Link Audits: What should you be looking for?

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Link auditing has been something that has been examined for a considerable time within SEO, but has never been as important as it is in today’s changing landscape. Since the Penguin algorithm there have been SEOs up and down the country conducting link audits, not just to identify penalties but to ensure there isn’t a possibility of getting in trouble.

Due to the algorithm updates, the way people conduct audits has changed, as have the metrics and type of information and/or websites they look at. We are constantly looking to improve what we do internally at, and I wanted to share with you some of the metrics that we look at and the reasons behind them.

I have even managed to rope in a few others to give their thoughts on what they look at when conducting a link audit.

What’s Changed?

It’s long been known that the quantity of links is no longer a factor in the algorithm. Rather, it is the quality of the linking domain that provides the value. Therefore, there is little point, except for benchmarking, in looking at the total number of links pointing to your domain, especially if you have identified that the majority of those are low-quality links such as directories, website comments and articles.

What to look for?

Although most of the industry has changed the way that they are acquiring links, there are still some who continue to acquire links unnaturally, or who have used this technique in the past. This all means that you need to be extra vigilant when looking through your link profile. It’s important that you can spot any trends and issues to ensure that you action something instantly.

Below are a number of factors (not all) that we look at when conducting a link audit:

Authority/Influence Score
The majority of us use some kind of score when looking at links, whether that be Domain Authority from Moz or Influence Score from MajesticSEO/Linkdex, as it gives you a very quick and visual look at the state of your link profile. As with anything, this is a top-level view and you also need to manually assess those links.

This is generally one of the first things that I do when conducting a link audit. I can quickly see if there is a major issue, especially if the chart is showing more links to the lower side of the authority/influence score. Once I have done this, I can then dig deeper into those links that are below where I would hope them to be, and this provides a good starting point for analysis.

Linking Influence Score

*The chart above is also a very good way to represent it when showing clients. It allows them to easily understand the state of their link profile without going into too much detail.

Where are your links from? (Link types)
So all your links are from directories and guest posts! That looks natural.

By looking at the link type, you get more information on how natural your profile is, and what you need to be considering moving forward. There are a number of tools available for you to see quickly what link types you have, such as Link Detective and Linkdex.

The ideal scenario is that you will have a number of links from everywhere: directories, blog posts, news, image banners, text, followed and no followed links, all with different or natural anchor text. This will be classed as much more natural link profile than if they all come from a certain tactic.

If you do spot areas of concern, especially if the majority of your links are coming from the same area, then you need to think carefully about what value they are providing, and how this will affect your strategy going forward.

Things you should be looking for in more detail are:

– Site types (blog, news, directory, forums, etc.)
– Link type (images, text)
– Followed vs NoFollowed

Anchor text distribution
Brand variations should always be the main terms you find when having an initial look at your link profile. If your brand doesn’t occupy the top 5 to 10 then you are likely to be in some serious trouble. People don’t naturally link by your core terms! People link with Brand, URLs, Click here, etc. This is natural!

If you do spot that your anchor text distribution is predominantly non-brand, then you need to consider whether they are good links, or if they should be removed. If they are good links, then you need to be thinking about a brand building campaign that will drive natural brand links to your website with the aim of having a more natural profile.

Anchor Text Distribution Chart

Links from the same IP
If you have links from the same IP, then this could be seen as a clear signal of networking. Building lots of links across a network of websites that sit on the same IP can be seen as a manipulative technique and possible lead to penalties, whether manual or algorithmic.

Being able to spot IPs can be somewhat difficult if you use standard tools, but you can pull these in with either the Excel for SEOs tool or by using other paid tools such as LinkRisk.

Once you have this information you should filter it in order, and go through each of the links. You are likely to see a pattern, whether it be a type of site, such as directories (most probable), or blogs that are all on the same topic. Either way, they are likely to need removing, but this is something that you need to consider before starting out.

LinkRisk Profile
As previously mentioned, Penguin has caused many people to be looking at their link profile for all types of reasons. But now no matter what you are doing an audit for, you need to be looking at it with penalties in mind, and how you can prevent your client/website from getting one.

We have been using LinkRisk as the first stage of risk identification, with clear scoring patterns that allow you to quickly see the health of the website. However, once a report has been created, we also go through manually checking to ensure that a human eye has been cast over every domain. Time-consuming, I hear you say? Well yes, but algorithms can make mistakes no matter how complex they are, just ask Google.

During this process we look at the links from a human perspective asking ourselves some questions:

– Will this link drive traffic?
– Has this link been built for SEO purposes?
– Was this link built via manipulative/paid means?

