Avoid Measuring "Cost Per Link" and Stop Driving SEO Bad Strategy: Infographic

In 2003, Google rolled out the Florida update – it was a game changer, and I remember it well. It’s been 9-years, and not much has changed. Google has always been pretty upfront about what its quality requirements are. Panda and Penguin represent the evolution of that Florida update 9-years ago. Even with the increased…

In 2003, Google rolled out the Florida update – it was a game changer, and I remember it well. It’s been 9-years, and not much has changed. Google has always been pretty upfront about what its quality requirements are.

Panda and Penguin represent the evolution of that Florida update 9-years ago. Even with the increased visibility into guideline requirements, in-house SEO’s are still pushing, even mandating bad strategy.

The Root of the Problem – Driving Down Cost Per Link

This practice of driving down what I call “cost per link” is where we really need some attention. When I say cost per link, I mean executing any link building type campaign, and then expecting the average cost per new link to equal some dollar amount. The status quo has been well established by paid link marketplaces, link swaps (two-way/three-way), free and paid directory submissions, and the like (none of which iAcquire has engaged in).

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Unfortunately that pricing precedent remains in 2012. The old way doesn’t work like it once did and content marketing, community engagement, and digital public relations reign supreme.

Enabling Bad Technique

So, why are we still judging off-page SEO based on cost per link? Considering the very vocal voice of Google, and the apparent changes going on all around why have we yet to evolve the way we measure? There seems to be this inherent need to hold on to our old notions of measurement, and that’s where the danger comes in. SEO agencies are being forced to cut corners, make bad choices, and automate things that shouldn’t be automated. The byproduct is transparent link networks, fluffed up PageRank, out-of-context linking, and spam. Heck, we allowed for some corner cutting, and we learned a valuable lesson.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Am I driving down the quality of my off-page efforts because of cost per link measurement?
  2. Am I increasing the risk of organic rankings exposure?
  3. Is my focus on link volume, PageRank, and cost per link or generating a safe ROI to the business?
  4. Is there someone on my SEO team that is enabling bad technique?
  5. Is my boss or my boss’s boss pushing us in the wrong direction? And if so, do I have the resources to build an internal case?


Let’s Talk about the Economics of Off-Page SEO

(because in order to avoid bad strategy you need to understand the basic economics)


On April 3rd, 2012 iAcquire released the most comprehensive study ever performed in off-page SEO (and I mean by a factor of 100). It is in every sense of the word “THE” go-to guide when it comes to expectation setting in off-page SEO delivery. The analysis included a look at all of the various link-building initiatives we deployed for all of 2011. This analysis includes article distribution and content marketing, link reclamation, even link begging. Some clients were really easy to work with – some were really hard. Bottom line – it’s a good general study that you can take to the bank.

How Much Work Can One Person Do?

When you consider the research done, the follow through, the trafficking, and the ongoing communication required in working with an account manager or project manager we find that one person can make somewhere between 20-30 new quality touches a day. Of course if you throw all that stuff out the window you can email 100 new people a day. But, the point is to get good links – not bad links. Develop good relationships – not bad relationships.

The average day consists of:

  • 20-30 outreaches a day to new people
  • 60-80 follow-ups to prior people
  • Several specific dialogues to close links

Based on the data we have, and the real world results that we see, the average person will close 1.35 new links per day or about 7 per week.

That’s it ladies and gentlemen. The myth that one person can close down 100 links a month is just not true. Some of the more proficient folks can hit 10 or more links a week without sacrificing quality, but this is going to be your top 10-20%.

Hmmm, so how does that relate to cost per link?

When you calculate a person’s salary, project management, account management, technology, content development, etc. there is no way you can deliver high quality placements for $100 per link (based on labor calculation) and, more importantly, charging or measuring on a per link basis, is not really the right approach. When analyzing cost structure you really must consider the players involved, the requirement on the strategy and account management team, and other investments like quality control and technology. A proper off-page SEO strategy is sold and delivered as a solution. A guarantee of links is just a bad idea. Let’s talk about the facts, deliver the absolute best quality, make the process transparent and monitor the bottom line.

