Link Building

1024 682 Rebecca Moss

Avoid the link confusion: DA, DR and TF – What they really mean for link quality

Link building is an important part of any SEO strategy. Backlinks are (still) a strong ranking signal and can push your rankings up. But are all links equal? The answer is: “No”. Some links are better than others, some links will not have much impact on your SEO, some others could even harm your rankings. If you are wondering how to recognise good or bad, we understand. One thing we need to get out immediately is that there is no single figure you could look at to judge the quality of a link. There are multiple things to take into account such as the authority of the donor site, the topical relevance of the link, the way how the link is embedded in the content, the backlink profile of the donor site and so on… One metric link builders and outreach agencies that run digital PR campaigns like to refer to is DA, for others it is DR or TF – but what are those?

What DA, DR and TF mean

All three are measures for the authority of a website based on its backlink profile. The reason why they are called differently is simple: they come from different tools:

  • DA stands for Domain Authority and is a metric in Moz
  • DR stands for Domain Rating and is a metric from Ahrefs
  • TF stands for Trust Flow and is a metric from Majestic

All three tools are constantly crawling the web to discover new websites and links. They report on those links and update the numbers regularly. What is important to know is that none of these tools has crawled the whole web and their algorithms work differently. If you compare the referring domains they have listed for any given website, you will always notice some differences.

Moz highlights that DA is evaluated by multiple factors such as the referring domains and the total number of backlinks to a domain. They would not give it all away, of course. It is highlighted that DA is not a ranking signal nor a Google metric, but merely meant to compare websites to each other. You can see the DA by creating a (free) account on Moz and adding the toolbar to your browser extensions:

Moz tool bar for theguardian.com

Ahref’s DR looks similar if we look at how their documentation explains the calculations: “ […] metric that shows the strength of a target website’s total backlink profile (in terms of its size and quality).” To see the DR of a domain, you need to create a (paid) account in Ahrefs:

Ahrefs DR screenshot for theguardian.com

The TF in Majestic, however, is calculated differently: The tool has manually selected seed sites that were chosen on the web and are trusted by Majestic. The scores that you can see under TF are dependent on how far away a website is from a seed site through links. To see the TF in Majestic, you need to create a (paid) account:

Majestic TF screenshot for theguardian.com

The figures are also accessible via a browser extension:

Majestic browser extension for theguardian.com

Comparing the numbers

Because of the different ways of calculation, those numbers are not meant to be compared to each other, but just for fun, here are some comparisons of popular websites:

Domain

DA (Moz) DR (Ahrefs)

TF (Majestic)

Theguardian.com 95 93 84
Bbc.com 95 92 79
Youtube.com 100 98 99
Foxnews.com 94 91 83
Asos.com 90 87 78
Amazon.co.uk 94 93 83
Gov.uk 94 80 93
Asda.com 75 81 52
Tesco.com 91 86 70
Sainsburys.co.uk 73 82 60

If one thing has become evident by looking at those numbers, it is that the figures cannot be compared. DA and DR seem to be generally higher than TF (not for all of the above websites though), but there is no clear tendency that would make them comparable. The figures are close to each other amongst the top players, but for websites with less authority (and let’s face, it most websites will not be able to compete with the above brands), the numbers are far apart from each other.

Interestingly, YouTube – the Google product, scored the highest possible with Moz, but not in Ahrefs and Majestic. For the Guardian and the BBC, the numbers are similar in Moz and Ahrefs, but noticeably different in Majestic. The UK government website forms the exception in our comparison by scoring higher in TF than in DR; for all other websites, TF is generally the lowest figure.

If you are looking at those numbers, do not try to compare them to each other, but rather choose one of those metrics that seems logical to you and compare that metric across different websites to decide which domain makes a good target for link building.

1024 682 Jane Hunt

How to spot a PBN

The moment you get involved in link building, you hear about a thing called PBN. For quite some time, it was a buzzword in SEO and a common and popular strategy. But what is a PBN?

PBN is the acronym for Private Blog Network. There is already a lot of information: It is a network of blogs or websites that are owned by the same person or organisation, hence private because they are in one hand.

The purpose of such a network was to build links to one website. Creators of PBNs would often buy expired domains that have an existing backlink profile and some authority in their niche. They then added content and links to a commercial website to pass on authority and boost rankings. That technique used to work until Google became aware of this way to manipulate rankings. Not only is it no longer valuable to use PBNs for link building, it also is a risk as most PBNs get quickly penalised by Google.

