This is the ninth post in our How to Conduct an SEO Audit in 2020 series. If you’re just joining us, we recommend starting at the introductory post.
Even more so now than ever, backlinks are one of the - if not the absolute - most important factors that can leave you dwindling on page two and beyond, or catapult you into the number one spot on Google.
Don’t skimp on auditing your links - it’s not the most glamorous job, but given its importance and value, it’s time and money well spent.
While there are many tools available that can help you with backlink auditing, we recommend one or a combination of the following (all of them, budget permitting!):
- MOZ Link Exporer (formerly Open Site Explorer)
- The Hoth Backlink Checker
- SmallSEO Tools
- Screaming Frog or Scrutiny (MacOS only)
- Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools)
Once you have your tools set up and a chunk of your time carved out, you can start sifting through your link profile.
How Relevant Are Your Links?
This is the primary metric for evaluating your link building profile and strategy. Your backlinks should simply be relevant to your site, and the specific content they’re linking to. That’s not to say you have to bat 1000 - it’s okay to have some links that 100% relevant, but you want to aim for a significant portion.
For this we’ll want a list of our backlinks. You can hop in to SEMRush or Ahrefs if you have a subscription and export a full list, but if you’re DIYing your SEO you probably aren’t going to be ponying up the $100 every month for either of those tools, let alone both of them.
Thankfully, there are some amazing free options that are relatievely generous in what they provide.
Head to any or all of the following and plug in your domain:
- Ahrefs Backlink Checker
- The Hoth Backlink Checker
- Moz Link Explorer
- SmallSEO Backlink Checker
You’ll recieve a list of backlinks, but more importantly for us right now, a list of referring domains. These are the overall sites that are linking to your content, and we want to make sure they’re relevant.
Now, there are fancy ways to automate and analyze this data, but at this level you likely don’t have too many referring domains, and you’re likely familiar with most of them.
(If you do have the extra cash lying around, you can always use Majestic SEO to analyze your link profile, but that’s beyond the scope of this article for now)
First, you’ll want to export your link list to a CSV file.
Once that’s done, pop it open in Google Sheets or spreadsheet app of your choice.
Then, read through the referring domains - if they’re familiar to you and make sense to link to your content then just keep on moving forward. But if you don’t recognize one, stop for a moment and mark it.
Once you’ve finished with the list, sort the columns by domains you marked as not recognized.
Now, go through and take a look at those sites. Are they relevant to your industry and content? If so, then great! Keep that link!
However if they aren’t, mark them for future reference. There are times when disavowing backlinks is necessary, but for now we just want to catalog the domains and links, and get an overall picture of our link health.
One additional note about referring domains: as long as they are relevant, the more the better. There’s not much more to say about that!
Examining (and respecting mah) Authority
As with domains, links carry what’s known as “link authority”. The higher the authority a link has, the more it passes on to your site, and the stronger the ranking signal you recieve. Entire SEO campaigns have been won simply with the smart application of high authority links.
Most SEO tools will report the ‘powerfulness’ of a given domain, sometimes using their own data and metrics (i.e. Ahrefs has a metric called Domain Rating).
There’s no actual “official” number attached to domains and links, but these SEO tool companies have made it their business to aggregate and trawl through the data to build a pretty accurate picture of the ranking signals, and the “authority” numbers are their simply quantitative way of representing that.
It may seem a bit like black magic in a black box (and that’s because there’s a bit of this that is exactly that), but they’re in business for a reason and it’s safe to trust the numbers.
So as you go through your links and linking domains, you’ll want to note any extremely low scoring links, as well as the very high scoring links. If you’re still in your spreadsheet program I’d recommend conditionally formatting the authority column to range from green (at 100) to red (at 0 authority) to give you a quick at-a glance indicator.
One other metric to be aware of is traffic; high traffic plus high ranking is extremely valuable and what you’re striving for!
Variety is the spice!
Now that we’ve got a baseline for our backlink profile health, let’s take a look at the specifics of the links.
As you’ve probably noticed as a consumer and user of the internet, links come in all different flavors, ranging from in-copy links, to blog and forum links, to directory links, and more.
Then you have your spectrum of follow vs. no-follow links. You may think that no-follow links are worthless, since they don’t transfer authority, and on paper that makes sense (and the verdict is still out on how Google looks at no-follow links as part of ranking overall).
What we do know, however, is that a real, natural, organic link profile is going to be “imperfect” and include it’s fair share of no-follow links.
Having ONLY, or a high percentage, of “follow” links is the SEO equivalent of cooking your books and having it be too neat. It’s suspicious, and a flag to Google that something not natural - and possibly black-hat - is going on.
There’s no magic number, but if your follow/total links is sitting between 60%-75% you’re in good shape. If you’re extremely authoritative, and/or niche, upwards of 90% is normal and healthy as well.
This relates to where your backlinks are pointing. There are two types of links: apex domain (essentially your homepage) links, and links to specific content on your site such as a blog post or other relevant resource; the latter of these two is what’s known as a “deep link,” because it links “deep” into the content of your site.
As you can imagine, you want most of your links to be deep links. Targeting exact, relevant content will not only drive more traffic, it can help your overall site performance because you’re more likely to have users dwell on your site for longer.
Homepage links aren’t bad to have either, depending on how they’re presented. You don’t want the anchor text to sound like it will take a user to specific content and then dump them on your homepage to fend for themselves. Fixing this is beyond the scope of this article, but luckly this happens extremely infrequently.
Always keep specificity in mind when you strike out on your own for link-building opportunitites - it’s one of the easiest wins to drive SEO results and help raise your rank.