If our answers aren’t “Yes”, “No” and “No”, then we start to create a list of website owners to contact to have them removed or to create a disavow file. This is a key part of our link audits, and one that is highly recommended being in yours.

LinkRisk Score

But these are just my thoughts, what do others think?

To help me with this, I asked Paul Rogers and Paul Madden (All the Paul’s) for their thoughts on what to look for when auditing a website.
Paul Rogers

“For me, link auditing is one of the most important skills for an SEO professional to have these days – as unnatural link patterns represent a huge risk for websites and they can often be difficult to detect.

I start by outputting links (from multiple data sources) into a spreadsheet and apply formulas to identify low quality links (e.g.: targeted anchor)

There are lots of things to look out for when auditing a link profile, such as:

– High number of similar links (group of sites, c-blocks, similar format etc.)
– Suspicious looking individual links (sitewide, directory, comment etc.)
– suspicious looking trends (directories, networks etc.)
– Obvious footprints (guest post, sponsored post etc.)
– Links from sites that clearly sell links

These are just a few to go alongside what you have mentioned, but there are hundreds of signals to be looking out for.

These days, even websites that have never been impacted by the penguin update should be looking to optimise their link profile, in order to future-proof their organic visibility.”

Paul Madden

“Doing a link audit is a skilled task and shouldn’t be left to someone without the correct level of experience.

Some things to consider when you are doing a link audit include: –

Try to use as many data sources as possible for the initial audit. Our experience suggests that the best sources in declining order of importance are: –

  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • Majestic SEO Historic and Fresh
  • Ahrefs
  • Existing client SEO link building reports
  • Moz
  • Bing Webmaster Tools

If the site is under penalty then you will have to confess to and reverse nearly all the SEO activity within the profile before you can expect to escape the penalty. This includes removing or disavowing all commercial anchor text links and all links from site types that have been used to gather links over the years. This would include directories, articles, sponsored links, widgets, site wide (sidebar, footer and widget links) and nowadays you’ll have to look more carefully at things like detectable guest posts and press releases.

Think about the links you see in the profile in terms of what is algorhythmically detectable and what is not. This will include thinking about things like obvious footprints as well as looking at whether the linking site is likely to have appeared on Google’s radar already in other penalties and disavow data.

We have literally thousands of disavow files now uploaded to LinkRisk and its been very interesting to see what the quality of that data tells us about the thinking of most SEO’s when doing the disavow and cleanup work. Our most disavowed domain has been disavowed at “domain:” level over 180 times so far (I can’t name it I’m afraid) and people have even been disavowing the highest quality domains in an attempt to wipe the slate clean ( 52 times / 12 times!). This also tells us something about Google’s expected ability to use the disavow data against us… its patchy as far as quality for web spam detection at best.

When you submit your disavow you have two choices to make on timings. You can wait for the Google cache to update on the sites where you have had the link removed (a few weeks typically) before submitting the reinclusion request so Google can confirm that they have gone (this is our preferred method). You could also submit the reinclusion earlier but this will sometimes necessitate the disavowing of many of the domains that have actually said they will remove or Google will be unable to confirm that the removals have taken place.

Whilst its tempting to get the reinclusion in quickly I would strongly suggest that, on moral grounds, disavowing should only be done as a last resort and its unfair to disavow if the site owner is working with you to remove the links.”

What’s Next?

As links change, and in some people’s thought become less important, what else should you be looking at?

Well, this is something I have been thinking about for a while, and I think there will be two additions to those metrics above.

Social counts at page level. This will be based on the ability to reach a wider audience by sharing your content, allowing you to increase authority, traffic and, of course, build links. This metric will allow you to see how well it correlates with those pages that have attracted the most natural links.

The other area that I feel we will be looking into going forward, is looking at the person that has placed the link. Are they an authority within your industry or niche? Do they link to competitors? What websites are they linking from? Do they have a good following?

I think these are two metrics that will be looked at increasingly over the coming months and years as these link audits evolve.

So, those are some of the metrics that we look at when conducting a link audit, but don’t think that’s the job done! At the end of the audit, you need to be able to produce some actionable takeaways to show the client. Do they need to remove links? Is there a gap that needs to be filled? Do they continue doing what they are doing? These are the types of questions you should be able to answer, adding to your strategy moving forward.

What do you look for when auditing a website? Do you disagree with any of the above? What other items would you suggest adding to an audit document? I would love to hear your comments below and of course on twitter @danielbianchini.

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