How do you know whether or not to pursue a link? Is it the size of the dog in the fight or the size of the fight in the dog?
It’s neither – it’s an assortment of varying factors that can help determine whether or not this site, now, can help your website shoot up the search engine rankings. To help you determine whether or not a page is worth its weight in acquisition effort, I’ve developed a flow chart to take you through the process I use to value a link. The earliest parts in the chart are the delimiting factors – those that can instantly make or break a page.
As we get further, the lines are more blurry, and many of them simply act as additional buffers or reducers as it comes to how much effort you want to spend getting this link – as often times, if you’ve made it to the bottom of the chart, you should at least make some effort to get a little value passed your way.
The first thing to assess is the difficulty you’ll have getting a link from the page. If it’s a large, e-commerce site, you’re probably best off just moving on and living to fight another day – unless you have a unique, strong value proposition to offer. On the flipside, if you discover a Geocities site with a “Last Updated” date in 2006, you should give up and find another domain to target. Always have some determinate of what A) you view your website to be worth and/or b) what accessory value proposition you may have to supply as well. If they don’t combine in a way that’s overly beneficial to the domain you’re prospecting, move on — or move back, and work to improve your website.
- Assess acquisition target’s focus
- Determine the strength of your unique value proposition for this website against focus
- Look at frequency of updates to confirm website maintenance
Minimum Viable Ranking (MVR)
After determining acquisition difficulty, the first assessment I make is to see if the page has a Minimum Viable Ranking (MVR). If I cut and paste a URL into Google, it’s rather likely that it’s going to be indexed, especially if I’m looking at the homepage. So, using that as a determining factor doesn’t do much for me – many websites are indexed, but pass little to no value in the search engines.
To see if Google is viewing this URL as a somewhat legitimate page in any way, I check one or two queries – one being the URL without the protocol (e.g. http://) or TLD (e.g. .com), the second being the beginning of the title tag. How I value each of these depends on the site and the competitiveness of the keyword in the title tag.
In example, if I see a link acquisition target with “Sports Bars” as the only thing in the title tag, it won’t be worth searching for – because I’m pretty sure it’s not going to rank on the front page. So, I’ll then go to the URL – if it’s a blogspot, wordpress or other 3rdparty hosted site, I might search for “Sports Bars blogspot”, with the expectation that this site should be ranking in the top 5 results. If it’s not, that’s a pretty big red flag that the domain isn’t worth its weight in HTML code.
On the flip side, if the title tag is “Sports Bars in Manitoba Canada”, I’m going to search for that and expect to see it ranking near the top of the search engine results page (SERP). I expect it to because it’s a keyword phrase that has much lower competitiveness, and thus, should be pretty easy to rank for given that it’s this domain’s homepage title tag.
If you’re not completely adept at determining the difficulty of a given query, I suggest using SEOMoz’s Keyword Difficulty Tool until you start feeling it out. A good gauge of an “easy query” is one that has a Keyword Difficulty of under 40%. If you don’t have a SEOMoz paid account, use SEOChat’s KW tool.
- Determine if a page ranks in the top 5 for an applicable title tag/URL combo given the query has KW Difficulty < 40%
- If Yes, Continue
- If No, Find New Link & Start Over
Next, it’s time to determine if you want your site associated with this potential target. Many sites will have high values but have since exploited that value to sell many links or do other shady things, and as such, are either now not passing value or will certainly not pass value in the future.
I detail many of these signals in my post on Disruptive Links, but for ease of use, I’ll rediscuss them here, and also add some that go beyond the links on the page.
- The Three/One Link Chain – Many sites sell links in packs of three, so when you see a string of blog posts with three links, all with commercial anchor text (i.e. sports shirts instead of sports blog), you’ve got a blog that’s selling lots of paid links and potentially endangers your site should you get a link on it. On the flip side, sometimes these sites will also only have one link per post, which is one other broker offers – another sign that you’re aligning yourself with a shady website.
- Off Topic Links – If you have a fashion website and you see a great fashion site, and then see suddenly that they’ve linked three times about eyeglasses, there’s a good chance that they’re up to some shady stuff – and more importantly, if they’re willing to put up off topic links, there’s a good chance they won’t be hesitant to link to casinos/pharmaceuticals/porn in the future. And that’s not a link neighborhood you want to raise your website in.