Different strokes for Different Folks

7 links a week on average is true – except, one problem – promoting your personal injury law firm is wildly different compared to promoting your Justin Bieber ecommerce store. With that in mind it becomes very difficult to estimate the specific output of a specific person in a specific vertical. Moreover, some brands aren’t that cool; the hotter the brand, the hotter the buzz, and the more interest.

And Just in Case you Care

We vetted through about 12 million pages last year with our technology and tossed out about 11.5 million pages that didn’t meet out technical requirements.  The remaining 500,000 or so pages that we kept were then reviewed and only about 100,000 were worth contacting – here’s that actual diagram.


Click here to view larger


If I shouldn’t be worried about cost per link, then what should I be worried about?

Risk Mitigation

Staying Under the Radar

My favorite analogy for risk mitigation is the example of speeding in your car. Most highways have a speed limit of 65 miles per hour. And, most of us want to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Some of us will drive 65 miles an hour – afraid to do anything that might push the envelope or risk enforcement from big brother. Others are very comfortable in the 5-9 miles per hour over zone, i.e. 70-74 miles per hour.

Now, we all know that going 10 miles an hour over the speed limit begins increases your risk of getting pulled over – should a police officer notice you. And, then some of us flat out go 90+ miles an hour, and put ourselves at high risk (I won’t name any brands in this analogy, but you can probably think of a couple).

Folks, stay under the 10 miles an hour over the speed limit zone – I mean maybe push it to 15 over if you have to temporarily. You can still get there faster, but be reasonable.

Understanding the Game

In order to measure risk you need to understand the game. There are some great resources out there, and I’ve picked a few out that I like:

  1. Tracking Google’s Updates by SEOmoz
  2. Lot’s of Quality Link Development Strategies by Jon Cooper.
  3. Getting Technical – Understanding Spam Analysis by Justin Briggs
  4. Content Marketing is HOT right now by Tom Critchlow

One thing that we’ve done is put the majority of our resources into content marketing. In fact, over the next 12-months about 70% of our workforce will work in content strategy, content and creative development, and digital PR and outreach.

Strategy Matters – DON’T DO THESE THINGS.

Along the lines of risk mitigation you need to avoid something very specific things as you plot out your strategy. Google has an innate ability to see the web for what it is. That’s because they graph the web by links, i.e. a link graph. Be aware of this:

  1. Don’t Buy Links from Link Networks

    Google can very easily see that certain link buyers tend to show up on the same publisher websites, i.e. 20 link buyers buy on the same 200 publisher websites, or there is an unnatural cross-over occurring. When you buy a link in these “neighborhoods” you become part of the network. It’s risky on a number of levels.

  2. Don’t Build Links on Sites Built to Host Links

    Google looks at things like, how many of the outbound links use commercially competitive keywords in the anchor text? If the ratio is too high – boom – filtered publisher, which means links that don’t pass equity, and now you’ve got a bad neighborhood linking to you.

  3. Don’t Saturate Keyword-Rich Anchors

    I love Open Site Explorer (OSE) – it’s one of the best tools out there. Oh, and congrats Rand on your recent fundraise. You deserved that more than most! OSE crawls the web, builds and analyzes the link graph and plots out the popularity of all the pages in its databases. It also lets you easily see everyone that links to any domain of your choosing.

    What’s really funny is when you type in a domain, and you see that all of the inbound links say “car insurance,” especially so because then when you checkout GEICO let’s say most of the links are using branded anchor text. Google is a lot smarter than you think – keyword rich anchors are real obvious – they should be used very sparingly. If it’s so visible with a 3rd party tool like OSE imagine what Google can see and interpret.

  4. Don’t Create Shallow Content Pages

    I remember the good old days. You could just put mediocre content out there, and as long as it was even semi-original you had a good shot of ranking for mid and long-tail keywords. Now, Google just puts you into the “another shallow website” bucket. If you are going to put a page on your website it needs to rock – period.

Strategy Matters – DO THESE THINGS.

