google SERP!
External links are an important factor in SEO. SEO link analytics should be the first step in determining the number of links needed to move pages higher up in SERP. That exercise doesn’t have to be time intensive or scientifically precise. Comparing like sites can provide a much more realistic estimate of the link threshold needed to rank or move up in SERP rank.
And a final word – If that threshold is very high or unrealistic to meet, then guess what? There are other ways to rank in SERP beyond focusing on just external links! So don’t get obsessed with link building. Use our link analytics guide to help you determine whether and how to approach link building.