After months or even years of hard work your efforts have finally paid off, your site is now ranking for the keywords that you set out to rank for.
The hard work is finished now, right? You now get to sit back and enjoy the passive income everyone told you about.
When you talk with a lot of SEOs they will often say the main benefit of SEO is that once you’re at the top of the SERPs there isn’t the continual investment like there is with PPC and other advertising methods. This was a lot more predominant a few years ago but if you go to conferences you will still hear this being said.
While I understand what they’re trying to say I’m going to show you today why this is the wrong way to think of SEO, SEO is a continual investment.
We’re not paying for impressions and clicks in the same direct way that you do with PPC but we have “consumables” that have to be maintained if you want any chance of your site remaining in the top positions.
These consumables are usually in the form of content and links and they don’t come cheaply either, but as SEOs we get rewarded with some of the best traffic there is to offer.
Please note: There are certainly some niches where you can sit and maintain for a long period of time but our clients are typically in the most competitive verticals. Where you can’t rest on your laurels as there are always competitors aggressively trying to catch up with you.
Table Of Contents
What Is Link Velocity?
This is an important point to start on to make sure we’re all on the same page. As with everything in SEO there are varying definitions but throughout this article and the website this is what I define as link velocity.
Link Velocity In Short
When I talk about link velocity I am talking about the net gain or loss of referring domains linking to your website – if you gain 100 links but lose 50 in a month your link velocity for that month is 50 links.
Link velocity is the rate of link growth over time.
This is a very simplistic overview but we will go into more detail in this article on other factors that need to be considered.
Why Is It Important To Consider?
Link velocity is one of the most important factors to consider when building links for a website, we all know that Google is still heavily reliant on backlinks as a ranking factor, huge authority sites are dominating the SERPS without any signs of slowing down.
So we know the amount of links (as well as quality) is used in their algorithm. Therefore, part of our goals as SEOs is to make sure that over time we increase the amount of high quality links to our site. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that the rate at which this occurs would be used.
The Proof Is In The Update?
There was actually some talk about link velocity in May 2020’s Google update as quite a few people that I had spoken with noticed that sites which had clearly reduced their marketing / link budget due to COVID had been affected a lot more negatively by the update. Chris Semper of Link Research Tools was one of the first to report this.
But he wasn’t alone, in some private SEO groups others were discussing this.
It’s hard to pinpoint if this was the case of if it was just SEOs being fooled by randomness along with the unprecedented times due to COVID.
Avoiding Negative Velocity Is Key
One thing is clear in my mind whether or not this update proves it or not – link growth over time is important – if this isn’t the case why do we not see any authority sites getting huge amounts of traffic without any backlinks? All the big authority sites are gaining more and more links over time.
So if link growth over time is important it is very important to avoid negative link velocity.
If Google sees your site growing over time by receiving more and more high quality backlinks to your site if this suddenly stops it looks like there is something wrong, maybe your site has fallen out of favour but either way it doesn’t look like a healthy site.
If this wasn’t the case the negative SEO strategy that you sometimes see in highly competitive niches like casino wouldn’t be effective. When a competitor notices that you are coming up in the SERP sometimes they will build out a lot of high powered links to point to your site, while this seems counterintuitive the way that they force a negative result is by removing all these links in a short period of time. I’ve seen this work effectively in the casino niche and it is still being used now.
Something similar is also mentioned in Grindstone’s legendary twitter thread. Even though it’s a few years old it’s something I still look back to a few times a year as I think a lot of it still holds true today.
In posts 38-40, where he talks about a site dropping their rental links and seeing the negative effects of this very quickly.
Another interesting point from this thread is in post 41 where he says the loss from these rental links dropping was almost the exact mirror of the gain they received when they were built which supports the idea that negative link velocity probably isn’t a signal – it’s the loss of link equity.
This is an interesting idea and I don’t have enough data to really comment on it but we do speak about this later in the article and this is supported by what we see there.
So maybe the negative SEO method above doesn’t really work as effectively as it might seem, you are just losing any gain that you had from it – which seems counterintuitive for competitors to be doing that but negative SEO really isn’t what we’re here to cover.
Misconception: Too Many Links At Once Is A Bad Thing
A lot of people will tell you that too many links at once is a bad thing and I mean under usual circumstances they are probably right but there are some situations where this isn’t the case and I think it’s important to look at these.
