Search engine optimization (SEO) is multi-faceted and complex.
Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of an SEO campaign is even more daunting, especially when direct results cannot always easily be tied to specific inputs.
It’s the old John Wanamaker conundrum:
Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.
Fortunately in today’s paid marketing, it’s much easier to target waste and bloat by knowing how your PPC ad spend is working (or not).
But not when it comes to organic search traffic.
In SEO, correlation is often inappropriately tied to causation, which may not always be the case.
In the next several sections, we’re going to teach you how to measure both the costs and the value of your link building (and link outreach) campaign, and determine which of your links and offsite content are making the biggest impact. From there, you’ll be able to optimize your link building campaign for a higher return on investment, or ROI—and much more impressive long-term results.
Table of Contents
SEO Link Building Value: More Than Higher Search Engine Rankings
Understand that the true value of your link building campaign is about more than just higher search engine rankings. It can’t be tied to any single variable. Instead, your link building outreach campaign must be considered in a variety of different performance areas:
- Organic rankings (and traffic). Though not the only barometer for value you’ll use, there’s no denying the importance of search engine rankings and the organic traffic they generate. Google and other search engines measure the relative “trustworthiness” of a site in terms of domain authority, or DA, which is calculated with a complex formula that heavily depends on existing links pointing to various sites. Generally, the more links a site has pointing to it, and the higher-authority those links are, the higher its DA will be.
- Referral traffic. Organic traffic isn’t the only source of traffic generated by links. Depending on the publisher you use, the audience to whom you’re writing, and the positioning of your link, it’s easily possible to generate more visitors in referral traffic than you generate in organic traffic—especially early on in your campaign.
- User behavior. Traffic is always nice to earn, but the value of that traffic can vary. For example, if you’re running an SEO or PPC campaign on an eCommerce site, your conversion rate will be directly linked to sales, and it’s going to play a massive role in your eventual success. In scenario 1, you’ll get 35,000 visitors a month with a conversion rate of 1 percent, resulting in 350 conversions total. In scenario 2, you’ll get 25,000 visitors a month and a conversion rate of 2 percent, resulting in 500 conversions total. Scenario 2, despite lower traffic, is the favored option. This is important to consider because the nature of your link building campaign can influence user behavior once they’re onsite.
- Secondary effects. SEO also has a host of secondary effects, most of which are much harder to measure than the primary benefits preceding this list item. For example, if you have a guest author profile on a publication site, you could generate referral traffic from this blurb. If you mention your brand name consistently enough in your links, you’re going to improve your search visibility and reputation—even for people who don’t click your links. Plus, building authority on small- to mid-sized publishers can set you up for even bigger opportunities, resulting in a kind of ladder-climb; in this way, every link you build carries value in supporting the future of your campaign.
Some of these impact variables will matter more to you than others. For example, your brand may be especially eager to outrank your top competitors in search engines. However, it’s hard to argue with objective outcomes; if it’s possible to generate more total traffic, as well as traffic more likely to convert, from referrals than organic traffic, it will benefit you to optimize your approach accordingly.
The Big Picture of SEO ROI
Let’s turn our attention to the main premise of this piece: SEO ROI. The high-level view is that SEO ROI is a function of two variables: costs and profits. If you spend $500 on a campaign and you generate $600 in revenue from it, that’s an ROI of $100, or 20 percent, depending on how you want to measure it.
In the realm of link building, costs can be tricky to measure, since you’ll need to factor in both time and money. If you’re working with a link building agency, things get a bit simpler, since you’re only dealing with one cost variable. In the next section, we’ll explain how to accurately project your costs.
And as you can see from the previous section, outcomes can also be difficult to measure; there are many benefits of link building, both direct and indirect, and you’ll need to factor all of them into your final SEO ROI equation. In several sections that follow, we’ll explore how to measure the impact of your links, including how much traffic they’re generating, how they’re improving your search engine rankings, and how they’re influencing user behavior on your site.
For both costs and value, you’ll need to consider both your overall SEO strategy and each individual link; for example, if your strategy is performing well, but a certain type of link seems to be underperforming compared to the others, you can weed out whatever strategy is producing that link in favor of something more in line with what’s generating your results. Some publishers will outperform others, and some pieces of onsite content will be more rewarding as link destinations than others.
Measuring Your Off-site SEO Costs
We’ll start with the easier side of the equation—measuring your costs. There are going to be some complexities to deal with no matter what, but the big picture should be easy to glean.