Why does it still matter?

If Google already has penalised most PBNs a few years ago, why would we still care about this as an SEO agency?

The answer is easy: Even if a website has been penalised, the site is still on the web and especially people that get involved in paid link building are still using those sites to try and sell you “valuable” links. It might also be the case that Google’s algorithm hasn’t spotted the PBN yet, but you never know what could trigger it.

There also used to be so-called SEO agencies that were specialised in building PBNs and sold that as a valid link building strategy. Some of them are still around and they are still selling those services to those who don’t know better.

That is why it is important for you to recognise the red flags.

Multiple websites, one owner

Nowadays, also PBNs have evolved and some of them are done in a professional way that would not easily give it away. But there are still old PBNs around and you will always find lazy link builders taking a short cut.

Those PBNs are easy to spot because they might not have hidden their WHOIS domain information, they host all domains on the same server or IP and even use the same design or themes. If that is the case, it is worth checking their content. You can copy and paste paragraphs into Google and see if more than one result shows up. If those websites are hosted on the same servers, use the same design and even publish the same content, you can be sure that you have encountered a PBN. But it isn’t always that easy and creators of PBNs know how easy it is to recognise such patterns. They take precautions.

Another good indicator are keyword rankings and traffic. Tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs can provide estimates for those figures. The lower those numbers are, the more likely it is that the website does not have much value.

There is one thing they cannot hide: their backlink profile. After all, it is the one thing they want Google to see. That means that you can see it too.

What to look out for in a backlink profile

A PBN is meant to be a network of websites linking to each other, those websites are often not topically related. Those are two hints what to look out for. For this analysis we can use Majestic to check the topical TrustFlow and the referring domains. The ratio of follow and nofollow links can also be a good indicator.

We will look at three different websites, two in German and one in Italian:

Coinkurier.de Spielregeln.de Correre.org
Topic: News about crypocurrencies Topic: Game rules Topic: Running
Majestic screenshot for topical Trustflow Majestic screenshot for topical Trustflow Majestic screenshot for topical Trustflow
Nofollow and follow link ratio in Majestic Nofollow and follow link ratio in Majestic Nofollow and follow link ratio in Majestic

If we look at those figures, the first thing we notice is that none of those domains has a particulary high topical TrustFlow within the actual topic. For the cryptocurrency domain, to be about computers and security still seems acceptable, but game rules associated with arts and literature already becomes questionable and the domain about running doesn’t seem to have many backlinks that are related to that sport. The domain is in Italian, but it is not about the Italian language, nor is it about pets.

In a recent post about nofollow links, we could establish that the biggest news sites have between 10 and 20% nofollow links in the backlink profile. That seems to be a natural ratio of an authoritative website. In the above examples, we see a domain with only 1% nofollow links – it does not take an algorithm and machine learning to get the idea that something might be manipulated there. The 67% of nofollow links too should certainly make suspicious and make you investigate further.

One other thing that is noticeable for the Italian domain is the ratio between English and Italian that Majestic flags as well:

Ratio of site language and incoming links language in Majestic

In the next step, we look at the referring domains. The first thing we notice is that there are a few domains that link to the domain in question multiple, up to thousands of times:

Number of backlinks from one referring domain in Majestic

That in itself doesn’t mean that we have a PBN, but it makes suspicious, especially if two of them are very similar domains for the same market and the third one suddenly targets a completely different market, in that case Peru.

In the next step, we look at the referring domains of each of those domains that link to the one in question.

An obvious example is the cryptocurrency domain:

Referring domains in Majestic

We then take that first domain in the list and check the referring domains:

Referring domains in Majestic

There are in total only 7 referring domains. That in itself is a red flag (not a sure sign though as it could just be a young website). We go a bit further down the list and we see this:

Referring domains in Majestic

That domain that links to the original domain 1500 times only has 4 referring domains. Still, it is not a proof for a PBN, but the red flags keep on piling up as we repeat this check.

The backlink profile of the Italian domain is even more interesting:

Referring domains in Majestic

The first domain claims to be a medical website that has a topical TrustFlow in the business niche. It is followed by an English website about animal pictures and another Italian website about funny pictures. We also see here domains related to art and paintings and there’s also the firefighters linking to the website about running. It is a field of red flags.