Take for example the Rugby World Cup as you can see in 2015 and 2019 there was a huge spike in links.
I wonder why that would be? The England 2015 World Cup and the Japan 2019 World Cup. Google isn’t going to penalise the site for the insane link growth during these periods, even though afterwards the link growth drops off dramatically.
So a few days ago I saw this costume on my instagram feed and knew that it would be getting a tonne of coverage and I wasn’t wrong.
Ahrefs has picked up 78 referring domains in the past 2 weeks, plus I’m sure there are more which haven’t been picked up yet. I would put money on it that this site is not going to have any negative repercussions from these links. But if you had a brand new site and built 78 links in 2 weeks I wouldn’t be as confident which leads me on to my next point.
Links Need To Be Justified
There are many ways that links can be justified, but I think that the most crucial factor when justifying links is overall domain traffic. Whether this is organic traffic, paid traffic, social traffic or any other kind of traffic I think that this justifies why you would be receiving links.
You have to remember that Google doesn’t want people to build links actively, it should be a natural thing in their eyes. How can it be natural if no one has visited your site at all?
When you look at all the examples mentioned above there is no situation where these sites which have huge bursts of links wouldn’t have received any traffic. The traffic might come after the articles are posted and people click through from the articles but the traffic will come.
I think if you have a huge site getting a lot of traffic already, link velocity probably isn’t something you need to worry about that much, apart from the fact you want to build as many high quality backlinks as you possibly can.
What I am saying is that positive link velocity isn’t something that you need to worry about at this point, your site could probably take 100 referring domains overnight without any issue once you’re at this level whereas, smaller sites need to be more careful. While you might not get a spam penalty as these are becoming very rare these days you might have a non-visible penalty holding you back.
Murky Waters - You Need To Create Your Own Rule Set
Before we move onto the next section I think that it’s important that we talk about the issues that you will have if you just use the formula
Links Gained Over A Month Period – Links Lost Over A Month Period = Link Velocity
When it comes to what makes a high quality backlink I talk about some of the issues that we are encountering day to day with our outreach campaigns here. Unless you or your team have enough resources to manually audit each site that you’re competing with, you need to accept that link velocity is only a measure and the main thing is staying consistent in the way that you measure it.
Like DR being manipulated in the article mentioned above – if you are not doing anything to counter this, this is the case for all the sites that you are auditing.
So you’re consistently not accurate but this is fine. It’s like if you’re trying to diet and your scale is off by 5lbs, as long as it is consistently off by 5lbs it doesn’t matter that much, even if you’re not aware of it. The problem arises when the scale is off by anywhere between 0-10lbs everyday that you cannot see which way you are progressing due to the inaccuracy day to day.
So while using certain third party metrics to work out link velocity is going to have issues, not using third party metrics is also going to have issues such as human error.
Setting Your Own Rules
When it comes to setting your own rules I recommend looking at the metrics you use throughout the rest of your campaigns. If you use spam score in your link building already this could be a good measure to include within your link velocity measures. We personally heavily rely on Ahrefs so that is what we use for link velocity.
When it comes to the rules I follow, I personally keep it very simple such as anything over DR20 and over 500 traffic is included in link velocity calculations.
I find when I over complicate it that errors are made, for example we had created a database of sites to exclude but as this list grew we would have to go back and re-adjust all the previous calculations we had done and it just didn’t seem to matter that much – we just use link velocity as an advisory measurement.
How Can I Measure It For My Current Link Velocity?
So there’s two sides to this argument.
The first is do it exactly the same way that you do it for competitors – if you’re going to use Ahrefs for them you should use it for your own because then you are being consistently inaccurate which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing as we discussed earlier.
The second is that you should just track all the links being built actively by you and your team as well as any that the third party tools pick up. This might not sound all that different but sometimes we noticed that Ahrefs wasn’t picking up 100% of the links that we had built, to be honest it was only a small percentage of our links being built. The bigger thing is that Ahrefs often takes a lot longer to find and crawl the link and therefore, the first seen time can be completely inaccurate. I know SEOs who build 1 link every 3 days but if you looked on Ahrefs it wouldn’t show this perfectly smooth 10 links per month some months might be 7 links others 13, while these SEOs know this isn’t the case.
Personally I just go with the first option and use Ahrefs for all link velocity calculations as that is what I am using to compare my competitors and if that’s happening for me I’m sure it’s happening for them also. Plus we’re really not breaking down the velocity for a short period of time, we’re usually looking over the course of 12 months.