If you’re working with an SEO agency, and they’re doing the work more or less exclusively, the costs of SEO will be easy to calculate. If you’re paying for each link a la carte, you can simply use that as the basis for your calculations; you’ll know that you paid $500 for this link, or $100 for that one, and that you paid $2,500 for all the links in your backlink profile so far. End of story. If you’re paying a link building agency on retainer, you may need to dig deeper to figure out how much time, effort, or money was spent on the individual links built in your campaign.
There’s another benefit of working with a link building agency: they’ll probably help you calculate the SEO ROI of your strategy. These experts are invested in your success, so they’re interested in knowing which links perform best—so they can replicate those strategies in the future.
If you’re doing the link building yourself, make sure you pay attention to these variables, measuring both “real” costs and time costs:
- Publisher outreach. How long does it take you to find a new opportunity, discover the editor’s contact information, and reach out to them with an idea?
- Content writing. How long does it take to write a new piece for this publisher from scratch?
- Editorial processing. How much additional work do you need to put into this piece to get it published?
Track how much time you’re spending in each of these categories, and multiply that by the applicable hourly rate you’re paying or earning. Again, you’ll want to measure this for each link, and come up with a total for your entire campaign.
Google Analytics for Link Building ROI: The Basics
Now let’s turn our attention to the value your links are bringing your campaign. Remember, this is about more than just search engine rankings (though it’s about search engine rankings as well).
One of the best tools for the job is Google Analytics; not only is it incredibly robust and easy to learn, but it’s also free. If you haven’t set up Google Analytics for your site yet, you’ll need to do it. Head to the admin section and click “Create Property.” Follow the steps and you’ll receive a snippet of code you can install on the back end of your site. After that, you can start tracking information about your website’s performance.
So which metrics should you be tracking? Google Analytics has an intimidating number of capabilities, but once you begin to experiment, you should be able to learn them in short order.
Let’s start in the Acquisition tab. On the left side menu, click Acquisition, and you’ll land on an Overview page that will break down how your site is attracting new traffic. There are a few categories that are relevant to your link building strategy:
- Organic traffic. Organic traffic is traffic you’ve attracted from search results. In other words, if you rank in the top 10 results for a smattering of different keywords, resulting in 10,000 impressions and 3,000 clicks through to your site, you’ll be considered to have 3,000 organic visitors. While organic traffic is a byproduct of all your SEO efforts, including your attention to onsite content and website technical factors, link building is arguably the largest driving force behind these numbers.
- Referral traffic. Referral traffic is traffic generated by your outstanding links themselves. Each link pointing back to your site is fully functional, meaning readers can choose to click through to your site directly. If they do, they’ll be considered as part of the “referral” channel.
- Social traffic. Though not a direct byproduct of your link building and SEO efforts, it’s also worth considering social traffic as part of your campaign. If one of your offsite pieces of content gets heavily shared and discussed on social media, it could result in a surge of traffic from that channel; this is worth considering in your analysis of ROI.
You’ll want to analyze these sources of traffic in a few different ways. First, pay attention to how these categories compare to each other. There’s a pie chart on the left (by default) that will tell you the percentage of visits from each segment. You can also click each category name to bring up a more detailed breakdown of where this traffic is coming from; for example, in the “referral” section, you’ll be able to see the number of users visiting from each of your referring domains. You’ll also be able to see which landing pages are optimized with user intent. In the “social” section, you’ll see how many visitors each social media platform was responsible for. The “organic” section is more opaque; most of your traffic will be from a keyword that’s “not provided.” If you want more details about your search engine rankings and organic traffic, you’ll need a different tool to do it.
Of course, traffic isn’t everything, as we’ve already established. You’ll also want to take a look at several additional metrics, which should be available in each individual Channel breakdown. You can also view this information from a high level in the Behavior tab on the left-hand side.
However you choose to access them, you’ll want to take a look at the following user behavior metrics:
- Goal completions. “Goals” are actions you want your users to take; for most websites, this means filling out a form or completing a purchase. You can create a new Goal by heading to the Admin menu, then clicking Goals in the View column. From there, you can click “New Goal,”
and follow the prompts; I suggest using an existing goal template if you’re not sure what you’re doing. Then, under the Conversions tab in the left-hand menu, you can click on the Goals submenu, then click Overview to see how your Goals are performing overall. You should also be able to see your Goal completion rate for each segment of traffic. This is highly useful in determining the real “value” of each segment of traffic you receive. For example, let’s say you have 500 people per month coming from a single link you built on a high-profile publisher, with a Goal completion rate of 2 percent; this is 10 new leads per month generated by a single link. After calculating your close rate and the average value of a customer, you can easily figure out the ROI of SEO or of a particular backlink.