If we now put those domains one by one into majestic, we will see some of them linking to each other, domains that only have one referring domain and a very colourful mix of topical TrustFlow.

PBNs vs. digital PR

All these are indicators for a PBN and as an SEO agency we would advise to not reach out to them for a link. If you have been hit by a Google penalty, those are the types of links to watch out for in your backlink profile.

Recognise the red flags. In any case, even if you are doing link building through relationship building and digital PR, every once in a while, you will be asked to pay for the link placement. That might be tempting in certain cases, but it is always worth digging a bit deeper.

You also might have noticed how we only mentioned the domain name once in this post and did not link to it. Even without a link a mention can send a positive signal and as an agency that believes in digital PR as a link building strategy, we would not want to point too much to websites that follow black hat techniques but we want you to know about red flags.

1024 682 Rebecca Moss

Don’t follow this link…or maybe do!

Links are at the core of digital PR; they are the reason we do what we do. Digital PR campaigns are meant to promote a brand, create visibility, and attract backlinks from authoritative websites. But there is the much dreaded nofollow: But is it necessarily bad?

A healthy backlink profile

Every website has nofollow links in their backlink profile. If there is one without this type of backlink, it screams manipulation. If we look at some UK and US publications, we see that it is perfectly normal to have a certain ratio of nofollow links in the backlink profile (screenshots taken from Majestic.com on 03/09/2020):

BBC.com theGuardian.com theSun.co.uk Inc.com
bbc.com nofollow follow ratio guardian.co.uk follow nofollow ratio thesun.co.uk follow nofollow ratio inc.com follow nofollow ratio

This is what we would call “natural”. Any healthy backlink profile that has naturally grown over time without paid link building, will have both, follow and nofollow links.

The purpose of the nofollow attribute

A link in content can always be seen as a reference or a vote. If a writer links to another website without being asked for it, he or she does so because the other website provides value to the reader. The link becomes a trust-worthy reference to a useful resource. Google’s algorithm is based on these trust signals. Crawlers follow these links and discover more and more pages on the web through links. If that link comes from an authoritative website (e.g. an established news site), it has positive impact on the ranking.

Google introduced the rel=”nofollow” as an attribute for HTML links in 2005 to add to comment spam and user-generated content (UGC). It was meant to prevent the abuse of this type of content for unnatural link building.  It was an indication to Google’s crawlers to neither use those links for crawling (the crawler does not follow the link) nor as a ranking signal.

Paid and sponsored links too were from then on required to add a nofollow attribute.

But the internet is changing. A few years later, websites like Forbes and Wikipedia made all outbound links on their website by default nofollow. That might have been a preventive measure to ensure accordance with Google’s guidelines or was meant to discourage digital PRs and link builders to reach out to their journalists and contributors requesting a link.

That was not what Google’s engineers had in mind when they introduced the nofollow attribute and it had an impact on the link graph. Google had to make a change again.

UGC and sponsored links

About a year ago, in September 2019, Google introduced two new link attributes to make a further distinction. User-generated content should be marked as rel=”ugc”, paid links as rel=”sponsored”. Links that contained these attributes. The nofollow attribute was from then on, a catch all for all other kinds of not-trusted links. All three attributes would be ignored for crawling but might be seen by Google’s algorithm as a “hint” for ranking.

Already at that time, Google announced a further update for March 2020. From that point onwards, this type of link would also be treated as a “hint” for crawling. This is from the Google webmaster guidelines:

screenshot of googles guidelines for nofollow, ugc and sponsored attributes.

The fact that the nofollow attribute is still acceptable for paid links and that Google did not require any changes to previously published content, places some question marks to these changes. It brings us back to the question how Google recognizes a paid link in the first place. So far, it has not had an impact on websites like Forbes to change their policy around outbound links, they are still nofollow by default.

How much impact a nofollow attribute really has on the ranking impact of a link is still unanswered, maybe there was never really a difference in the first place. What matters though is that a backlink profile looks natural and that includes all types of links.

