If you’re an SEO, chances are, you’ve recommended link building as a tactic. And, unless you work for a very trusting firm, you’ve probably been met with the question, “When will we see a return on our investment, and how much will we see?”
This is a question I’ve been asked numerous times, but never had a good answer for. The truth is, a new link doesn’t affect rankings immediately. That makes it hard to tie an individual link to SERP rankings increases, since there will usually be several other links and on-page changes made to a target page between the time when you get that first link and when you finally see increases in rankings.
So, I set out to figure this out myself. I’m lucky enough to be working for a company with nearly 200,000 indexed pages, which gets hundreds of new links each month naturally, through PR and through my link building efforts. That means I’ve got a lot of pages that only got 1–2 links in the last 6 months, and didn’t go through many on-page changes.
I picked out 76 links pointing to pages which are all similar to each other in content, and we didn’t change that content (significantly) for 6 months. I focused on rankings for target keywords with a 25–35% Keyword Difficulty Rating. I looked at two versions of their target keywords, so I could have a bit more data. The results aren’t super surprising to SEOs, but they’re often questioned by the managers of SEOs, and now you have graphs to prove what you’ve been saying all along.
It takes 10 weeks on average to see 1 rank jump
More links do have a more immediate effect. Jacob at Exstreamist promoted some material that got him around 20 links to one of his pages, which was being outranked by other pages with about 6 more inbound links. It took his page 5–10 weeks to move from #9 to #5.
It seems that each link has a small to medium effect initially, but that effect increases over time. If you add a lot of links at once, you’re not only going to see faster results, you’re going to see much bigger results over time.
The lower the rank, the more effect a link has
The pages that I observed that were already ranking on the first page of SERPs didn’t show much of a rankings increase with one link, barely moving over one spot in 22 weeks. In contrast, pages ranking on the second or deeper pages of SERPs took off after 8–9 weeks.
Keep in mind that I am working with a fairly small data set, so I don’t recommend that you promise a 10 spot jump after 22 weeks.
Higher DA will move the needle faster
Wondering where DA 50+ links are on this graph? I didn’t have enough to pages other than the homepage to get meaningful averages. Sorry, guys.
Unsurprisingly, a higher DA will have a bigger effect — in fact, you can see that the average rank change for a page that got a link from a site with a DA below 25 actually dropped after 13 weeks, then recovered to barely two ranks up.
I generally have a rule that I don’t want to spend any time or money on sites with DAs under 25. This chart shows that they’re not completely devoid of value, but be prepared for a very, very small change in rank with these guys.
Interestingly, both the DA 0–25 and DA 25–50 sets showed their first big jump after 10 weeks, but anecdotally, I’ve heard that higher DA links will have faster effects. This may be because higher DA sites get crawled more often (so the link will be discovered sooner), but I think this may be a purposeful delay in the algorithm. Google’s probably taking a bit more time to trust a link from a lower-quality site.
Cool! So, if I start link building now, I’ll see results in 10 weeks or sooner!
Actually, no. It takes a while to get links from a (legitimate) link building campaign. Each step is going to take a varying amount of time, based on the company you work for and the resources you already have. Here’s a list of steps you should keep in mind.
1. Getting the resources
Finding an agency (1–3 months)
The easiest route when you’re starting out is to hire an agency, since they’ll come prepared with a whole team of experienced link builders and will recommend their own tried-and-true strategies. Based on my experience watching businesses scope out Distilled when I worked there, the decision-making process is going to take you 1–3 months. It can be more if you’re a large company with a lot of bureaucracy, or if you’re trying to get a really good deal. Once you’ve chosen your partner in crime, you’ll usually have to wait a couple of weeks to a month to formally start.
Hiring a link builder in-house (1–2 months)
If it’s easier for you to hire a person than an agency, or if you think this is the best long-term strategy, you may end up needing to hire someone. The best candidates here are going to be people with link building experience, a customer service background, and/or bloggers who have successfully built up their own communities. According to Fast Company, it takes about 23 days to hire someone, so include that in your timeline.