- Average time spent on page. It’s also a good idea to look at the average time spent on page for each of these channels. As the name suggests, this figure tells you how long someone spends on this page before clicking to a different page or leaving the site entirely. A longer period of time here suggests that your content is especially engaging, which is a good thing for your brand. In the Organic segment, a long average time spent on page means you’re giving search users what they’re looking for. In the Referral segment, it means you’ve both offered strong onsite content and a highly relevant offsite link to lead people there.
- Bounce rate/exit rate. Check your bounce rate and exit rate as well; these can marginally affect your search engine rankings, but more importantly, they’re a signal of the value of your traffic. If all your users are bouncing or exiting from a given source, it means your link isn’t doing its job (or your content is, in some way, lacking). Note that exit rate and bounce rate are different metrics; a “bounce” refers to a user who visits this page and immediately leaves. An “exit,” by contrast, refers to anyone who left your site after visiting this page, implying they could have visited multiple pages before reaching this final page.
- Percentage of new visits. Make sure you check the percentage of new visits as well; for most brands, new visits are more valuable than recurring visits, since it represents exposure to new audiences. If you’re getting a lot of traffic from one of your links, but the percentage of new visits is low, it means you’re not generating much additional value; instead, the same people are clicking your link multiple times, resulting in the measurement of multiple visits.
Together, these metrics should give you good perspective on the performance of your link building campaign—how many people are visiting, how long they’re staying, and whether they’re converting. But we can also dig a bit deeper with the help of “advanced segments.”
Google Analytics for SEO ROI: Advanced Segments
Advanced segments are customized groups of people you can establish within Google Analytics, giving you more control over what you’re measuring—and the demographics you’re learning from.
In this section, we’ll teach you how to use advanced SEO tools (like Google Analytics) to create an audience segment, how to choose an advanced segment, and how to customize your advanced segment data.
Create an Audience Segment
Creating an audience segment is easy. Once you’re logged in, head to the Audience section and select the Overview menu. Here, you’ll see a general breakdown of your audience statistics, including the number of website users you’ve seen from a given period, where those users are from, and how many of those users are new or returning.
Click the Add Segment button. Here, you’ll be able to choose a specific segment of incoming users that adhere to the variables of your choice. You’ll have some options available by default, including bounced sessions, converters, direct traffic, “made a purchase,” mobile traffic, multi-session users, new users, non-bounce sessions, non-converters, traffic by a specific channel (i.e., organic, referral, etc.), and single-session users. There are shortcuts to these audience segments in other areas of Google Analytics, but they’re grouped here for your convenience.
You can also create a much more detailed audience segment by clicking “New Segment” in the upper-left corner.
Choose Your Advanced Segment
After selecting “New Segment,” you’ll have the opportunity to customize your target audience in any way you choose. These are the primary categories you’ll need to consider:
- Demographics. In the Demographics section, you’ll be able to look at specific groups of people by age, gender, language, and various other categories. You could, for example, choose to look specifically at females ages 25-34, or males 55 and older. You can also select an “affinity category,” which refers to a certain field of interest. For example, you could look specifically at technophiles and technology enthusiasts. You could also define specific in-market segments, which describe visitors who are ready to make a purchasing decision or who are actively looking for a specific product; for example, you might try to look only at people who are looking to buy financial services.
- Technology. The technology tab is a bit more straightforward. Here, you’ll define the specific users you want to analyze by the type of technology they’re using. For example, do you want to look at desktop users, mobile users, tablet users, or some blend of the three? Are you interested in restricting views of people by operating system, by browser, by screen resolution, or by mobile device model?
- Behavior. If you filter your segment by behavior, you can precisely define a segment by how your users behave onsite and how they conduct transactions. For example, you can look only at users who have visited your site for more than or less than a specific number of sessions, or users who have visited your site an exact number of times. You can also filter audiences by the number of days since their last session, or their session duration. This is ideal if you want to take a closer look at the people who give your content a deep dive, or those who bounce almost immediately.
- Date of first session. Pretty straightforward, this tab lets you establish firm boundaries for the date of your audience’s first session.
