Google recently came on record saying that links may be less important in the future than they are today.
And while this is an interesting point for futurologists, it’s also an admission that links still play a MAJOR role when it comes to your site ranking on top of the #1 search engine today.
In fact, they’re probably still the main ranking factor.
However, the link building & creation process is still somewhat of a murky topic due to Google’s vague & punitive Webmaster guidelines on the topic.
So we decided to anonymously survey 755 professional link builders on how they build links, what works best / worst for them, and what it really takes to make link building work for your business.
Here’s a summary of the most interesting findings and key statistics:
74.3% of link builders pay for links. We knew this number would be high, but didn’t expect it to be this high.
We broke down the specific amount being paid and found that the average cost of a paid link is $83.
However, when comparing those who pay for links vs those who don’t, we found that paying for links yields only an extra 2 links per month.
In-house SEOs pay 75% more for links than niche site owners. Nobody seems to have a problem spending other people’s money.
Looking at all links, when salaries are factored in, we found that experienced link builders can build links 41% cheaper.
It takes an average of 3.1 months to see the impact of a link on search ranking, with very few saying it takes longer than 6 months or less than 1 month.
Guest posting is, by far, the most popular link building tactic. This is somewhat contradictory to the point that the same people said creating content or linkable assets is the most effective link building tactic.
Google has told us that nofollow is a hint, not a rule. Our participants agreed as 89.1% of link builders say nofollow links have an impact on rankings
Looking for a way to boost your results? Are you using social media for outreach? Link builders using social media build 22% more links than those who don’t.
About This Survey
We surveyed 755 link builders. 525 of them were niche site owners, with agencies, freelancers, and in-house SEOs making up the rest.
Site owners are the primary audience here at Authority Hacker. We cross-referenced the background of participants against answers to most of the questions, and that generated some surprising insights.
We also asked participants about their link building experience. There was an almost even split across all experience levels.
This allowed us to cross reference experience with questions such as link building output, tactics and measurements of success. Throughout the survey, we consistently found that the most experienced link builders behaved very differently. We’ll be sharing all these findings with you in this article.
According to our survey of 755 link builders, agencies had the most experienced link builders. This was almost double as much as other types of businesses.
Experienced Link Builders Can Build 3.57X as Many Links as Beginners
Link builders with more experience build more links. Nobody is going to be shocked by this revelation. What did surprise though, was the rate at which this gap increased as link builders gained more experience.
Link builders with less than a year of experience build, on average, just 7 links per month. Many businesses like to hire link builders with no experience and train them up. This graph shows that looking for more experienced link builders may actually be a better solution these days.
Link builders with 5+ years of experience built 67% more links than those with just 2-5 years under their belt. This surprised us a lot. It’s a huge gap and shows the value of working with very experienced link builders, the majority of whom work for agencies.
Experienced Link Builders Are 49% Cheaper on a Cost per Link Basis
We cross-referenced data from link builder salaries with our data from the survey. This allowed us to work out a cost per link of hiring more or less experienced link builders.
Experienced link builders get paid around double the salary of junior link builders. Yet they deliver 3-4 times as many links. This results in a lower cost per link when hiring experienced link builders.
This means that:
Link builders with 5+ years of experience deliver links that are 41% cheaper on a cost-per-link basis than those from their less experienced counterparts
Check out our podcast on hiring Link Builders to learn more about how to recruit the best talent.
74.3% Of Link Builders Pay for Links
Most link builders now pay for links. Despite Google’s guidelines, it’s clear that most link builders still believe paid links to be effective. That is why three quarters report paying for links.
The reality of the market in competitive niches is that you have to be open to paid links, or you lose out. Having tried it out ourselves on a couple of our other sites, they do work. You just have to be careful of paying for the wrong type of link.
There are a growing number of ‘link farms’, which don’t provide much SEO value but are still happy to sell you a link. These are difficult to spot, especially for less experienced link builders. We covered link farms recently on our podcast.
Link Builders Are More Likely to Pay for Links as They Gain More Experience
We found that link builders are more likely to pay for links, as they gain more experience in the industry.
One possibility here is that as link builders gain more experience, they have more opportunities to observe what is working. And right now, paid links do work, to some extent.
It’s also possible that more experienced link builders have more budget available to them. Either way, it shows that the most experienced link builders favor paid links more than those with less experience.
The Average Cost for a Paid Link Is $83
The average cost of a paid link across all business types and experience levels is $83.
This is just the price paid to a site for placing the link. It does not include the cost of the labor that goes into doing outreach or content.
Many survey respondents have also reported that this price has been increasing lately. Inflation is one possibility. Another is that demand for paid links has caused more site owners to raise their prices.
According to a survey of 755 link builders, the average cost of a paid link is $83.
In-House SEOs Pay 75% More for Links Than Niche Site Owners
We compared the amount paid per link with the type of link builder and found that agencies and in-house SEOs pay quite a bit more for links.
