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Should You Only Acquire Links That Drive Revenue?

by Jon Cooper

I’ve recently heard from a few people over the last year or two that, as link builders, we should only be focusing on links that drive traffic & revenue.

Earlier this week I watched a video posted on Twitter from Wil Reynolds, which you’ll find below. I have huge respect for Wil (interviewed him here in 2012; still worth a read), and in general, I believe that what he says in the community comes from a really good, authentic place.

If you don’t want to watch it, the general gist of it is that most of the links SEOs are building “don’t do anything for the client”, given that these links do not drive conversions, assisted conversions, newsletter sign ups, etc. He’s one of many people that have talked about links in this way, and by no means am I trying to / want to single him out (he’s just the most vocal / widespread of the bunch).

This idea sounds great in theory, and can get you pretty pumped up. A few other similarly exhilarating mottos come to mind when I hear it (heard throughout the community):

  • “Fire your clients! If you don’t like them, then stop dealing with them.”
  • “Build a website for users, not search engines!”
  • “Just create great content, and the links will come!”

The problem is that we can sometimes swing too far in one direction, whether it’s all the way to the left (i.e. black hat SEO), or all the way to the right (i.e. building a site purely for UX). That can lead to extremes like getting penalties from search engines on one side, and building non-indexable sites on the other.

In this case, the idea of only going after revenue driving links, and not any others, is a perfect example of swinging too far in one direction.

1. Doing something that doesn’t directly lead to revenue

Let’s take the logic of this argument and apply it to other parts of SEO. Read through this and tell me that, apart from a few specifics (i.e. page speed improvements), that any of these improvements lead directly to increased revenue.

We also know that Google loves original content, and that there are many listing-type pages that SEOs create content for that we can safely assume few are going to read. Maybe those product description sweat shops are writing content that people will make purchasing decisions based off of, but there’s a good chance very few people are.

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So: it’s OK that every activity we’re doing as marketers doesn’t directly result in driving revenue. That’s a lot of what we do as SEOs, anyway.

2. Links that may or not make an impact on rankings

Wil talked about the concern that the links acquired in a campaign might not have the impact that one hopes to have after the campaign is over.

You could easily make the case that, for anything technical SEO-wise, it’s not a sure thing that an individual fix will impact rankings. Sometimes you’re in the dark as to what exactly is causing the issue. That’s why audits contain a number of items to address, because any individual item may not be what Google is taking the most issue with. So, for anything you’re doing on-site, it’s a risk on some level that it won’t have the impact you’re looking for.

But how does link building compare to other marketing campaign types that involve outreach / outbound elements (i.e. advertisements, PR, etc.)? Most of those, if not all, don’t involve 100% confidence that you’ll get the result you’re hoping for, whether it’s branding, direct sales, or search rankings.

The expectation that a link building campaign should always result in a clear increase in rankings, especially when dealing with a very complex, modern algorithm that may hinder a site from ranking because of numerous other issues, is a bit unfair.

3. Existing well ranking websites & their link profiles

Now let’s look at example. Take the websites ranking for “San Diego Flowers”. The best ranking site in that city is AllensFlowers.com. They’ve got some solid links that look like they drive a few sales here & there. They also have a few links that are much more controversial in terms of the direct, non-SEO value they provide:

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They were given an award from a local event. I think it’s safe to say few people have groomed the list of links on this page & made purchasing decisions based off any of them.

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They were listed in a resource guide for planning a wedding. If this page got a lot traffic from qualified potential customers (people planning a wedding), then for sure, I could see this link driving revenue. But according to OSE, this page only has 2 internal links, and I didn’t find it ranking well for “san diego wedding resources”, so I doubt more than a handful of people see the page each month, let alone click on that particular link to Allen’s Flowers.

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They were cited as an example of using a particular technology. I think it’s safe to say that no sales were driven here (who shops for florists that use mSQL?), and although it’s not niche or location related, it’s still a link from a very aged, DA50+ website.

Do some of these link examples pass traffic/conversions? Maybe; there’s no way of knowing for sure either way. But the point is: these are links I’d want, and whether or not they passed conversions or traffic, they’re legitimate links that pass the eye test & help this flower shop dominate for all of its main keywords. And that end result is worth going out of my way to make sure our link is included on an awards page, or that a local magazine’s resource guide includes their service with the others in the area.