  1. Analyze the Business Case

    First thing are first – you’ve got to know how off-page SEO can impact your website(s). I would start by taking a good look at SEMRush or SearchMetrics Essentials. These tools can help you see where you rank for more popular keywords right now, and you can easily identify pages or categories that are ripe for promotion. Then just analyze those core terms that are in striking range, take a look at some exact match or broad match keyword volumes, and boom, you’ve got a case. Of course on-page SEO might be part of that case as well.

  2. Educate the Stakeholders

    I try and speak with high-level decision makers any chance I get. I find that more often than not they have a very thin understanding of how links drive domain authority. The word “domain authority” is generally totally new nomenclature. You have to bring the education process to the table if you hope to get anywhere. Once that light bulb turns on you can really start championing for financial resources. You’ve got to push the agenda though – and be aggressive about it. Not only is it vital to getting financial resources, but also vital to the longevity of your initiative.

  3. Get Buy-Off on a Plan that Can Work, or Don’t Waste Your Time

    You ever see one of those movies where there’s like this little kid, that is way too small and weak to play on the baseball team, and he sits on the bench every game, until the final game of the season when there’s a 10 to 1 lead and then finally the coach lets him walk out onto the field to play an inning. Of course the little kid gets all excited and everyone gets teary eyed, but the moral of the story is that the little kid shouldn’t be playing baseball to start with. So, yea, in a roundabout kind of way – if you can’t get the resources you need, you should shift your focus somewhere else. Don’t waste your time and be a non-hero.

  4. If Outsourcing – Get in the Ditch, but Don’t Micro Manage

    Assuming you’ve got the resources you need to get engaged in the process. Be a good process steward – learn the in’s and out’s, and be a contributor. Don’t sign the contract, cut the check, and walk away. You’ll become that “easy client” that the account manager doesn’t really have to worry about. Everyone will string it out and then one-day budget cuts will come, and you’ll be first in line. Be the client that adds value to the process, and be the marketing manager internally that takes someone else’s budget – not the other way around.

  5. Make Sure you have Measurement Access

    Outside of mitigating risk, the #1 most important job you can do is to properly measure the results of the campaign. There are 3 aspects to your measurements.

    1. Rankings

      Over the last few years I’ve developed a bit of a pet peeve. If you launch an SEO campaign without a proper baseline of your current rankings for your top-level, secondary, and an intelligent sampling of your tertiary keywords you are making a big mistake. Our account team knows this and we do a damn good job of making sure we run great baseline reports. This pet peeve developed over more than 10-years of watching campaigns, and seeing what happens when someone fails to do this. It’s a catastrophic loss of credit, and let’s be honest – taking credit is a necessity. You can’t go back in time and see what your rankings were after the fact! There are a few tools that can do this, but not very well.

    2. Organic Traffic

      Ah, traffic, my favorite friend. Traffic drives branding, loyalty, sales, leads, actions, everything. Sometimes even relevant traffic doesn’t directly contribute to a desirable action, but it still has value – lots of it. Make sure you are measuring the organic traffic to your entire website, as well as any specific categories or key pages you are targeting. The next step is to analyze specific keywords and keyword groups. But don’t just look at specific keywords. Off-Page SEO improves domain authority, and domain authority influences perception and trustworthiness by search engines – it is very likely that the entire site will see a lift. A popular quote, “rising tides lifts all boats.”

    3. Organic Actions (Conversion Goals)

      Okay, this is where the rubber meets the road. If you can see that organic sales are improving you’re looking good. If organic sales are way up, you are way good. Sales, leads, actions – these things might all have value, and may be measured in different ways. Make sure you understand these value points and KPI’s. Sometimes SEO initiatives are complex and include many factors like multiple vendors, on-page initiatives, off-page initiatives, and content addition initiatives. You might need some help singling out how off-page by itself is making an impact, and sometimes it can be challenging.

To Summarize

Bad strategy, and the notion to maintain the status quo has become a vehicle for failure. It’s not about cost per link. It’s about relationship building, digital asset distribution, and risk mitigation, coupled with well-planned strategy, and proper results measurement. These things require skill, time, and experience. Build something great in house, or hire a fully transparent off-page SEO agency that understands 2012 strategy – then manage the process. Cost per link is dead.


