Link Quality vs. Quantity: An SEO Balancing Act

A common misconception I frequently encounter is the idea that hyperlinks serve one purpose: to enable users to find additional information about the product or subject they are currently reading about. Sure, before search engines even existed, the number one purpose of links was to find content. But over time, their importance has changed.

Not only do links serve to help the user, Google and other search engines also use these links to navigate through the web to catalog entire websites, and use them as citations to show the site has credible information. In the SEO industry, these links are commonly called “inbound links” or “backlinks” and essentially act as popularity votes. The more high-quality, naturally relevant links you get, the more popular you will be with Google over time.

Brands should be aware of where they rank in the SERPS for different keywords, and they should also be aware of where their competitors rank, which means it’s one big battle for the number one spot or to at least rank above competitors. You’re probably thinking, ok, well that sounds easy, just build as many credible links to your site as possible and voila–you’re number 1!

However, as anyone who works in this industry knows, there’s more to the story.

So What’s Better: More Links or Better Links?

While it’s true that the volume of links does play a role in ranking success, we can’t be so naive as to believe Google’s sophistication doesn’t leave more at play. Taking other key factors into account, such as domain authority, both in terms of links and the sites they live on, will arguably have more of a positive impact. A quality link considers natural anchor text, clean query string parameters, and a relevant, useful context. The site should also be relevant as well as active, trusted, and authoritative. So how on earth do you hit that balance?

All Links Are Not Created Equal

No matter how precisely and carefully we define “high-quality links,” people still seem to come away with their own version of what a good link is. The value of a link is less intuitive than the value of news coverage and traditional brand visibility. Google doesn’t make it easy for us to understand the true value of any given link, but SEOs more intimately involved with understanding the ins and outs of Google’s ranking algorithm have done just that. There are a number of third party tools that use machine learning algorithms to identify and mimic Google’s own ranking algorithm, and it’s all based on their own index of the web.

Granted, sites like these have indexes far smaller than that of Google’s, inherently causing a bit of inaccuracy in the actual metrics they use to gauge the ability of a page, or website, to rank. But they’re a good gauge nonetheless, and one we frequently use to measure success and value, especially as it relates to link popularity (links pointing to the page or domain being analyzed). Some of those measurements, or scores, are page level, meaning an assessment of an individual page and its ability to rank in SERPs. Others are website, or domain level. These measure the strength of the site as a whole and its ability to rank in search engine results. Both of these factors are critical to understanding quality and eventually determining what your brand needs assistance improving upon–as well as where your current strengths lie.

Quality Scores

If you’re building links at a steady rate, chances are you’re eventually going to start to see increases in page level scores (i.e. Moz’s PA). This means the page you’re trying to rank higher for certain keywords or phrases is accumulating value and is probably starting to jump in rankings– “moving the needle” if you will. In addition, domain-level metrics are used as a comparative metric to see how you stack up against other competitors. These scores are used to show the OVERALL strength of your site as a whole and aren’t as useful as comparison tools when trying to “move the needle” in one area or another. If you’re looking to see how one page could rank versus another, you should use page authority scores.

Beyond this, there’s something actually called “quality score.” This is a great article on the variables that Google potentially looks at once a page has risen in the search results to the point at which it could potentially be receiving a lot of traffic (#1 or #2). This has to do with Google’s own interpretation of the health of a website based on AdWords engagement–traffic, bounce rates, etc… Does Google use this in their organic ranking algorithm? Does how users interact with the site in search have an effect on whether or not it should be worth being ranked in the position it’s in? I sure hope so.

Trust

When considering what the best link really is, there are other factors to take into account. There’s quality, and then there’s trust. In the real world, relationships are built on it and their ability to sustain depends upon it. The same is true in SEO.  Links from educational websites (.EDU’s) or governmental websites (.GOV’s), although very difficult to establish relationships with and ultimately achieve links on, will pass more value to the page you are trying to rank. In essence, links from a powerful and highly authoritative domain like CNN.com will prove more valuable than a link acquired on shaijigaah.blogspot.com. Trust scores exist, and they can be found here.

Yet quality and trust metrics alone don’t solely make up “quality,” nor do I rely on them alone to determine the impact that any given link I acquire will have.

Relevance

In SEO, relevance means providing context to the search engine, just as you would to a reader or user. If you’re getting link placements on relevant sites and in relevant locations within those sites, then you’re probably doing something right. For example, it naturally makes sense for a foodie blogger to be talking about different kitchen utensils and equipment from brands like Hamilton Beach, KitchenAid, and Cuisinart. The topic and the placement of links to these brands make sense for a food blogger, the topic is relevant to the brand and is relevant to the blog’s readers. When executing a long-term marketing campaign you will inevitably outgrow the obvious original communities. But if it’s a unique and interesting campaign that is timely and flexible, it will have relevance in additional spaces. The closer you get to achieving optimal relevance, the greater the impact your links will have on ranking.

The Balancing Act

In summary, both quality and quantity are important, and it’s important to strike an even balance. One is not simply better than the other; they are of equal importance and have different attributing factors (relevance, trust, anchor text, etc.) that impact rankings. Striking a good balance between the two can be the difference between being a major player at the top of the SERPS or a Joe Shmoe on page 5!

About the Author

Natalie Peltz

Senior Brand Strategist - SEO

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