4. My own experiences

Through the clients we’ve had and the projects I’ve been a part of, one of my favorite things to look at in analytics is the referral traffic of the sites we’re building links to. I want to see if some of the links we get are sending any traffic, and if they do, if that traffic converts.

One example that comes to mind is a .gov link project we did for a real estate site. Earlier in 2016, we built ~30 links over the course of 6-9 months (quite a small campaign), and we watched their organic traffic grow ~50% over that time period.

Looking at analytics, since the links were acquired, only 3 of the 30 have sent more than 10 visits. A couple of them did send traffic that met conversion goals! But that wasn’t going to make or break why we did the campaign in the first place.

I remember getting a blogroll link a few years back that sent some serious traffic (mid 4 figures a month), which was awesome. But if I spent time only going after links that would send traffic & conversions, I would’ve built significantly less links, and drove significantly less rankings for my clients & my own sites (which, coincidentally, results in less revenue).

So what’s the takeaway?

I totally understand why a lot people want to communicate this message. The short answer is that you attract bigger & better clients when you say things like this. As someone who writes more as a practitioner, and less as a thought leader, it’s clear that what I’m doing isn’t the best lead generation strategy for an agency (for everyone 1 big budget client that contacts us, we get 50 small business owners unreasonably looking to spend $200/month for great work).

With that said, I think it’s important to understand the meaning of the message, while still keeping things practical. Here’s how we can do it.

1. Check referral sources for opportunities

Scan referral traffic in your analytics for patterns & clues to more traffic/revenue driving opportunities. This counts for both new links you’re building, but also for all past manually OR naturally acquired ones.

If you see one or two links that are sending value, ask yourself “are there other link opportunities out there just like this?” For our agency, we usually come up with a tactic that, at its core, is a single way to get a link, but can be applied to 1000s of sites. You may have just stumbled into something where there are many other opportunities just like it.

For example – imagine an eCommerce niche electronics store finding a link from a local robotics club’s New Member Info page to the store’s Arduino starter kit product page. There are probably 100s of other local robotics club that have website information for new members (and are likely to have interest in that starter kit), so reaching out to each with a discount code for that product could scale really well, and drive a lot of revenue (make sure they mention the discount code at the next club meeting, too!).

2. If you do find a revenue-generating link tactic, treat it like the golden egg that it is

If you do come across one, invest in it to do it right if it can end up paying for itself.

Two general ones that come to mind are press coverage & forum link building. If you’ve got a cool product, paying a PR professional to get you coverage could result in direct sales. If you’re in a niche that has active & passionate communities in forums, invest in becoming a part of them, and understand how you can post links in a way that’s allowed.

So – what do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 129 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper is a link builder based out of Gainesville, FL. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter @PointBlankSEO.

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20 Comments
  1. saul malpass says:

    Hi Jon,

    Completely agree with all of this post. Refreshingly BS free. Only thing I wouldn’t agree with is that we think you are a thought leader. Being a top practitioner makes you one!

  2. David Farkas says:

    Excellent post, Jon! Although we love to highlight links that generate traffic in our client reports, realistically a majority of the links will only provide SEO value, which is also a good thing, of course. I recently analyzed the backlink profiles of 4 small to large websites and came out with a very similar conclusion to yours. You can see the complete analysis at: http://theupperranks.com/Blog/backlink-profile/

  3. Eric Ward says:

    “Would you want that link if there was no Google”?

    This was the question I nervously asked over a decade ago at SMX East in the main room to almost 1,000 people, with Matt Cutts in the back of the room. I remember it like yesterday. The answer to this question needs to be YES, or else your just chasing the machine and not developing a sustainable link based strategy. Sadly, very few answered yes then, and I bet few would answer yes today. There were even link selling vendors in the exhibitor area. It was sad to me. I knew after that conference that links had jumped the shark, become currency, rather than part of a true strategic process. So after having presented at over 150 conferences, I now stay out of the limelight and do my thing quietly for a few clients who get it and write about it privately. I guess I finally just got tired of screaming a message so few people wanted to hear. Then came the link carnage I tried to warn people about. I wish more people would listen (then AND now).

    So now I whisper it to those willing to listen.

    The ironic thing about links is if you pursue them for business purposes other than just search rank, you end up creating the exact kind of links Google rewards.