- Traffic sources. Next, you can define your advanced audience segment by how they found you. For example, you can select the medium they used to find you (or exclude a specific medium), or look at one specific referring domain. You’ll have a variety of logic options to assign to each variable, like “contains,” “exactly matches,” “starts with,” “ends with,” or “does not contain,” so you can fine-tune your output.
Preview and Save Advanced Segment Data
Once you’ve established the exact parameters you want to analyze, you can click “preview” to view analytics for that specific segment. You can also click “Save” to permanently save this segment; that way, you can easily view and modify it in the future.
Making Use of Advanced Segment Data
So what can advanced segments teach you about your link building & overall SEO ROI? If you have very specific goals in your campaign, like appealing to people interested in purchasing products like yours, this is your chance to laser-focus your strategy; you can study only the demographics most likely to bring value to your organization and tweak your strategy to cater to them.
You can also use advanced segments to help you answer hard questions about the nature of your campaign. For example, let’s say your SEO ROI is lower than you expected, in part because the average user isn’t spending much time on your page per session. Audience segments would let you create a segment of only visitors from referral sources who spent a low amount of time on your pages; by digging into other metrics, you may be able to figure out what’s stopping them from spending more time.
Creating and Utilizing UTMs
But wait, there’s more. If you’re interested in tracking specific lines of traffic with greater precision, you could make use of an urchin tracking module (UTM) code. A UTM is a unique combination of characters attached to the end of an otherwise functional URL that allows you to track the people who visit that URL. To the end user, the URL will function like normal, but on the backend, you’ll have access to more advanced analytics about the people who visited this specific variation of the URL.
To do this, you’ll need access to Google Analytics’s Campaign URL Builder. It’s pretty easy, even if you don’t have much technical expertise. You’ll simply enter a few pieces of information:
- Website URL is the URL that you want to track. Usually this is some kind of internal page; in your link building campaign, this may be a specific page you want to use as a focal point for your strategy.
- Campaign Source is where the traffic is coming from. You can enter just about anything you want here, like the name of a specific publisher or something generic like “newsletter.”
- Campaign Medium refers to the medium for your tracking; you can use “hyperlink.”
- Campaign Name is totally up to you, and simply allows you to differentiate between otherwise similar campaigns.
You’ll also have the option to use the Campaign Term and Campaign Content fields to identify keywords associated with your campaign, or differentiate ads.
Once done, you can track all your UTM parameters in Google Analytics using the metrics we’ve listed and described in previous sections.
Creating Custom Groupings
You can also build custom channel groupings, which are rule-based groupings of your traffic sources. By default, traffic will be grouped in a way that Google feels is most relevant to the greatest number of companies. But you may be interested in changing how these are displayed. Note that this feature is currently in Beta.
To create one, sign into Google Analytics and click Admin, then navigate to the view in which you want to create a custom channel grouping. Once open, under “personal tools and assets,” you can click Custom Channel Grouping, then New Channel Grouping. There, you can name your custom grouping and click “Define a new channel.”
Here, you’ll be able to name the new channel, and choose a display color for it so it’s easier to distinguish. You’ll then be able to create a series of rules for which traffic to allow in this view; you’ll be able to choose from a number of categories, such as “ad content,” “keyword,” and “destination URL,” establish logic parameters with Boolean operators, and include custom text to pull it all together. You can also drag and drop different rules to specify the order in which they should be applied.
When done, click Save. You can edit, copy, share, or delete your custom channel groupings at any time.
Note that this is an advanced feature, and will not be relevant to every link builder or SEO practitioner. These additional custom groupings exist only to make your life easier or give you more detailed data reports; most of the crucial insights are gleanable through the basic features of Google Analytics.
Tying Everything Together
Throughout this guide, we’ve helped you calculate costs, measure your inbound traffic, and even set up custom tracking scripts to better understand your traffic. So how are you supposed to pull it all together for a comprehensive view of your past efforts?
For most brands, the best place to start is a high-level audit. How much do you spend on link building in a single month, or over the course of a year, and what kind of results are you seeing from those efforts?
For a given month, let’s say your total link building costs are X, added up from all the time you’ve spent and everything you’ve paid to your link building agency of choice. Via Google Analytics, you can calculate the number of conversions you’ve gotten as a direct or indirect result of your link building efforts; for example, conversions from organic traffic and certain types of referral traffic will apply here. If you know the average value of a conversion, you can multiply that by your number of conversions for a quick estimate of the total value produced by your link building strategy for a given month—let’s call that Y.
