Can "Big Content" Link Building Campaigns Really Work?
Posted by willcritchlow
There’s a lot of material out there, on this site and others, about the importance of link-building. Normally, its effectiveness is either taken for granted or viewed as implied by ranking factor studies — the latter of which doesn’t necessarily show that correlated factors actually drive performance. The real picture is one in which links clearly remain important, but where their role is nuanced.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to dig a little deeper into an individual link-building campaign that takes place over a relatively short period of time. I wanted to see what results (besides just link-based metrics) could be attributed to it.
In this post, I will try to pin down the effects that came from the campaign and show that yes, getting a bunch of links from the success of some highly visible “big content’ can drive improved rankings
The reason you don’t see more posts like this one is noisy data — so much goes on with a website’s performance that it can be difficult to draw a hard and fast connection between a campaign and its results for a business’s bottom line. This is especially true for link-building, for three reasons:
- Websites are naturally accruing links anyway — both the target of the campaign and their competitors
- To some extent, we anticipate a domain-wide effect, which will as such be proportionately small and hard to pin down vs. noise from the algorithm and competitor activity
- Links do not have such a step-change impact as technical fixes or creation of new landing pages
However, at Distilled we recently had an opportunity with a particularly strong piece on a niche site to analyze a situation where the impact of our work ought to be more clearly visible among the broader noise. Take a look at these graphs, which show the linking-root domain acquisition of a client of ours over the last two years, as measured by Majestic and Ahrefs respectively:
See what I mean about noise? And I’m saying this is an unusually clear cut case. We actually built nine creative pieces, with link acquisition as one of the goals, for this client, over a two-year period. We’ve talked before about the campaign as a whole, here. There’s one that stands out in both graphs, though which is the one that launched in March 2018.
This gives us a rare, valuable opportunity to see which other metrics, which might have more direct business value, had noticeable changes around that time.
What might we expect to happen?
The theory is simple: Links remain part of Google’s algorithm, and so more links to a site mean better rankings. However, the reality is more complex — in our experience, creative pieces as link-building assets tend to result in two types of links:
- Links to the creative piece, which in turn links, typically, to the site’s homepage
- Links directly to the homepage of the client site — e.g. “Research by client (client.com) indicates that…”
The interesting thing here is that for many sites, the homepage is not a core landing page. I’ve written before about how it’s almost impossible to have a good mental model for internal link equity flow, which makes the actual impact of the piece on core pages almost certainly not zero, but otherwise hard to predict. On the same subject, I’d also recommend this video by Dixon Jones at Majestic.
In a similar vein, we also know that the complexities of PageRank are themselves only a part of the unknowable complexities of Google’s ranking algorithm, meaning we can’t guarantee that adding links always moves the needle. I recently recorded this Whiteboard Friday where I mention some recent research by my colleague Tom Capper, which shows how unpredictable these effects can be.
The particular client example I’ve been referring to in this post had two things going for it which, again, brought unusual clarity to these effects:
- The homepage was, in fact, a core ranking URL
- It was struggling to make its way onto page 1 for many reasonable target terms
Both of these ought to make it an ideal candidate for clearcut benefits from high-quality link building. (This isn’t to say link-building cannot work if these criteria are not met — just that the results will be harder to analyze!)
1st order results
Precisely because of the difficulty in analysis mentioned above, we find clients normally prefer to assess the performance of link-building campaigns in terms of 1st order benefits — by which I mean the performance of the actual creative piece, rather than their commercial landing pages.
The particular piece that stands out in those link acquisition graphs above earned the following 1st order benefits (and I’ve included graphs from our internal tracking platform so you can get a feel for the pace of acquisition):
228 LRDs peak (204 “fresh” index shown below), of which ~145 within a month of launch:
2,140 Facebook shares at the peak, of which ~1,750 within a month of launch:
82,584 landings in Google Analytics, of which ~67,000 within a month of launch:
I mentioned above that not all links tend to be directed at the piece itself, with journalists instead often referencing the homepage. 145 (domain-unique) links were directed at this piece by mid-April, but you’ll notice that March beat an average month by ~200 LRDs, and April also outperformed by ~100. By my back-of-the-envelope maths, you might want to claim as many as 300 LRDs driven to the whole domain by this piece, but your opinion may differ!
Showing the ways it worked
Right, I did say I’d link this at least to rankings, didn’t I?
Remember: This was part of a campaign of 9 pieces, and it launched mid-March, with most 1st order metrics, or leading indicators, coming through within a month (and no major technical changes around this time). There is some signal in among the noise here. Check out this graph, showing the number of keywords ranked for, according to Ahrefs:
Notice that change in gradient after the launch? (And, for the cynics among you, the piece itself only ranks for 20 keywords itself according to this same data source — that wasn’t a primary goal with this content).
Here are the rankings for the client’s (fairly ambitious!) target keywords:
I’d particularly draw your attention to the movement from the “11–20” to “4–10” group, which is consistent with the research by my colleague Tom Capper that I mentioned above. (Sidenote: it was nice to see the client’s Domain Authority increase relative to their competitive set in the recent update. The improvements to DA, aimed at making it better at predicting ranking ability, appear to have worked in this sample-size-one case!).
You can see this pattern more clearly in this graph, which we presented to the client when the campaign concluded late last year:
This effect is surprisingly clear-cut, but it might well be that to continue moving up the SERP, from positions 4–10 to positions 1–3, a very different type of work is needed — perhaps one emphasizing brand, or intent matching.
How can I do this for my site/client?
Here are some useful resources to help when starting on your creative campaigns:
Mark – How to make sticky content
Hannah – What is content strategy
Leonie – How to make award winning creative content – Part 1
Leonie – How to make award winning creative content – Part 2
Conclusion: Big content for links can work
As I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly unusual to see such a clear and obvious case of link-building work moving rankings in a lasting way. This has certain similarities with other such cases we’ve seen in recent years, though:
- The site started fairly small (if nothing else, this makes the signal bigger relative to the noise)
- It had target terms that were on the cusp of first-page rankings
- Some search competitors had far stronger domains
The reports that “links are dead” have, apparently, been greatly exaggerated — instead, it’s just that the picture has gotten more complex.
Obviously Distilled clients are only a finite sample, however, so I’d love to hear your experiences of successful link-building, and, crucially, the kind of situations in which they moved rankings, in the comments below!
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