Agencies and in-house SEOs tend to have fixed budgets and stricter quotas or deadlines. It makes sense that they are willing to pay a bit extra to ensure that they can deliver to their clients on time.
Niche site owners have the added incentive of keeping all the extra money that they save in link fees. This could be why they pay a lot less per link. It could also be due to having a lower budget too.
The key takeaway here, if you are an agency or in-house SEO, is that there is likely considerable scope to negotiate your link prices down.
Experienced SEOs Pay 221% More for Links
Our survey results showed that link builders with more experience pay more for links. The trajectory was pretty linear across all experience levels.
The most simple explanation for this could be that the most experienced link builders work for agencies or in-house. And we know that these companies pay more for links. So it could simply be a correlation, not causation.
Another possibility is that more experienced link builders aim for links from better sites, and these are inevitably more expensive.
It’s also interesting to note that these stats probably tempers the extra productivity numbers earned by senior link builders previously, as bigger budgets mean it’s easier to build more links.
On Average, Paying for Links Only Yields an Extra 2 Links per Month
This one really shocked us. Almost 75% of link builders surveyed reported paying for links. Yet, they only build 2 extra links per month than those who don’t pay.
This surprised Gael’s Twitter followers as he ran a survey for this particular question, and most people thought the link builders that pay for links would build a lot more links than those who don’t.
Paying for Links Increases Link Building Budget by 42.85%
We also looked at how much budget was allocated to link building. SEOs who pay for links dedicated 30% of their SEO budget to link building, a 42.85% increase over link builders who don’t.
This might be a good time to ask if paying for links is really worth it. Link builders who have closed the door on paid links have shown a remarkable ability to get lots of links with very little budget.
One thing I’ve observed time and time again is that companies that pay for links often end up doing very little else besides that one strategy.
61.7% Of SEOs Report Link Building Getting More Expensive
Inflation appears to be hitting the world of link building too. Almost two thirds of SEOs report that link building is getting more expensive.
The cost of labor is a big factor in link building, so it makes sense now, in this period of high inflation, that labor costs are rising. Tools such as Ahrefs have also recently effectively increased their prices on power users.
We also broke down how link builders with 5+ years of experience felt about costs. An even higher percentage of this group felt like link building was getting more expensive.
Link builders who paid for links were also more likely to say it was getting more expensive (64.9%) than those who did not pay for links (52.9%).
It Takes on Average 3.1 Months to See the Impact of Links on Search Rankings
618 out of 755 participants reported that it takes between 1 and 6 months to see the impact of links of search rankings, with the average time being 3.1 months.
This was true across all levels of experience and with those building different amounts of links built per month.
Pinpointing the exact time a link starts to have an effect is difficult. So it was interesting to see almost all participants were in the same ballpark with their estimations.
The time it takes Google to crawl a new link accounts for just a portion of this time. Other algorithm-related factors seem to imply that there is a reasonable amount of lag between Google discovering a link and it affecting your position in the SERP.
Link builders who did not pay for links reported the same results are those who did pay for links.
89.1% Of Link Builders Believe Nofollow Links Impact Search Rankings
There is nothing worse than landing an amazing high DR link, only to discover that they’ve nofollowed it. But all is not lost.
673 out of 755 link builders we surveyed said that nofollow links have some impact on Search Rankings.
When nofollow was introduced, Google would absolutely not pass ranking credit to the linked page. Now, Google’s guidelines state that they treat the No-Follow tag as a “hint” rather than a definitive rule.
Some big sites have added nofollow tags to all of their outbound links in recent years. This was to combat corrupt writers and editors being paid off by unscrupulous SEOs to add in links.
I’d still always strive to get a dofollow link. But in cases where I get a relevant link on a great site, it’s not the end of the world if it’s nofollowed now.
Guest Posting Is by Far the Most Popular Link Building Tactic
Guest Posting is the most popular link building tactic, according to 64.9% of the 755 link builders we surveyed. When we broke this down, 71.3% of link builders who pay for links said they use the tactic. Whereas only 46.4% of link builders who do not pay for links still use Guest Posting.
Most participants use multiple link building techniques. So it’s no surprise to see that link exchanges, and creating content were also very popular.
46.3% of link builders reported to be using HARO. In the last year, many people have reported lower success rates with HARO. Perhaps this is because so many link builders are now using it!
Buying domains to 301 redirect was significantly less popular. This has been a less reliable tactic than some of the other link-building tactics out there. It’s also a tactic that agencies are less likely to use for their clients.
Digital PR campaigns was the least popular tactic. This has been on my radar since our podcast with Stacey MacNaught. I think more SEOs will get into this in the coming years as they start to realize the potential of this tactic.
