What Is Viewability and Should We Apply It to Link Acquisition?

Google recently reported that more than 56 percent of its ads are not measured as “viewable” – meaning more than half of all ads bought through Google are never seen by human eyes.

According to Google’s blog, a statistically smaller number of publishers are responsible for making this figure so staggeringly large, yet the average publisher’s viewability is only 50.2 percent.

But what does viewability mean? According to Digiday:

Viewability is an online advertising metric that aims to track only impressions that can actually be seen by users.

How many SEO professionals have concerned themselves over whether their links are being seen by humans? It’s an absurd thought, considering that PR and SEO are converging and the former has always been all about getting eyeballs on brands.

It’s time to move away from authority metrics for links. Domain Authority doesn’t work for link acquisition anymore – it was always guesswork and was only useful in prioritising link targets when the industry used to pay for links.

Can We Consider the Viewability of Links?

A good link isn’t one with a big number in the PageRank toolbar – it’s one that drives traffic to a website.

SEO professionals don’t rely on rankings to demonstrate their contributions to the extent that they once did, with user metrics, conversions from search, and overall market share online taking precedence. Rankings are a byproduct of a great campaign, so why should we KPI link-building on outdated metrics?

I have found it much more effective to report on referral traffic in link reports. How many clicks did you get from each link you placed? Did any of those clicks convert? It’s impossible to prove that PageRank and Domain Authority correlate with improved search rankings – reporting on business critical metrics instead is far more effective for proving your worth as a department and justifying (or increasing) the budget you get.

To illustrate, here’s a piece of content that the agency I work for created for one of our clients:


Using CRM data, we created a map of where enquiries for specific services came from, working out what is popular in each area. Using the data in the map, we approached journalists writing for publications that we know the company’s customers are likely to read.

As a consequence we were able to drive around 1,500 referral visits to the client’s website that had a chance of converting (live in the right location, coming from related media). Four percent of those visitors did convert – and though there were substantial ranking benefits from the 20 links acquired during the campaign – it’s the number of conversions that resulted that justifies the work.

Where Do Links Get Seen?

As an industry we should go back to being concerned about our link’s position within copy. If you have any control over what a link on someone else’s domain looks like – whether that’s anchor text, proximity to key phrases, or position on page – that’s generally a bad thing.

According to research published on Think With Google the most viewable position for an ad (or link) is right above the fold, not at the top of a page…but the position of “right above the fold” will vary massively from device to device, so worrying about the position of a link on a page is counterproductive. Plus it’s likely that journalists will mention your brand at the top of the article – in a previous post for Search Engine Watch I explained the inverted pyramid principle: what has happened and who is responsible for it often leads the story.

Choosing link acquisition targets should be led by audience research. It’s not a question of where in an article is the best place for a link to be placed; it’s a question of where the best place for that article would be for your target audience to see it.

Laura Crimmons published a great post on State of Digital recently about how to find and understand your online audience. Don’t go straight for niche blogs – posting exclusively on travel blogs for travel brands isn’t going to be the best link source to drive brand awareness or traffic. Instead, try using social listening and profiling tools (or market research) and go for the media that most closely matches your target audience.

How to Report on Viewability

It’s not often we’d be able to report on the impressions gained by a link – unless we’re using a content discovery platform like Taboola, which won’t impact SEO (but is incredibly useful for driving qualified traffic to a website and is definitely something I would recommend experimenting with). But because you should have minimal input on what the links you place look like on page (e.g. anchor text) reporting on impressions is not all that useful (the gap between the number of impressions served and number of clicks gained is failed potential, and it’s not your website you’re link building on so there’s very little you can do about that).

Viewability metrics like Google’s Active View will not translate easily to link-building, but I don’t think inventing a new metric is constructive when there’s plenty in analytics that SEO professionals – and link builders in particular – should be accountable for.

Instead, consider adding referral traffic to your link reports. Look where those referrals come from – if a website has driven relevant videos to your website that’s a viewable link that you should be happy to approach again with your next piece of content. I would be happy to acquire links from the same website month after month if it continues to drive converting traffic.

Related reading

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The SEO metrics that really matter for your business
How to take advantage of the latest updates to Google Search Console
Using Python to recover SEO site traffic (Part three)