How Many Links Do You Need?
We all know that link building is an important aspect of SEO. Most of the websites I look at are reasonably well optimized, at least in terms of "on page" factors, but they're usually in terrible shape when it comes to links – both within the website and within the area of link popularity.
Among my students, one of the most frequently asked questions is "how many links do I need to get my site ranked better?" At SEO Research Labs, this question has been the subject of much study, of course. It's a simple question, but the answer can be complicated. Fortunately, the answer is usually "a lot less than you think."
In this article, I'll try to break the question down into bite-sized pieces, and give you the best answer we have based on our research and experience. I'll begin with three key concepts, and then give you some rules of thumb to guide you to your own answers.
The first idea that you need to understand is that there is more than one type of link. For our purposes, we can safely divide links into three main types:
URL links – where the "anchor text" is the URL of a web page. For example, "Dan Thies offers a frëe e-book on SEO at http://www.seoresearchlabs.com/seo-book.php". These links increase the general authority & PageRank of a web page. When the search terms are part of the URL, as in the example above, then this may contribute to rankings.
Title & Name links – where the anchor text is the business name or the title of the web page. For example, a link to SEO Research Labs or Matt Cutts' blog post confirming a penalty. These links may contribute to the page's ranking, depending on the words used.
Anchor text links – these are links pointing to a specific page, targeting specific search terms. For example, a link to my upcoming link building teleclass, specifically targeting "link building" as a search term. These links may contribute to a page's ranking, and as a result, "text links" have become a major obsession in the SEO community.
The second idea is that the location of the links matters. Again, I'll break this down into three categories:
Navigational or "Run of Site" links - those links which are contained within a website's global navigation, and/or appear on every page of the web site. Individually, these links are likely to count less than others, because the search engines are capable of identifying them as navigation.
Contextual links – those links which appear in the actual body or content of a web page – like the links in the section above. Individually, these links are likely to count for more than the average link, because search engines are capable of identifying the content areas of a page.
Directory links – those links which appear on links pages, resource pages, and other pages whose primary purpose is to link out to other websites. These links are likely to count for more than navigational links, but their value will be proportional to the number of links on the page.
The third key concept is that not all links are equal, and quality matters far more than quantity. Search engines have varying degrees of trust for links – in fact, some websites may not be able to pass any authority or reputation at all through links. Google's Matt Cutts and others have written and spoken quite clearly about filtering links from websites selling "text link ads," and told us that 2-way links (link exchanges) are unlikely to help much with search engine rankings.
These three concepts are important to what I'm about to tell you, because when you ask "how many links," the answer depends on what kind of links you're able to create. Linking strategies that take the search engines' position into account will be more effective, require less effort, and deliver more predictable long term results. Relying on one or two tactics is not a linking strategy.
For a website that isn't ranked well, playing catch-up can take some time and creativity, but it can be done. If you are in this position, you may want to take a fairly aggressive approach, with as many as 30-40% of the links you build containing anchor text for your most important search terms. It's important not to be a "one hit wonder," and focus all of your efforts on text links, especially if you are targeting only a handful of search terms.
A more conservative approach might involve closer to 10% text links, and perhaps 90% of the links producing only general authority (URL and title/name links). With many of my students, I advocate a broad website promotion strategy that tends to generate a lot of general links, and a follow-up program intended to create anchor text links within that larger pool of links.
So how many links do you need? Well, if you focus on higher quality links, and keep your text links within a reasonable proportion to your "general authority" links, we've found the following rules to be pretty accurate:
For a top 10 position, your text link count should outnumber the count of half of the 10 top ranked pages, and also exceed the count for two-thirds of the top 20 pages.
For a top 3 position, on average, you will need to have 50% more text links than were required to crack the top 10, although in some markets there may be a wide gap between the top few sites and the rest of the top 10.
These rules are just a guideline, and of course, relying on outdated tactics like link exchange or "text link ads" may prove ineffective. In our latest research, we've actually stopped counting these links altogether in looking at competitors. This approach has proven just as effective in the 5-6 months we've been doing it.
When you start to analyze the competition, you'll usually find that the number of text links you need is fairly low, in comparison to the number of general authority links you need. If you worry less about "getting anchor text," and instead look for ways that you can promote your website, you'll find it a lot easier. My students usually struggle with this idea, but in the end, we've always been able to find ways to do (profitable) promotions that also generate the links we need.
I wish you success.
About The Author
Dan Thies is a well-known writer and teacher on search engine marketing. He offers consulting, training, and coaching for webmasters, business owners, SEO/SEM consultants, and other marketing professionals through his company, SEO Research Labs. His next online class will be a link building clinic beginning March 22.
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