Is X greater than Y? Your campaign is currently producing a negative ROI. Is Y greater than X? Good. You’re headed in the right direction. Of course, the true results are a bit more nuanced than this; we’re skipping over a lot of secondary and tertiary metrics worth knowing. Also, link building is a long-term strategy; most brands see a negative ROI of SEO the first few months they develop their strategy, only to see that SEO ROI grow exponentially in the months to come.
This is also only a starting point; it’s also a good idea to look at your ROI of SEO on a per-link or per-source basis. How much traffic and how many conversions are you getting for each link, and what did you pay for those links? Also keep in mind the impact each link has on your domain authority, which will influence your organic traffic and resulting conversions. Inevitably, you’ll find some links yielding a much higher ROI than others; what is it about these links that makes them more profitable? Is it the target demographics of the publisher? Is it the user behavior of the traffic once it gets to your site? Are you simply getting higher referral traffic with this publisher than you are with any other publisher?
ROI calculations shouldn’t be a one-time audit; you need to be monitoring your return on a regular basis, seeing how it changes with each tweak to your strategy.
How to Improve Your SEO ROI
If you’ve followed our guide this far, you’ve gained access to dozens of data points that can help you calculate the true cost and true value of your campaign. But what if you aren’t satisfied with those values? What if you’re eager to maximize your ROI of SEO efforts?
There are a few strategies that can help you improve:
- Focus on quality instead of quantity. Too many link building novices, in their excitement to improve their domain authority and search engine rankings, rush to build as many links as possible as quickly as possible. In some ways, this strategy makes intuitive sense; the more links you have pointing to your site, the higher your domain authority should rise. And, assuming each links refers the same amount of traffic, more links means more website visitors. However, this is problematic for a few reasons. First and most notably, not all links are created equal. In fact, there are huge discrepancies between different types of links. Some links will return almost no value to your site, while others could be responsible for tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of regular visitors. Second, good links beget good links; spending more time with high-value publishers will improve your reputation and make it easier to earn similar links in the future. Accordingly, it’s often better to earn a single high-value link than dozens, or even hundreds of low-value links. In short, focus on quality instead of quantity.
- Work with a professional link building agency. Next, work with a professional link building agency. There are a few possibilities for building links; you could try to do all the work yourself, or work with a network of independent freelancers, but there are massive disadvantages here. If you try to do all the work yourself, you’ll be building publisher relationships from the ground up; link building agencies may seem more expensive upfront, but they can spare you the months of time it takes to climb your way up the ladder. They also have access to all the resources you’ll need, and much more experience. Because they can do so much more, and handle the work much more efficiently, they often come with a much higher return on your SEO investment.
- Audit and improve your onsite content. Spend some time auditing your own onsite content. If you’re not sure how, you’re in luck—we’ve written a comprehensive guide on content auditing. While link building is largely an offsite content strategy, it’s important to recognize the value that onsite content can add. Having better onsite content will improve incoming user behavior, helping you increase time spent on page, number of conversions, and other metrics. It can also help you look better to more attractive, higher-profile publishers. In other words, the better your onsite content is, the better your link building strategy will perform, so spend some time cleaning it up.
- Maintain relationships with high-value publishers. If you get blinded by the allure of higher domain authority, you’ll establish a one-and-done strategy with publishers, constantly seeking new publishers rather than working with ones with whom you’ve already established a rapport. Look carefully at those high-profile publishers; oftentimes, you’ll note that they returned more to you in referral traffic and brand visibility than they have in higher search rankings. Plus, publishing a second article with them should be easier than publishing a new article elsewhere, with editors you don’t know. Sometimes, it’s much more valuable to keep working with your existing publishers than to try and find a new one.
- Don’t make assumptions—measure your ROI regularly. Many novice link builders are undone by their assumptions. They see a high-DA publisher and assume that building a link with them will be worth their time and effort. They have an idea that the best course of action is to build 50 new links, without scrutinizing the nature and placement of those links. It’s important to second-guess and analyze every element of your campaign, measuring your ROI and a full suite of similar metrics. This will help you see your campaign objectively, rather than subjectively, and give you concrete evidence for the best course of campaign development in the future.
If you’re interested in improving your link building ROI, or if you’re just starting out with SEO (perhaps via our white label SEO service) and you want your link building strategy to be on point, one of the best steps you can take is working with a professional SEO service link building agency.
As a premier SEO company, we have relationships with some of the most valuable publishers in the world, writers to produce top-tier content, and account specialists to make sure we’re doing everything possible to benefit your business in the long run.