  • http://www.ephricon.com/ Jon Payne

    Great infographic here guys.  Kudos to you. 

    One question – on the Twitter part…  can you share the numbers?  What was the response rate when you contacted the blogger via Twitter vs. when you did not?  I can see it’s higher in the graph but would love to know from a quantitative standpoint.

  • http://twitter.com/ImageFreedom Matthew C. Egan

    To see you guys post this – as if you were not guilty of a lot of this and caught red handed 30 days ago, is laughable.  Did you not want to republish this with the author instead listed as “Mike King” so you can further milk his name to cover your shady origins?

    • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

      NOTE: this was the original comment. All exchanges above this line were in reply to this comment.

  • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

    Matt, actually we admitted that we had cut some corners, and linked to it in this article. This post was actually written 90-days ago, because we saw a flaw in the market. Buyers looking to drive costs down and measure results against the cost per link. It’s a reality that we all face. We’re having amazing conversations with our clients now, and what we’ve gone through has only bolstered what we do, and has allowed us to focus 100% on content marketing and digital PR. This experience has empowered us and our clients to measure SEO and content marketing in a more intelligent way.

    • http://twitter.com/ImageFreedom Matthew C. Egan

      @twitter-14501115:disqus I appreciate the position you’re in.  I sympathize, and don’t feel like I don’t.  I’m in that “hater” category, for lack of a better term, but the motivation on my end comes from working really hard to keep it all on the up and up, and then you guys set the unprecedented example of being the first Agency ever to be de-indexed like this for buying links for your clients.

      http://bit.ly/MG0UMq – I mention the case, without naming you, in a podcast that we launched today, because the comments surrounding your de-indexation for these issues created a polarization among SEOs, some defending you, some hating on you.

      One of the comments defending what iAcquire had done, was one that said that the Agency should not be penalized for what you had done for your clients.  The client should be de-indexed, not you.  It’s that kind of thinking that is why SEO has such a bad name, and this situation, and y’all getting caught did nothing to help the industry do anything more than maybe cover our asses a little better.

      There is a major question that is left unanswered after all of this, and that is whether or not these clients were AWARE of the fact that you and other agencies were buying links for them.  Danny Sullivan had brought that up on the SearchEngineLand posts, that there is a ethical and legal concern where companies may be paying for SEO, but not realizing that what they’re getting is the paid kind, that can have consequences.

      I appreciate your reply here Joe, and honestly, your willingness to discuss this and not outright delete my comment (which is what I expected) is surprising.  I will do my part, and I guess it will be up to other SEOs to make up their own minds, but I will try to keep an open mind about this stuff that you guys put out there.

      There has been damage done, but everybody makes mistakes.

      The true irony for me, at the end of the day, is this post about not buying links, is not going to be indexed by Google, because you got caught buying links.

      Thank you for offering up a dialogue on this, I do wish you guys luck, and would love to see Mike succeed, he deserves it.  You certainly have your work cut out for you.

      • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

        Matt, we’re not the big bad wolves. We do a ton of great work for our customers. We’ve never been a only buy links agency. We’ve been doing content marketing, on-page SEO consulting, and digital PR for a long time. Now, we are putting all of our energy in those areas, and we are going to roll out some very transparent updates about that process. 

        This article is not about buying links, it’s about employing off-page SEO strategy when measurement of success is based on the amount invested vs. the number of links gained (whether paid or not). The bottom line is that link volume is not necessarily the core driver of rankings, and if you run a campaign that way you will ultimately drive your strategy value downward. Doing so, will enable you and your vendors to cut corners to meet a “projected” cost to acquire a link. That’s a fundamental flaw and that’s the point of the article.

  • http://twitter.com/searchbrat Kieran Flanagan

    Putting aside the fact the post is timed a little strangely considering what happened to you guys – definitely one of the better posts around SEO in the last couple of months. Content around SEO is becoming mind numbing in how repetitive it is, so good to see a decent post.