If you decide to use the second method
If you want to use the second method here is how I would do it, I would have an excel sheet for each month’s link building where every new link built by your team is inputted and dated. Then at the end of the month I would use Ahrefs to pick up any referring domains that weren’t built by your team – for example if you received a natural link that month. This would be then included in this month’s link velocity calculations.
From here I would run all the referring domains that are pointing (from all previous months sheets etc.) to my website through scrapebox to see if any of the links have dropped off since you had last checked.
I would then take the total amount built this month and minus the amount that has dropped. This is then that month’s link velocity.
This is just a hypothetical way of doing it – I don’t have examples as this isn’t how we do it as I don’t think it’s the best use of our time.
How Quickly Should I Be Building Links?
This is going to be one of those “it depends” answers. But I think the best way is to reverse engineer what your competitors are doing as success leaves clues. When it comes to looking at link velocity I wish it was as simple as just using Ahref’s domain comparison tool and looking at the graph it produces.
Wouldn’t that be simple?
But unfortunately it doesn’t take into account the link quality issues that we spoke about earlier.
P.S. Ahrefs if you’re reading this – any chance we could have filters added here?
How I Use Ahrefs To Measure Link Velocity
In this example I am going to use the following domains:
- The Sleep Judge
- Sleep Advisor
Step 1: Export the do-follow referring domains
Again like I discussed in my competition analysis piece I personally only use do-follow domains in my analysis as they are the ones which pass the majority of the link equity to the site. Make sure that you export the full referring domain profile, not just the first 1,000 if you’re working with a large site.
Step 2: Filter your domains
I am going to keep the referring domains for each of these domains that meet my link quality criteria. Like I spoke about earlier you need to decide which metrics are for you but for the example I’m going to keep it nice and simple and use DR20+ and 500+ traffic, like I mentioned earlier.
To do this due to the way my template works unfortunately I can’t just use a simple filter as the counting is incorrect when I do this so I sort by DR and delete all the rows below DR20 and do the same for those below 500 traffic. This isn’t what we use at Cozab but for the sake of the example it’s fine. For example in a niche like this we would likely use higher metrics but for a local site we would definitely use metrics around this if we were just using Ahrefs.
Step 3: Sorting by date
I use Ahref’s first seen date (column I of your export) to sort the referring domains chronologically. You can use my excel template which you can download here, what this does is it counts the amount of links between the date ranges shown.
Step 4 Repeat for other domains
Now I repeat for all the other domains that I am including in my analysis then you will end up with that amount of separate tables and from here I copy the data of all into one table so that we can compare the domains. I always like to include the average, the minimum and maximum amount of links built per month so I have an idea of the ranges for a niche in mind.
I have only included the last 12 months of this in this photo even though my template goes back to 2017 as this is enough data to get a good idea of what’s going on with these domains and their link velocity and sometimes looking at too much data can confuse you more.
So as you can see Sleep Advisor is building the most links but interestingly Sleepopolis has built the least and has the highest estimated traffic, traffic value and site growth in 2020, while also having the lowest amount of Total referring domains to their domain.
But what this does tell me is that on average the top players in this SERP are building 50 DR20+ 500+ traffic links to their sites per month, so if I want to be competitive in this niche I would have to do the budget to do the same and then some as you are playing catch up with them as we discussed in the link velocity section of this article.
Some Sites That Suffered Due To Link Velocity Issues
So we’ve covered the theory and how you can calculate how many links you might need to build for your site but lets now actually look at some examples of this in the real world. It wasn’t easy to find examples of these sites on a whim, so I will add more examples as I encounter more – this isn’t because it doesn’t happen often it’s just there is no automated way to find these sites which are having issues with negative link velocity.
In both of these cases I am not going to reveal the domain as these are smaller sites that people likely will have not heard of and I don’t want to make it a site that has a lot of SEOs snooping on. If it’s a large public domain that you would have heard of I would feel fine revealing them but I don’t like to with smaller domains.
But what I will do is describe the sites so you can have an idea of what they are about.
Site 1: A Cosmetic Affiliate Site
This site is a cosmetics affiliate site which made some serious money a few years ago but it fell into a bit of a state of disrepair where the people running the site stopped building links to the site.
