If you have been in the SEO field for at least 5 years, you probably remember a time when link popularity was the key to SEO success. If you wanted to determine how many links you needed to catch up on the SERP’s all you had to do was use a simple link popularity tool in order to look up your competitors’ total link count. I remember a time when I could honestly say: whoever has the most links/votes wins. A couple years later it was whoever had the most linking domains, or highest PR links, or even the most .gov and .edu backlinks won the SEO race. It didn’t even matter if the link was reciprocated, a guestbook link, or whatever, as long as you were getting as many links as possible.

The link popularity factor is no longer of utmost importance. Some SEO specialists may even argue that link popularity was merely a phase, a by-product of exploiting a mathematical algorithm. Whatever your beliefs on link building may be, one thing for sure is Google isn’t playing the link game any longer.

In the SEO world today “link building” or focusing on ‘backlinks’ has become kind of a taboo. However the reality is, all sites still need links and to be connected to the world-wide-web. The difference between 5 years ago and today is, today a site either has to earn these links by being the best site in its’ niche or only build links from sites with an honest brand building, conversion attracting intent.

The dilemma becomes determining the proper kinds of links to build without incurring a future penalty from Google or making a penguin unhappy. Regarding best practices, there is no good solution, however it really comes down to asking yourself a simple question: “why are you building links in the first place”? Are you building links for reputation, branding and traffic or to improve your SEO? The fact of the matter is, even though links may help with SEO, building them solely for SEO purposes is wrong and manipulative.

Below are 5 link building factors that matter today or will in the near future, however, it’s entirely up to you on how you obtain links to meet these factors. I recommend trying to get links that you believe will send conversions or that will improve your overall referral traffic numbers.

DISCLAIMER: Much of the below topics are predictions and speculation of the future of backlinks. So, some may not even have data to support them (yet). If you only want to read something that can be backed up by past results, please come back to this post in a couple years.

Let’s look at 5 backlink factors that will matter (if they don’t already).

1. Actual Clicks – Links That Send Referral Traffic

How many visitors actually travel through your obtained links matters more today than ever, and expect the weight of this factor to increase. Getting a link on a page that no one visits just isn’t going to work anymore. When seeking to get links, you must aim to get links that will actually send you the traffic you desire. You can’t expect to get links from a bunch of network traffic-less blogs and expect potential customers or even the Google bots to come visit your site. It will be obvious you’re just building those links for SEO purposes.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Referral Traffic & Total Linking Domains Correlation/Ratio – If you have thousands of backlinks and no referral visits, what does that say about the links you’ve obtained?
  • Search Bot Crawl Rate – Are you obtaining links on highly crawled sites that Googlebot and other bots frequent and will they ultimately find themselves coming to your site?
  • Alexa Traffic Ranking (1) – Getting a link from a site with barely any traffic can’t be helping you get more business right??
  • Alexa Traffic Ranking (2) – Getting a link from a really high traffic site, but isn’t sending you any of that traffic can definitely says something about your link placement, relevance and/or quality.
  • CTR of Backlinks – Which link would be better, an in-content link from an authority mentioning your brand and sending 1 out of every 20 visitors to your website, or a link in a deep directory/resource page with 200 other links on the same page?

And yes, all of the above can easily be added to a mathematical equation (algorithm) to trigger flags or help rankings.

The point is, focus on getting mentioned and listed on sites that will actually send you visits and bot-crawls. It’s not that hard to implement these signals into an algorithm, if not already implemented.

2. DA of Relevant Links Linking to Page Linking To You

This factor is very likely already in play and may actually be a very classic signal depending on how you look at it. Basically, you want to take all your backlinks a step (or website) further and ask yourself, what are the domain authorities of the links linking to the page linking to you? However you want to add relevance to the factor. How much domain authority, via niche related sites, is transferring to the page linking to you? If the site linking to you just has high DA because of irrelevant signals, don’t expect that to be as effective as a site that has high DA because of all of your niche’s sites are linking to it. Make sense?