Work with PR (almost immediate)
You can work with your PR team to start optimizing their media hits to also include good links. The success of this strategy will vary based on whether you’re going for general Domain Authority link building — in which case, all of those homepage links they’re getting will help you a lot — or trying to build Page Authority to individual landing pages, in which case they’ll probably have a hard time helping you out.
It’s worth pointing out that I don’t know any SEO who relies solely on PR wins to drive their link building strategy, so branch out if at all possible. If you’re low on budget, though, try buying your PR team some drinks and getting them on your side.
2. Coming up with a link building strategy (2 weeks–1 month)
Once you’ve got link builders working for you, you’re going to need to come up with reasons why people will want to link to you. Here are some broad ideas, from fastest to longest ramp-up time:
Your company as a resource (1 week)
One way to get links is to find pages that are listing resources for something that your company provides. For example, if you’re Lyft, you can look for blogs and other sites that list ways you can make money with a flexible schedule.
Your potential here is going to vary based on what your company does and how well you understand the solutions your business offers and who appreciates them. Allow at least a week to prospect potential sites to reach out to.
Your expertise as a resource (2 weeks–1 month)
People are always looking for experts online, and your company probably has some valuable knowledge you can share. For example, if you’re Periscope Data, a company that lets you turn your database into graphs and tables for easier understanding, you might have a hard time finding many sites that are looking for your exact product. But you can put together advice on how to properly write SQL, and boom: thousands of more linking opportunities!
In this case, you’re going to need to both prospect to find the right sites to connect with, then you’re going to want to offer either quotes, guest posts, or resources on your site to entice them. That’ll take a few weeks to a month.
Infographics (1–3 months)
Infographics may be a little overused by SEOs, but high-quality visual assets can get a lot of attention. Just keep in mind that if you don’t work closely with your PR team, you may end up with a lot of posts sharing your infographic, but not linking back to your site.
To put together a good infographic, you’re going to need a compelling idea, clever/unique data, and a good visual designer. They’ll take you at least two months as you get started (but bank on three), though you may be able to get the time down to one month, if your company is a smoothly running machine.
In-depth research (1–3 months)
Write a really unique or really well-researched, well-written article, and you can probably get a lot of shares even without a visual component. This works best for companies that are leaders in their specific field and have a lot of data that their upper management is okay with them sharing.
Expect for this to take just as much time as an infographic — your writer needs just as much time, if not more, as a visual designer. OKCupid’s (previously) famous blog took 2–4 weeks of developer time and 4–8 weeks of a writer’s time for each post.
3. Executing (2 weeks–1 month)
Once you’ve got your strategies in place, you’re going to need to email each prospect, possibly going back and forth with them as they take their time to get back to you, post the wrong link, or need more persuading. You may get a few immediate wins, but remember that you’re not paying them, so you’re at the bottom of their priority list.
Kicking off a link building campaign? Here’s what to plan for:
- 1–4 months: Find a link building agency and start them at the beginning of a month, OR
- 1 month: Find an in-house link builder
- 1 month: Come up with your top link building strategies
- 1–3 months: Prospect for potential sites to target, and pull together the content that you need to entice those links
- 2 weeks–1 month: Execute! It’ll take awhile to write all the emails you need to write, and respond to the feedback you get
- 5–10 weeks: Wait for those links to take effect! Tell your team not to panic for at least 10 weeks (although effects will continue to grow beyond that)
All in all, that means that it may take you 6 months–1 year from beginning to end before you start seeing noticeable effects from your link building efforts.
As an SEO, I feel the need to reiterate: SEO is an investment. Yes, it’s going to take you a lot of time to get those results. But do you see how those rankings keep moving up and to the right, even after you’ve secured those links? Set your manager’s expectations that this is going to be a long process, but the money you pay now is going to pay off continually as long as you keep on top of your competition.