Based on the emails and response I received for my contribution to the “Link Building Secrets” project, I know that I am not the only one that loves to use metrics to measure how close I am to my goals. Thanks to everyone for your emails and encouraging comments. In this post I want to reveal another useful metric I use for our internal and client projects.
When you check the backlinks of sites ranking for competitive keywords (terms with many search results) you see that those sites have a large number of links pointing to them. But if you count the links of the top ten (using Yahoo Site Explorer, as the rest of the backlink checkers are not very useful), you notice that the results at the top don’t necessarily have more links than the ones at the bottom. This is the case because each link carries a unique rank-boosting weight (real PageRank and other link-value factors in the case of Google) that contributes to the ranking of the page for that particular term. In order to simplify things, I like to refer to the combinations of positive and negative link value factors of a page as its Link Mass.
Understanding Link Mass
In order to explain link mass better, let me first outline a couple of fundamental concepts: importance and reputation. Importance (or PageRank) is a measure of the visibility of a page. This is regularly represented by the sheer number of incoming links a site has and their respective importance. However, a page can be very important (highly visible), but not necessarily very reputable. For search engines the reputation of a page depends primarily on how much it is associated with spam. Search engines internally label each page in their index as spam or not spam (using a range instead of just black or white). The best way to understand reputation is to think of it like your credit score. The more infractions you commit, the more points are taken from your score. Similarly, the more your site links to sites that are considered spammy, the more it affects your score. There are other factors that can affect your reputation and flag your site as potentially spammy: getting too many links in a short period of time without natural signs to support it, having an artificial (unnatural) pattern in your link structure, evidence of massive link exchanges, or having the majority of links coming from very low-quality sources (already flagged as spam by the search engine). The idea is that your importance improves with the quantity and quality of your incoming links, and your reputation diminishes with any signal that search engines can pick out flagging your site as guilty of link spam.
With these concepts clear, it is simple to explain link mass. The link mass of a page is the sum of the importance (or real PageRank) contributions from incoming links, minus the reductions in the reputation score for the reasons explained above. A few other things to note:
1. The more links you have and the higher their quality, the higher your link mass; the more negative elements in your site or the sites linking to you the less your link mass.
2. Pages with higher link mass contribute more link mass to the pages they link to than pages with less link mass.
3. Links coming from diverse sources contribute more link mass than links coming from affiliated sources.
Calculating Link Mass
Determining link mass requires a careful and thorough analysis of the link structure of a site or page. First you need to extract all the links to a site, as I explained in a previous post (BTW, I still plan to release the tool I promised in that post, I am just not very happy with the performance at the moment), and then you need to measure the importance and reputation of each incoming link. The importance can be as simple as determining the toolbar PageRank. Determining the reputation of a page is difficult because we don’t know for sure which pages Google or other search engines flag as spam. However, I think the technique I described in the link building project article offers a good approximation of the link mass of a page, because any negative factors are factored in when search engines decide to prioritize the crawling and indexing of the site. After all, why would they want to crawl a page often if they believe it is not very reputable?
Identifying link opportunities
On the Web there are content consumers and content producers. It is important to understand this because content producers and content consumers do not regularly speak the same language. Content consumers are the ones who type queries into search engines. Search engine rankings, however, are primarily influenced by the content producers via the links and endorsements they include in their content on a regular basis. I am not going to discuss here the motivations of content producers to give links (paid or editorial), but rather I want to offer a very simple way you can identify link opportunities. When a content producer writes content naturally, it is unlikely that he or she will use the exact same words that somebody (the content consumer) types into the search box. In a previous blog post, I talked about how people type their problems into search engines by expressing the symptoms they have, not necessarily by typing in the solutions. This is why content producers need keyword research to write more successful content. It is also one of my favorite strategies to find keywords with low link mass (and thus require less effort to achieve).
How to determine the effort required and project the ROI
Link mass is therefore an important metric to consider when determining the amount of effort necessary to rank for a particular term. Just counting the sheer number of links for a top-ranking site doesn’t tell us the whole story. We need to consider the importance and reputation of each one of the links, because some links will contribute more link mass (ranking power) than others, and it is usually a good idea to try to get the hardest ones first. The easy ones will be easy.
Different link-building strategies require different amounts of effort, time and budgets. If you are a smart link builder you will try to sync your keyword research with your link-building strategy. Among a group of relevant keywords for your site, you want to focus on the ones that have the same or similar demand (volume of searches or potential clicks) but that require the less effort (lowest link mass) in order to begin seeing results sooner rather than later.
It is best to keep a simple spreadsheet where you can tally those numbers. For example, let’s say that you are trying to get your site to reach a link mass requiring ten links with a PageRank of 7, five links with a PageRank of 4, and twenty links with a PageRank of 3. You also want to make sure that the sites where the links are placed do not have any visible spam signals, such as a very old search engine cache or massive link-exchange directory. Then you measure how much time and effort it takes you to get a PageRank-7 link, a PageRank-5 and a PageRank-3. Please note that I am not talking about buying links, but the effort (e.g. research, write and pitch a guest post to a site with such characteristics, or finding a dofollow blog and leaving a thoughtful comment). Knowing your target link mass along with these numbers will allow you to project the cost and time to reach a particular ranking. You can combine the data from your keyword research to determine the revenue potential of the keywords, and with some simple math calculate the ROI for yourself or your client.
The two most fundamental aspects of any SEO project in terms of the return for time spent are keyword research and link building. You need the keyword research to make sure you are getting relevant traffic, but without links you won’t rank for any keyword that is going to send you search traffic, period. I hope this helps you with your own link-building strategies. Let me know in the comments.