Before we get into this article let me first state, link building is not dead. There are a lot of opinions floating around the web on both sides; this is just mine. Google has shut down link networks and Matt Cutts continues to make videos on what types of guest blogging are OK. If links were dead, would Google really put in this effort? Would anyone get an “unnatural links” warning?
The fact is, links matter. The death is in links that are easy to manipulate. Some may say link building is dead but what they mean is, “The easy links that I know how to build are dead.”
What does this mean for those of us who still want high rankings and know we need links to get them? Simply, buckle up, because you have to take off your gaming hat and put on your marketing cap. You have to understand people and you have to know how to work with them, either directly or indirectly.
I could write a book on what this means for link building as a whole, but this isn't a book, so I'll try to keep focused. In this article, we're going to focus on one kind of link building and one source of high quality link information that typically goes unnoticed: referrer data.
I should make one note before we launch in, I'm going to use the term loosely to provide additional value. We'll get into that shortly but first, let's see how referrer data helps and how to use it.
The Value Of Referrer Data
Those of you who have ignored your analytics can stop reading now and start over with “A Guide To Getting Started With Analytics.” Bookmark this article and maybe come back to it in a few weeks. Those of you who do use your analytics on at least a semi-regular basis and are interested in links can come along while we dig in.
The question is, why is referrer data useful? Let's think about what Google's been telling us about valuable links: they are those that you would build if there were no engines. So where are we going to find the links we'd be happy about if there were no engines? Why, in our traffic, of course.
Apart from the fact that traffic is probably one of, if not the best, indicator of the quality and relevancy of a link to your site, your traffic data can also help you find the links you didn't know you had and what you did to get them. Let's start there.
Referrers To Your Site
Every situation is a bit different (OK – sometimes more than a bit) so I'm going to have to focus on general principles here and keep it simple.
When you look to your referrer data, you're looking for a few simple signals. Here's what you're looking for and why:
- Which sites are directing traffic to you? Discovering which sites are directing traffic to you can give you a better idea of the types of sites you should be looking for links from (i.e. others that are likely to link to you, as well). You may also find types of sites you didn't expect driving traffic. This happens a lot in the SEO realm, but obviously can also happen in other niches. Here, you can often find not only opportunities, but relevancies you might not have predicted.
- What are they linking to? The best link building generates links you don't have to actively build. The next best are those that drive traffic. We want to know both. In looking through your referrer data, you can find the pages and information that appeal to other website owners and their visitors. This will tell you who is linking to you and give you ideas on the types of content to focus on creating. There's also nothing stopping you from contacting the owner of the site that sent the initial link and informing them of an updated copy (if applicable) or other content you've created since that they might also be interested in.
- Who are they influential with? If you know a site is sending you traffic, logically you can assume the people who visit that site (or the specific sub-section in the case of news-type sites) are also interested in your content (or at least more likely to be interested than standard mining techniques). Mining the followers of that publisher for social connections to get your content in front of them is a route that can increase your success rate in link strategies ranging from guest blogging to pushing your content out via Facebook paid advertising. Admittedly, this third area of referrer data is more akin to refining a standard link list, but it's likely a different audience than you would have encountered (and with a higher-than-standard success rate for link acquisition or other actions).
As I noted above, I plan to use the term referrer data loosely. As if point three wasn't loose enough, we're going to quickly cover a strategy that ties nicely with this: your competitor's referrer data.
You probably can't call up a competitor and ask them for their traffic referrer data (if you can, I wish I was in your sector). For the rest of us, I highly recommend pulling backlink referrer data for your competitors using one of the many great tools out there. I tend to use Moz Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO personally, but there are others.
What I'm interested in here are the URLs competitors link to. While the homepage can yield interesting information, it can often be onerous to weed through and I generally relegate that to different link time frames.
Generally, I will put together a list of the URLs linked to, then review these as well as the pages linking to them. This helps give us an idea of potential domains to target for links, but more importantly, they can let us know the types of relevant content that others are linking to.
If we combine this information with the data collected above when mining our referrer data, we can be left with more domains to seek links on and broader ideas for content creation. You'll probably also find other ways the content is being linked to. Do they make top lists? Are they producing videos or whitepapers that are garnering links from authority sites? All of this information meshes together to make the energies you put into your own referrer mining more effective, allowing you to produce a higher number of links per hour than you'd be able to get with your own.
Is This It?
No. While mining your referrer data can be a great source of information regarding the types of links you have that you should be seeking more of, it's limited to the links and traffic sources you already have. It's a lot like looking to your Analytics for keyword ideas (prior to (not provided) at least). It can only tell you what's working of what you have already.
A diversified link profile is the key to a healthy long term strategy. This is just one method you can use to help find what works now and keep those link acquisition rates up while exploring new techniques.