Message us

All great projects start with a conversation.

Thank you. We received your message and will get back to you soon!

Browse our work

or Send another message?


Link-building on gut feeling

You may be horrified to discover that sometimes, just sometimes, I like to close all of our SEO analysis tools, and build links solely according to how I feel about a website.

Yes, sometimes I don’t churn it through Sistrix (our swanky new German analytics tool), and sometimes I don’t use Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs or any of the other fancy things we’ve got. I just go in blind.

Now, before you call me crazy and some kind of ‘maverick’, I assess every potential link according to three things – Authority, Context and Trust, or ACT as I like to call it, in a fit of business acronymising.

Another new word. I’m on fire. 

The characteristics of a link

Whereas once (long ago), we thought of links as something we needed in bulk, today we think of links as friends. And the friends you keep say a lot about you. For example, if I were to tell you that I was ‘best mates’ with Fred Goodwin, you’d probably think I was some kind of criminal myself.

That’s a link. The link between myself and Fred Goodwin has spread mistrust – from him to me. All of a sudden, you don’t trust me because of my link with Fred Goodwin.

The links between websites are no different. That’s why Google brought out its disavow tool – a sort of newspaper libel device that allowed you to say “I’m definitely not friends with them, they shouldn’t have published that story.” So you can, to a degree, control the friends you keep. The art lies in the judgement, and that’s why I’m going in blind.

A link can pass any of those three aspects I mentioned earlier – ACT (Authority, Context, Trust). If I were to tell you that I spent the weekend at my good friend Barack Obama’s house, then you’d think “Hey, he’s obviously very important” and you immediately bestow authority upon me. Equally, if I were to tell you that I had just beaten Rory McIlroy in a round of golf, you’d bestow some context onto me – I’m a golfer, and a darn good one at that.

Gut feelings when link building

The trouble with gut feelings is that we all have different ones. For example, there are many in the US who, when hearing that I spent the weekend with Barack Obama, would think “that man’s dangerous, he’s a commie and he’s trying to bring our country down.”

Thankfully, we’re only dealing with Google’s opinion, which we hope to be relatively neutral. However, we’re pre-judging it somewhat when we work with our gut feelings.

We look at the design of a website. If it’s a basic Wordpress template, the sort that you see when you install a site for the first time, then we make assumptions. “It’s cheap”, you think. “I’m not sure I trust it”.

99 times out of 100, you may be right. Equally, if it looks like it was designed in 1999, with spinning gifs and green text on black background, then you start to wonder whether this site belongs to human beings or not.

But we may be wrong. What if, for example, this ugly website appears to be kept up to date every day with fresh content – some of it very good. What if that content were shared on social networks by real people, not fake ones, and those real people commented on the articles and discussed them at length?

This is the kind of site you wouldn’t mind being associated with, despite its appearances.

Context as the new pagerank - ContextRank

I always hated the PageRank model, this simplistic way of assessing a website. Even today, people ping out e-mails offering guest posts according to pagerank, as if there’s a real, tangible difference between a pagerank 2 and a pagerank 3.

If links pass characteristics between entities, then we should be looking to inform the search engines of exactly what we do not through anchor text (that’s sooo 2011) but by the context of the website, the page, the content, the paragraph, and the surrounding words.

That’s why, instead of looking at pagerank, I sort my potential link partners according to closeness of context, with a score of 1 to 10. Call it ContextRank, if you will. No analysis tools needed, just a gut feeling for how close the context of one website is to your target website. Your competitors may be a ContextRank 10, for example.

Who are their friends?

Alongside that, how much authority do you think a website can pass to yours? Do they look like a website that you would cite as a reference yourself? Do they have multiple, regular contributors?

But equally, who do they link to? In the light of Google’s “reachability score” patent a while back, what can you learn about them from their friends? We’re always suspicious of websites that link out to Viagra or Gambling websites, so you can trust a website – on a scale of 1 to 10 – partly on who they link to. If you see signs of connectivity with other websites who rank highly on your ContextRank, then you get an idea of where they sit in the community.

When you create a link, you’re actively saying “this is my friend”. In the past, we assumed that you were just saying “I vouch for this website”, as if you were voting for them, but it’s more than that. Not only are you bestowing some of your characteristics upon that website (your own context, authority and trust), but you’re defining your own trustworthiness.

What’s your gut score out of 30?

So – we have a ContextRank, but if we were to score our prospective link partners out of ten for Authority and Trust, we’d have a score out of 30. This helps us get round the tricky problem of highly authoritative sites, such as The Guardian, which score relatively low on Context – and the even trickier problem of less authoritative sites that score highly on Context.

It helps us see which sites score well all round, and also how we can obtain a more varied backlink profile. It’s not entirely natural, after all, to have links solely from industry competitors or blogs!

You see, building links through gut feeling can be measured, and it can be quantified, and we don’t have to dismiss a website solely because SeoMoz says it has a domain authority of just 20, or because Google says it has a PageRank of 1. Only yesterday, I saw a website in development for which I’d chew my right arm off in exchange for a link (small exaggeration, but I don’t get out much). It was full of content, high on context, and in time, potentially would score well on authority and trust.

So just for a day, put away your tools, pack away your processes and let your gut feeling guide you. You never know what you might find.