1024 682 Rebecca Moss

Tapping into a new market: Digital PR for international markets

Last week, we covered the basics of entering a new market. We looked at keywords, translations, search intent and some particularities of different markets. Once the website is launched and everything in place, you might want to launch a first digital PR campaign to attract backlinks in the market where you just launched your website. You get as far as translating your content marketing piece and the press release but get stuck at the outreach stage. How to approach a journalist in that market? Does the same campaign work across markets or do we need to make changes?

At this point, just a translation will not do the job. Already when you create the asset, the content piece to outreach with, you want to take local knowledge into account. There might have been facts in your data set that are not interesting for a UK audience but could be beneficial if highlighted for a different target market. Visuals also play a key role in a data-led campaign and this can change from one market to the next.

Why does this look different?

The most important consideration for any digital PR campaign is always whether it will resonate with the audience. Visuals play a key role in this matter and are at the same time one of the big traps you could walk into. To demonstrate what we mean by that, we look at some major publications and how they appear in different markets.

This is Vanityfair for Italy:

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.it/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.it/ on 26/08/2020

This is the same publication for English speaking markets:

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.com/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.com/ on 26/08/2020

That is Vanityfair on the same day for Spain:

Screenshot taken on https://www.revistavanityfair.es/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken on https://www.revistavanityfair.es/ on 26/08/2020

And that is the French version:

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.fr/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken on https://www.vanityfair.fr/ on 26/08/2020

If we compare all those websites, the only constant seems to be the font of the logo, everything else is changing from images to colour schemes and use of text. The reason for this is a difference in audience perception.

It is not a coincidence or singular case. To prove that we look at Business Insider in different markets.

Germans are very business-like:

Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.de/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.de/ on 26/08/2020

Italians even embed Facebook in their business insights:

Screenshot taken from https://it.businessinsider.com/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken from https://it.businessinsider.com/ on 26/08/2020

The French do it too:Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.fr/on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.fr/on 26/08/2020

The Mexican version gets a bit more colourful:

Screenshot taken from https://businessinsider.mx/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken from https://businessinsider.mx/ on 26/08/2020

The Nordics put images to the right side:

Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.com/nordic?IR=C on 26/08/2020

Screenshot taken from https://www.businessinsider.com/nordic?IR=C on 26/08/2020

We could continue playing this game, but you know what we are trying to say. It is best to have a look at some publications in each market before you design your visuals.

How to approach a journalist?

Your asset and the press release are ready, and you start working on your outreach list. You identify suitable websites and journalists for that market, and you start contacting them. No response. What could you possibly have done wrong?

The first thing to look at is the tone of voice you used in your press release and the way how you address the journalist. Your English press release might have started with a casual “Hi Tom” and the translator correctly translated it. But there are markets where casual is too casual. Whilst Italians take these things easy, a journalist in France or Germany will in most cases immediately bin your email if you are not super polite. The English “you” has two different equivalents in other languages. There is an informal way and a formal one. If a language has both variants, you are in most cases better off using the formal way of address and of course their surname. In the English-speaking world, an email that starts with “Dear Mr. Smith” might seem overly polite and would probably make you feel old. However, it is crucial in other markets to keep this type of etiquette.

Why does nobody respond?

Another place to look for clues could be your subject line. Did you translate that one from English? If the answer is yes, look at last week’s example of the movie titles that had changed completely in the different markets. Maybe it is worth reviewing your subject line to get journalists in other markets to open your email.

Once your press release has been updated, take another look at your content asset. We already spoke about design, but are you providing enough detail for that market and are the facts interesting for the audience? One example would be the methodology which should be extremely detailed in markets like Germany and not have a single hole. Journalists in that market are very detail oriented and want to know where exactly the data comes from to ensure accuracy before they republish or link to anything.

That is still no guarantee for a successful digital PR campaign as there is one important factor we have not yet talked about: the media landscape in that country. It is crucial to know the market well to be fully aware of all the traps. In Germany for example, it is important to know that many publications belong to the same media group. Depending on the topic of your campaign and the angles, you might have reached out to multiple journalists and different publications that are all working under the same editorial guidelines. Those are usually the same across a portfolio of publications that are under the same roof. We can for example look at the publishing house Bauer and their portfolio of publications.

This is their lifestyle portfolio:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

Screenshots taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

The women’s magazines:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

Those are aimed at women too:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

If you target food publications:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

The health topic is clearly underrepresented:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

There are only 3 for cars:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

And let’s not forget those aimed at men:

Screenshot taken from https://baueradvertising.de/portfolio/ on 26/08/2020

As you can see, there’s a wealth of publications in one hand (and we only looked at one publishing house). Even with multiple angles, if it doesn’t adhere to their guidelines, you will have a hard time because one rejection of your campaign is equal to a rejection of up to 8 publications.