- New Site Ownership – There are people out there making six figures simply from acquiring websites, refocusing them and selling paid links. I can easily determine these sites by noticing inconsistencies in URL/website focus. Sometimes I’ll see a URL such as “chickenfingers.com” and the new owner will completely spin the website into a fashion site, with a templated, non-customized blog. There’s some suggestion that these sites pass little to no value when changed in such a way, and most importantly, you don’t want to associate yourself with a site that is likely going to pursue other shady cash acquisition techniques in the future.
- Sidebar/Footer Links – Check for obvious commercial anchor text, in spades, in the sidebar or footer. These will likely be off-topic and completely stand out – a clear signal that you should not be doing business with this website.
- Duplicate Content – Is the site running duplicate content? Things many of these websites will do to scale their money making efforts is scraping other content and putting it on their site, making it appear viable but actually not having any viability – which will definitely not speak well for the long term health of the site. To determine if a site has duplicate content, look for unnatural, very systematic writing. If you have some suspicion, copy and paste a block of about three-five sentences into Google – if it’s not ranking first, move on – you’ve either got a poorly valued website or one that is awash in duplicate content.
- Explicit Paid Link Sales – Do they have an ad for popular text link brokers visable on their site, or outright say in the sidebar or in their posts that they’re selling links? In that case, it’s probably a good idea you steer clear – getting a link on these sites is like driving home drunk at 2AM five nights a week.
- Are there mentions of paid link sales? If so, discard.
- Is there lots of duplicate content on the page? If so, discard.
- Is there lots of strange, disruptive off-topic links with commercial links in the sidebar and/or body content? If so, discard.
- Does the title tag/website theme not match the URL? If so, discard.
Once the site has acquiesced itself past the most obvious two factors, MVR and Spam Signals, the next test it has to pass is whether or not the link you’ll acquire has the benefit of link solidarity – meaning that should you acquire it, it will get indexed and maintain indexation in the search engines.
Even if a site has PageRank 4 and ranks for its own name, that doesn’t mean it’s going to pass any value to your website. Many websites these days are blogs – and the way each post is displayed in the page theme can go a long ways to determining whether or not your site will get indexed.
The main issue you’ll run into is with snippets – those blogs that don’t fully display the post on the frontpage and reduce each blog post to a “preview”, often have difficulty getting the spiders to properly crawl their website. As such, if you manage to get a blogger to write about your website, it might not ever get picked up by the search engines.
On the flipside, sometimes your post will get indexed, but it won’t hang around for long, and will quickly get dropped from the link graph as Google views the link as unimportant or newly irrelevant.
One of the strongest determinates I use, and one that I feel is highly underrated when valuing a domain, is assessing indexation rates against the actual size of the site. This gives a strong assessment of how Google views the domain TODAY – more than an outdated metric like PageRank ever could.
To do this, go to Google and use the command “site:http://www.website.com” to determine how many pages are indexed. Then go to the blog where you’ll get your link, use the SearchStatus toolbar, and determine how many internal links there are on the homepage. Make a quick assessment of how many posts the website actually seems to have – a good way to do this is by looking at how many updates there are, site structure, and by looking at the archives.
If one number is dramatically off (such as 175 pages indexed for a site with 196 internal links on the frontpage), you have cause for concern – and this website is probably not going to keep your page indexed. Even if it does, it’s likely to disappear from the link graph shortly after. Similarly, if you find a domain with 180 links on the frontpage with 2,000 links indexed, you should be excited about a high quality domain that will probably pass your website a lot of value.
- If a website is a blog, assess how well it’s indexed using the “site:” command – weigh this against how many pages the site appears to have, using internal links as a barometer using the Search Status add-on on Firefox.
- If the number of pages indexed is close to equal or under the number of internal links displayed on the homepage, consider moving on to another website as a link acquisition source.
This one is fairly obvious – if the website is relevant to your topic, it dramatically increases the value of a page as a link acquisition target. Some extra special ways to determine link relevancy and perhaps pass an extra inkling of value to your website is by using Latent Dirichlet Allocation – the topical relevancy tool developed by SEOMoz.
Insert the anchor text you hope to utilize on the site, and weigh it against other anchor texts. If one seems dramatically higher than the other, use it – it’ll likely pass more value than other anchor texts or links you choose to utilize.
- If a page has high relevancy to your website, its value goes up dramatically. Similarly, if it’s dramatically off-topic, value goes down significantly.
- Use SEOMoz’s LDA Tool to determine keywords/URL to best use, should you be able to acquire a link on your acquisition target.