Agencies and in House SEOs Are More Than 3 Times as Likely to Do Digital PR
Very few website owners are doing digital PR. It tends to be agencies and in-house SEOs who do digital PR.
This is likely a reflection of the higher cost of running a digital PR campaign – usually in the thousands of dollars. Website owners who are doing their own link building likely don’t have a huge budget.
It’s also something that requires a lot more experience to run successfully. And since the most experienced link builders work in-house or in agencies, those businesses are naturally more capable of running such campaigns.
Digital PR links are more expensive, but you get what you pay for. The quality of the links is much higher than what you’d get from guest posting or HARO.
Link Builders Rate Creating Content as the Most Effective Link Building Tactic
We asked 755 link builders to rate how effective each link building tactic was, on a scale of 1-5. Creating content or linkable assets was rated as the most effective tactic, across the board.
We looked into it further and found that the most successful link builders favored creating content even more than this.
Guest posting was rated as the second most effective link building tactic, followed closely by HARO. There are often reports on various SEO blogs saying these tactics are “dead”. But according to our data, they are still rated highly by many link builders.
Interestingly, Digital PR and buying domains were rated as the least effective tactics. This could be explained by the fact that the largest group of survey participants was website owners, a group who rarely do digital PR or buy domains to 301. They wouldn’t know how effective it really was if they hadn’t used the tactic.
We dug into this a little deeper and looked at just the people who were actually doing digital PR. This group rated digital PR as 3.9 on the effectiveness scale, the highest score. This adds weight to our finding that there is a perception among link builders who aren’t doing digital PR that it is less effective than it actually is.
Digital PR Gets 433% More Popular as Link Builders Gain Experience
We looked at the difference in the popularity of link building tactics between the least experienced and most experienced link builders. We found that as Digital PR had the biggest increase in popularity as link builders gained more experience.
It makes sense to look at the tactics which the most experienced link builders favor. Beginners in link building should consider learning digital PR as they gain experience in the industry.
Experienced Link Builders Rely 56.41% Less on Metrics Like DR/DA and Focus More on Search Rankings
Website metrics like DR and DA serve a useful purpose. But they are only an indicator of site authority, not a definitive judgment. We found that as link builders gain experience, they rely much less on SEO metrics, and much more on rankings to determine link building effectiveness.
The takeaway here is that if you are building links, you should be open to lower DR/DA links from relevant sites.
These metrics are often misunderstood. They really just look at quantity and quality of links pointing to a site. They do not incorporate content or any other ranking factors which may be important. Thats why there are plenty of high DR sites that have been penalized and have 0 traffic. You probably don’t want a link from these sites.
Link builders should check DR/DA, but should also look at other relevant factors when determining link building effectiveness.
Relevancy, Bad Neighborhoods, and Poor SEO Metrics Are the Biggest Red Flags for Link Builders
We asked 755 link builders what the biggest red flag was for them when checking link quality. There was an almost equal split between relevancy, bad neighborhoods and poor SEO metrics. With suspicious backlink profile of the linking site being a close 4th.
All of these factors should be considered when looking at link building. This further highlights the limitations of relying purely on SEO metrics to determine link building quality of effectiveness.
Sometimes “Write of Us” pages are said to be indicators of poor-quality websites. This may be true in many cases. However there are a number of very high-quality sites that have these pages, so it may be better considered when looking at a basket of factors. Interestingly, this was a bigger deal for link builder who said they paid for links.
Link Builders Using Social Media for Outreach Gain 22% Extra Links per Month
61.7% of link builders we surveyed were using social media for some of their outreach. We cross-referenced this with their results and found that this group built 22% more links than those who didn’t use social media for outreach.
Every site owner gets bombarded with link building emails these days. So reaching out through social media can be a good way to stand out from the crowd.
Social media also allows you to demonstrate social proof through visible follower count and engagement metrics. Sharing content on social media may also be a way of adding value when asking for a link.
Two Thirds of Respondents Believe Links Will Still Be Important in 5 Years
In our survey, 65.2% of link builders said that links have the same or higher impact on rankings in 5 years time. 33.6% said that links would have less impact on rankings in the future.
There may be some bias here as link building is a big part of all participant’s careers. At the recent Brighton SEO Conference, Google’s John Mueller said:
“Well, it’s something where I imagine, over time, the weight on the links at some point will drop off a little bit as we can figure out a little bit better how the content fits in within the context of the whole web.”
There are always many layers to what Google says, when it comes to SEO. And what they say, isn’t necessarily always true either. But it does make sense that if SEOs game the systems too much with links, then Google has to get better at understanding the impact of content without relying so heavily on links.
That being said, it also implied that today links are still hugely important in ranking a website – something which won’t surprise many people here at all.
Over to You
This is it for this year’s link building survey. Do you agree with the findings? Is there any question you think we should ask link builders for next year’s version of this survey?
Let us know on this Twitter Thread.