Majestic SEO just added some features to their link building tool-set to help with this. It’s just relatively new and isn’t based on domain authority. (snapshot below)

Either way, focus your strategy on getting links from the authorities in your niche that are legitimate authorities because everyone in your niche made them an authority. Simply stated, obtain links from sites your (ranking) competition is linking to. Perhaps the relevant potential customers that spent time on your competitor’s site will visit another site and end up at yours.

3. Previously Visited Sites & Visitor Source

The source of why a visitor comes to your site will play a major role. This is mainly due to Google’s personalized filter algorithm and the FOAF (friend of a friend) ontology. Start with the person that came to your site via a link on another site. How did they get to that site before clicking the link to your site? Was it via a relevant search query, a friend who historically visits sites in your niche’s direct recommendation, or a person in a city you are targeting who is going directly to that site and then finding their way to your site? Filter Bubbles, FOAF ontology and many other ‘where did this person start’ languages will eventually tell Google where in a search trail to place your website.

As an example, say a person is looking to buy an Amish made bed set and they Google something like Amish bedroom furniture and then find themselves at an Amish distributor who lists your store as a supplier. They end up at your site and buy. Not only did you get a potential customer, that user’s actions just told Google that you are relevant and should be ranking for Amish made bedroom sets. Very similar to what Rand was talking about on a recent Whiteboard Friday called Barnacle SEO: Leveraging Other Site’s Rankings.

4. Life of Page Before and After a Link

Combine the following 3 factors…

Age of Page

How old is the page linking to you and how much action has it received recently? If you just created a BlogSpot or Tumblr just to add your link, don’t think it isn’t hard for an algorithm to know that the page is brand new and so is a link on it (and that that page’s purpose was solely for link placement). It’s much better to get a link from a page that is years old than from a page just created yesterday.

Just like how the age of a domain plays a role in search rankings, the age of the domains (and more importantly pages) linking to you will play (or already plays) a major role in link value factors.

Activity Post-Link Creation

Next, what happened to that page after the link was created? Did people start visiting the link, sharing that page and bookmarking it, or was the link created on a page that was never seen again? This is why it’s going to be easy to call out sneaky link wheels, networks created solely to increase PR, DA, total links, etc.

Activity Pre-Link Creation

What makes this factor even more interesting is the recent activity of the page. Is the link coming from a 10 year old page that hasn’t had a visit in years, so deep it doesn’t even get crawled anymore (IE:Pre-sell pages)? Or, is it coming from a 2 year old page that people even today are still finding resourceful and sharing with others? I guess the better question to ask would be which would you rather get a link from if looking to increase referral traffic or total visits to your site? Soon, if not already, you’re going to have to get out of that ancient SEO link building mindset, and look at all factors combined.

5. Search Queries & LSI Terms of Page Linking to You

Of course you want links from pages relevant to your target terms and of course you want links from sites people are visiting because they are interested in your target terms. However, Google and other engines have taken this backlink ranking factor a tad bit further when it comes to surrounding content relevance.

Simply explained, pages linking to you should:

  • Be relevant to your target terms
  • Contain LSI/contextual terms related to your terms (check out Cyrus Shepard’s Whiteboard Friday Video: Beyond Exact Match Anchor Text To Next Generation Link Signals)
  • Be found when searching Google’s Related Searches
  • Have content related to Google and other search engine suggestions
  • Point to content on your site about LSI/suggestions
  • Naturally receive organic traffic for terms in your niche (Hint: even though you can’t see a site’s analytics stats, SEMrush could help with this).

Basically, surrounding content is a factor already in play. But expect the search engines to dig deeper into this factor by examining which sites are getting links with surrounding content or anchor text similar to related searches, so that they can deliver those results sooner than later.

Conclusion

Some of the above factors you may have already known were coming or maybe even thought were already here. Whether you already knew the need to start building traffic and not links or these are all new factors you never considered, I hope this list served as a good basis for what kind of factors are really starting to matter. I also hope it gives you some ideas or reasons to run away from total backlinks, high PR links, mass distributed links, and other link building techniques that are distracting you from the reality that it’s all about referral traffic.

My favorite link builder of all time said it best:

“Without Links, nobody finds you. Regardless if the engines are helping you, or not. If Google vanishes tomorrow, you still better have links.” – Eric Ward (Quote Link).

Can you see any other factors coming our way in the near future? If so, please comment below.

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