As you can see from the images above the increase in referring domains coincides with the increase in organic traffic almost perfectly, the negative link velocity that they were experiencing ended and they increased their referring domains by around 80 in a 2 month period, which is a bit some would call a bit aggressive but it seemed to have worked a charm.
It will be interesting to update this again in 6 months time if they don’t curve off the negative link velocity that they have been experiencing recently as the site growth seems to have nearly stagnated when they stopped building links again. At the moment they don’t seem to have lost many high quality links, it seems to be a drop off of auto generated spam and a lot of sub DR5 links from sites that they likely didn’t actively build anyway. So this could be why their traffic hasn’t taken a hit at all, as those sites weren’t contributing anything to the site anyway.
Maybe this niche just doesn’t pay enough to justify the link cost so this is why they have stopped building links, because most of us would be over the moon to go from 5,000 traffic up to 15,000 and continue with what we were doing.
Site 2: An Adult Ecommerce Site
This is a bit of an interesting case, this site is an adult ecommerce store which gained some national coverage in May 2020. The links really didn’t seem to help the site out initially which shocked me as these were very high DR, real, in print newspapers that were linking to their site.
I kept checking back and then out of nowhere it really started to pop climb in August through to the end of September then it just dropped off the face of the SERPs back to where it had begun pretty much.
This company was actually using a PR company opposed to an SEO company so I wonder if they paid for the campaigns and didn’t see any results from it then didn’t decide to continue but then 3 months later it really started to climb and get results.
As you can see in the referring domain graph the links actually began to drop in July, while not by a huge amount some of the links that were lost were higher tier publications and because they only have 125 referring domains each link that drops is a much larger proportion of their backlink profile.
I would really like to see what would happen if they turned their current negative link velocity around, whether they would start to climb again or if that big climb from 500 traffic up to 12,500 was a one off fluke for this store. It’s impossible to say but I think if they had kept up with the efforts while they might have dropped back down a bit they would have likely maintained at a higher level than where they are now.
Site 3: An Extreme Example Of Link Loss
OhMiBod’s referring domains included some very high powered, editorial style links.
But not only that the links were hyper relevant to Love Life Toys, they were all about sex toys.
These two factors combined is likely why there was such an immediate effect Love Life Toy’s traffic.
Ok great, we all know 301s can work but what do does this have to do about link velocity?
Well if you look back to the referring domain growth I’m sure you also noticed that this was very short lasted and by February 2020 referring domains started to disappear at a rapid rate.
This is because the 301 was removed, this essentially simulates extreme negative link velocity – which is great for us. I’m not sure of the circumstances that caused this, Love Life Toys is owned by OhMiBod, so I’m not 100% sure why they decided to do the 301 then remove it. But as soon as it was removed the traffic rapidly decreases and returns back to near “baseline levels” (the same as before the 301).
This also supports what was previously mentioned in Grindstone’s Twitter thread, that you might not get any significantly added negative effect from the loss of links but you lose the rankings that were gained.
The same can happen to your site if you let it lose the links that are holding up your rankings.
While natural link loss won’t occur in the same time period unless there is something significantly wrong, I think that having such clearly defined start and stop point with a huge loss of links shows the true effect.
If you’re only losing a few links a month it’s easy to brush it off and say it’s part of SEO and while I agree it is, it’s very important to to stay on top of the loss of links that essentially gave you the ranking in the first place.
You might not notice it as it’s only a few links here and there but over time there’s a good chance it’s having a large negative effect on your site (that’s if the links you build originally actually passed any link equity in the first place).
Concluding Link Velocity
Hopefully this article has been useful to you and I am interested to hear what your thoughts are on link velocity and how you are deciding how quickly to build links.
My take away messages from this piece are :
- Negative link velocity is what you really need to be worried about
- Large spikes in links aren’t what you need to be worried about, just links need to be justified in some way
- Staying consistent with the amount you are building is likely a very strong signal to Google I think dramatically slowing down for an extended period of time is a dangerous game to play
- When in doubt look to what your competitors have done as success leaves clues
- Make sure that you are replacing links that are being lost, if you’re not checking the amount you can quite often end up thinking you’re building 10 links per month but in reality it’s half of that due to link loss.
- While links aren’t everything in SEO, they still are a huge part of the equation and if you are entering a SERP you are playing catch up, you can’t go at the same rate as your competitors you have to get caught up with them first