High-Level Domain Metrics
Once everything above has been considered, it’s time to take some more specific page-level characteristics into consideration to determine value of a page you might get a link on.
- Pagerank – Although fleeting, this metric can offer some amount of confidence – especially as it pertains to showing value to those naive to the intricacies of SEO.
- # of Links on a Page – If the total # of links on a page broaches past 400, you should have serious concerns about whether or not the page is worth any of your time.
- Possible Clickthrough Traffic – Is it possible this domain could actually pass relevant, high value traffic to your domain? If this is true, it’s likely this metric is of little concern – because you should already be pursuing the link, absent of this metric itself. However, it might supply additional incentive to throw more resources at a potential link acquisition source for the potential benefit.
- Incoming Domain Links – How many links has a site drawn? PageRank can offer an outdated view of a site’s worth, but incoming links is a metric that’s something that’s very, very up to date. Furthermore, when you see a site with a PageRank 4 but 80 external links, there’s cause for concern. Investigate using Yahoo! Site Explorer or another backlink explorer, see if they have a beaming CNN link or something else that makes up for their link deficiency, and adjust accordingly.
- Incoming Page Links – If you’re getting a link on a resource page or another static page, the # of specific incoming links to that page will give you a stronger view of just what that page is worth beyond the total links a domain has acquired.
- Location of Hosted Domain/Country-Specific Indicators – If Google can return locally relevant results to national-level keywords, you can be damn sure they’re noticing and devaluing websites that aren’t hosted/located/seem to be from your country of origin. The biggest confirmation Google knows a website is from another country is when SERPs explicitly list a domainas from elsewhere – such as “India” next to the URL. Normally, it should be readily apparent on-page such as through “location”, language or other indicators whether or not it’s based in your country. If it’s not, I would consider highly devaluing the site.
- Future Value of the Link – Sometimes you’ll come across a site that seems to have little value, but has lots of future potential. This could be a recently launched, VC backed company, or simply a blog that’s invested in design and seems geared towards creating good content. If you can get in now on the ground floor, you’ll reap big benefits later when the domain has high value. Nod to Kevin Spence in the comments for this tip.
- Use Domain valuation tools to assess the amount of resource allocation you should utilize to acquire a potential link.
Situation Specific Determinates
Once you’ve stopped judging the domain from an outsider’s view, it’s time to start imagining your link on the website. Every website is different, so even if they’re gracious enough to offer a link, they might not be gracious enough to offer you the kind of link you want. And that is pretty important when determining how much time and resources you should utilize to acquire some hypertext.
- Is it nofollowed? Seems obvious, but a niave link ninja may look past this intricate detail. Even if the webmaster doesn’t mean to, sometimes nofollow will be built into their CMS, leaving your link pointless.
- Where is it located? With the recent advent of the reasonable surfer model, there is much suggestion that in-body content links pass more value than their neighboring sidebar and footer links. If you can only get the link in the footer, be cautious – more than the value of the link itself, you may be lending yourself towards an acquisition of a link that may be perceived as a spam signal.
- What pages are the links on? Beyond a one-page target, often times you’ll have the opportunity to divide links between multiple pages on a domain. You might also have the chance to acquire a sitewide link – all things that make a site more attractive than a simple one-page target.
- How many links can you get? Are you just getting one or multiple links? The more, the better – increasing the potential value of an acquisition.
- Can you get links anywhere besides the homepage? Although the homepage is great, sometimes you might desire a deeplink to get a strong keyword ranking. If the potential to get a link to one of these pages is possible – or conversely, impossible – it’s something to think about when throwing interns and time at a webmaster.
- Can you get the anchor text you want? Arguably the most important detail – popular opinion seems to suggest that anchor text is one of the biggest factors as it comes to ranking (and I agree) – so if you can get more than just your domain name in the anchor text, the value of a page goes up dramatically.
- How do past webmaster tendencies imply the type of link that you’ll acquire? Use current link tendencies to determine the psychological profile of your webmaster, and from that, adjust your link acquisition strategy accordingly.
Every Link is Different
They say every person is different – well, every link is different too – because it’s run by those same people. Every link has a specific valuation that is unlike any other link on the internet – especially as it pertains to your specific website.
Although we can never absolutely determine that number, as adept SEOs and webmasters, we can take strides to somewhat approximate that number in a way that makes its acquisition a profitable procedure for your domain. Be rigorous, be thorough, and judge voraciously – because websites, like books, can often be well assessed by their covers.