There is only one solution

Before you plan a digital PR campaign for a market you are not familiar with, it is best to get somebody on board who is! Learn as much as you can about the market and its particularities to know what works for the journalist and the reader once you get the journalist to read your press release.

At JBH it would be our pleasure to assist with your international digital PR campaigns. Get in touch!

1024 682 Jane Hunt

Guest posting and how to not get your links: The SEMrush case

It is one of our most loved SEO tools and a must for anybody who is serious about SEO: SEMrush. But in June 2020 some negative headlines made the news, or shall we better say, made Twitter?

Screenshot of a Tweet by John Locke on 3rd June about SEMrush guest posting services.

This reminds a lot of those emails we occasionally get from what we call a “link broker”. They are offering links that supposedly “look natural” on high-quality, authoritative websites… for a price. Some of that money is for the link broker himself, some is for the writer who creates a beautiful, natural article about playing poker games in between changing diapers and the rest is for the webmaster who manages the website that the link will be placed on. That is the very definition of a paid link!

What SEMrush claimed though is that they have a team of digital PRs that is reaching out to journalists, similar to an outreach agency. The statement also included that they wouldn’t pay the other website and that the payment is merely for digital PR services. But there is a but: If they reach out to journalists the same way we do at JBH, why do they charge per link and how do they guarantee certain stats? We all love the idea of that, but if you are doing outreach the natural way, you should get more than one link out of it and there will naturally be links from different websites with very different stats. Everybody who can guarantee that there will only ever be links from websites with a DR of 50+ and minimum 5000 visitors per month, is probably not doing it the natural way. Head over to our case studies if you’d like to get an idea of the results of a link building campaign that uses digital PR.

Paid links vs. unnatural links

“Natural” seems the new buzzword when it comes to link building. A few years ago, the main discussion in SEO was about paid links and non-paid links, now it is more about natural and unnatural. In his response to SEMrush, Google’s John Muller clearly classified unnatural links as being spam:

Tweet by John Muller about SEMrush guest posting on 3rd June

What this means is that even if you are not paying for a link, the moment it looks as if you might have paid for it, it could become a problem. This will either be a manual penalty, an algorithmic penalty (Penguin is still part of Google’s algorithm) or it simply won’t have any impact as the algorithm ignores such links. Is that worth the investment?  The money might be better spent by creating great content and using an outreach agency to promote that content. The journalists that see value in your content will link to it and promote it further.

The biggest difference here is the person who writes the piece of content that contains the link. In guest posting or services such as the one SEMrush was offering, somebody writes the content with the link based on clear instructions on topic and link embedding for that particular article. In natural outreach, a journalist writes the content and decides where and how a link might be included. The only guideline that is followed in that case is the editorial guideline of the website the journalist is writing for.

When looking at a link, ask yourself whether the whole article is written in the same style as the rest of the website. Is the topic standing on its own or does if fit in well with the rest of the website? Is the author mentioned and if yes is he or she a regular contributor to that website? Are there internal links in the article that connect it to the rest of the website? Does the link to your website look legit or shoe-horned? By answering these questions, you should be able to tell whether a link is natural or not.

The SEMrush controversy

We have not tested the SEMrush marketplace, why would we anyways? But we are suspicious of what SEMrush was offering at the beginning of June. We give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they might have just described their digital PR services in an unfortunate way, but it certainly caused some controversy within the SEO industry with headlines that read “SEMrush selling links”. The fact that their own backlink audit tool flagged such links as being toxic (as discovered and tested by Tom Rayner) shows that they know the difference between a good and a bad link:

Tweet by John Rayner about SEMrush guest posting on 3rd June

The case caused a controversy that led to SEMrush taking their guest posting service down after a few days:

Tweet by SEMrush about shutting down their guest posting service

It also led to Google’s John Muller clearly warning on guest posting for links. He repeatedly mentioned that such links should get a rel=nofollow and rel=sponsored tag. If done right, these links are useful to reach a wider audience and promote your business, but the value for SEO is highly questionable and in the worst case harmful.