    I do worry about the future of SEO agencies, especially when I see:

    “In fact, over the next 12-months about 70% of our workforce will work in content strategy, content and creative development, and digital PR and outreach.” 

    It reminds me off PR agencies bolting on social media because that was the hot new topic and they were missing out on getting paid for that. I have seen lot’s of SEO agencies now tout their “Content” abilities. But content for what ? Are we talking about content for links ? Content to make sales ? Content for Lead Nurturing ? Content to build your funnel/database ?

    The reality is (I think was a really admission in one of your previous posts), that if we are talking about content strategy for link building – it doesn’t cut it in some industries. It’s simply too expensive to produce that much content and hope you get X amount of links. Am I going to dominate markets like “gambling”, “insurance” etc etc with a great content strategy. I dont’ see it. Unnatural links are or some type of paid link strategy (but not as obvious as what you guys did) is always going to have to figure.

    Content for links is a really dicey strategy. The core part of that, which might scale is placed content (Guest Posts, Widgets, Infographics, Whitepapers) where you might be able to control the anchor text to some degree. I wonder for how much longer Google will count links in author bio’s equally. Obviously you can integrate links into the content itself, but  with all the SEO agencies moving towards these, normal bloggers will get a bigger opinion of themselves and look for $$ in return.

    It’s good that we are all moving towards content, but I can’t help feel there is a lot of bandwagon jumping going on.

    This post is definitely a bookmark for me.

  • http://twitter.com/searchbrat Kieran Flanagan

    Sorry about the poor English, rushing to catch a plane, just to clarify when I say content is dicey. I mean it’s a lot more complex to try build a sustainable strategy based off content alone in competitive markets. Plus, results will take longer, costs are higher, which means ROI is cut.

  • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

    Thanks Kieran, well said, this post was written a while back, and we should have launched it then. But, why continue to wait, right? Anyway, good points, and you’re right. This model doesn’t work for everyone.

  • http://twitter.com/seonate Nate Dame

    Hats off for some serious insight here. This data is invaluable – thanks for sharing.

    I do have a few suggestions though… mostly because I want more of this awesome data!

    We’re having a debate going on here about the Tweet section of the infographic. My colleague believes the darkened piece of each pie is the % of prospects that replied before tweeting. I thought it might represent the % of successes… Now neither of us can figure it out!

    IMHO, that could use a serious update. As long as we’re at it, we felt the bar graphs would be better with percentages as the primary figure determining height, with the volume figures added on. And we’d also love to see a more thorough breakdown of the best days/times to send emails too.

    All in all, still an amazing piece.

    • http://twitter.com/joegriffin Joe Griffin

      Hi Nate – the volume related to the tweet data was pretty low. It was close to negligible. We are increasing outreach volume in that area now, and will release an updated version with more transparent volume shortly. Thanks.

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  • http://www.backlinkbuild.com/ Oleg Korneitchouk

    Cool info! I would like to throw in that Tuesday morning is our best response day/time as well. At least until everyone starts doing the same haha.

    It’s interesting that the response/closing rate is so much higher for “no phone” in the “travel” niche while its just about the same for financial. Any idea what the reason for that may be?

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  • Anonymous

    Agree, SEO is more productive if people will avoid to measure the CPL and use bad tactics in SEO. Some people who uses SEO will get some problem regarding this one if this habit will not stop.

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  • http://www.sightseeinternational.com/ Bruce Marjoribanks

    This is a superb article. Thanks for sharing this data and busting a few myths. I have found this step “Several specific dialogues to close links” very labour intensive with most requests involving reciprocal links or reciprocal guest posting. The email stats are very interesting. It looks like the fortune is in the follow up.

  • Spook SEO

    Joe Griffin this is an incredible post and more interesting. Your facts are supernatural and “the Economics of Off-Page SEO” and How Much Work Can One Person Do? Are the best things in your writing by telling about the article distribution and content marketing, link reclamation, and link begging and I think these are the keys for an SEO for getting good traffic.