Evaluating link opportunities can be one of the largest gray areas in SEO. Sometimes we are 100 percent confident in our target, like Larry Kim of WordStream after nailing a coveted link from the Wall Street Journal; however, not every link is beneficial to a site’s profile and you want to be certain that you are not simply wasting your time or doing something that could potentially harm the quality of your site.
When searching for links, the best advice I’ve heard in a long time was from Julie Joyce of LinkFish Media. Julie said the best link builders are ones that can do their job without relying on a toolbar. After hearing this, it really hit home with me. More often than not, I heard from my team how they passed up on an opportunity because Open Site Explorer gave a site a Domain Authority of 42 and Page Authority of 37, and after thinking deeper, I can remember specific instances where posts I had on older sites gained massive traction as the site aged and grew.
So the next time you consider dropping a potential link, think of the long term, and use your eyes and brain before relying on a tool. Here are some of the specific things I look for before reaching into my tool box.
Determining Link Quality
Relevancy is an extremely important factor when searching for link opportunities. With recent algo updates, links have reverted to a 1997 approach, which was get a link for traffic, not for rankings, and the way people got traffic was to get links from relevant sites. As a rule of thumb, get links from sites as if there was no such thing as SEO. Meaning, provide links that would be user friendly even if Google didn’t exist. That way, your links will stand the test of time and keep clean in the wake of future Google updates.
Performing a site search to see if the site has been penalized should be one of the first things on every link builder’s list. This is a no-brainer, but is skipped over by way too many link builders. If you are teetering on a lower quality site, remember that you don’t want that link if the site has been removed from the index. All you have to do is search site:example.com and see what the results come back as. If you don’t see the homepage in the first page of results, or see something like example.com/?comments_popup=2190, then there is a good chance that site has been penalized and you want to avoid it like the plague.
Number of ads above the fold should be the next thing to look at. Google is all about user experience and if a user is getting bombarded by ads, then they will most likely take action on that site, if they haven’t already. This is easy to look for and you can almost immediately tell if there is an issue.
Ratio of ads to content is another advertising specific measure I look at. If the site is built for ads and not for the user, then there’s issues.
Quality content is something that takes a little more time to check, but if you skim the first few posts, you can usually tell. If you’re really hung up here, you can take the extra time to copy and paste a chunk of copy and see if they are scraping another author’s work, in which case, I would skip them over.
The ratio of guest posts to original content is another metric I would consider. Some webmasters build sites out with the intent of catching newbie SEOs off guard and having them give them free content so they can harvest users and create revenue from ads.
Social media presence is a factor that everyone should check for, whether they rely on tools or not. If the site has an audience, then there’s a chance your work could be amplified and reach a larger base.
Possibly the most important factor is checking for the sheer number of comments. Comments show if there is user interaction and can be a strong determination of a quality blog author and portray the longevity of the site.
Now don’t think I’m completely hating on tools. Some of the best info I get is from tools and can also help me when establishing targets. Some of the metrics I look at include:
Domain Level Metrics
Domain Authority (DA) is an SEOmoz prediction of how a website will perform in the SERPs. DA can be used when comparing the strength of a site and will give you a good idea on how well a link from that site can influence your site. The downside of DA is that it does not factor in if a site has been penalized, which would be hard to tell, and why you should use your brain first.
In addition to DA, I use the SEOmoz toolbar and take a quick look at the number of links vs. the number of root domains. If a site has 4 linking root domains with 250,000 links, I would classify that as a red flag.
Page Level Metrics
Similar to DA, Page Authority is a prediction of how a specific page will look in the SERPs. I use this in similar fashion when looking at resource pages. In addition to PA, I use another SEOmoz tool, which is mozRank (can you tell I’m an SEOmoz fan yet?). MozRank shows how popular a single page is on the web and pages with a higher score usually rank better than those that do not.
And while you can use many tools, methods and metrics to accomplish the same thing – including Majestic SEO or Raven tools – remember that you should first use common sense and evaluate link prospects with your brain before turning into a zombie and relying on a tool.