    I found your post today to be outstanding. Thank you Jon.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks Eric – again, totally agree with this in theory, but it’s not always practical. For some clients, the overlap in non-SEO and SEO benefit includes a lot of opportunities. But more often than not, there’s not much overlap.

      80% of the edu/gov links we get don’t really send more than a few clicks here & there. And yet these are editorially given links that, even if people aren’t clicking on them often, are still a valid citation that proves trust & that Google wants to count. So – if we knew going in that those links wouldn’t send much traffic, and if we weren’t going after them for SEO reasons, then no, we wouldn’t get them. But – we do live in a world with Google, and that 80% does provide a lot of value, and yes Google does want to count them.

      Just being realistic. Theory can only take you so far. But in general, I do agree with most of what you write Eric, and agree with the general concept you’re talking about here as the first place you should start when thinking up a link strategy for a particular project.

  4. Thank you so much to share with us this article. I am great fan of your link building strategy. Always applied in my projects.

  5. François says:

    Agencies make most of my customers. So it’s always very interesting for me to understand how they work and particularly their approach to link building, what are the new trends, and how this relates to their own client acquisition.
    Thanks for that very informative post.

  6. Hafis says:

    Great tips, Jon.

  7. John Rowa says:

    Jon,

    Good points in your post here. What I took away from Wil’s comments (of which I agreed with him on Twitter) was not necessarily “don’t do any link building that doesn’t directly drive revenue”, but rather “don’t do any link building that is focused on just link building for the sake of link building.”

    Maybe I’m wrong of his intent, but I think of it as this way in any case: as SEO’s, we’ve all been taught we have to build links. And we know the better the links, the better our rank. But what if we focused instead on the better the links, the better the revenue? In other words, if we focused our strategies around driving revenue, it could lead to more successful campaigns AND rank will be a natural by-product of our work.

    Also, I don’t think you necessarily need to focus on direct sales, but rather overall revenue growth. If I got a client 100’s of backlinks that drove up his rank but lead to a limited ROI, he’s going to be looking to fire me. But providing real ROI will almost always keep a client happy and paying.

    Anyway, just my two cents. Appreciate your thoughts on this as well.

  8. Calin says:

    Hi,
    What I have seen that if you get links from same topic or similar niche then it plays good role in getting better rankings in search as well as targeted users from directly from links.
    Calin

  9. Link building and relevance are still the hugest ranking factors when it comes to campaigns that will drive traffic and business to clients. Not only are they the two biggest ranking factors, they also take time to see the full results. Many of the seo’s in the black hat groups try to use “techniques” that speed this process up (hacking websites and placing urls, using bulk link tools), but will never see results because Google’s algorithm is getting smarter.

    One factor that has been and will continue to be important is relevance of links. I can’t tell you how many top ranking sites i’ve seen that on the surface look like they don’t belong there (majestic and moz metrics), but still rank on page one or number one because of relevant links. This makes the most sense to not only the algorithm to reward websites to stand the test of time, build authority and get relevant links but to also help the searchers find the best results.

  10. Mohd Atif says:

    As I learned from Moz that each link have a link juice and if we create a link from good PA page then the link juice passed to your page. As you mentioned some of the good points in your blog, it will be useful for me and I will follow these tricks for the future use.

  11. Alex Furfaro says:

    Great article Jonathan. An interesting take about link building and optimizing for revenue instead of just building a link to build a link. I also agree that relevancy of links seems to be the direction things are moving with the algorithm. It makes the most sense when determining if a website is niche specific or not.

  12. Zohaib Ahmed says:

    Hi Jon,

    I totally agree with you, we should be looking at link building from every angle and not just revenue generating. In my experience, I have seen links which did not generate more revenue but it did help in increasing rankings for that particular client. Overall Great Post. Keep up the good work.

  13. Very good article, I am a fan of your blog. Greetings from http://estudio-27.com

  14. Awesome Link Building strategy…Love the referral source opportunity you’ve mentioned!

  15. Robert says:

    Great post and very useful info. Thx for ideas. Going to work 🙂
    Can you suggest competitors analyzes tool?

  16. Great post and ver y easy toread. Thanks a share

  17. nice post. It´s really
    Thanks

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Should You Only Acquire Links That Drive Revenue? - Point Blank SEO