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Links can sometimes be a contentious topic in SEO, depending on the circle of SEOs you talk to.

For me, marketing and PR are essentials in modern business (and competitive markets), and links are a quantitative byproduct of these activities.

This metric is scalable, and as Google (and other search engines) have shown over the years that in most cases they are better at understanding whether or not links are natural, as well as giving us tools to mark up the honest origin of a link through HTML (e.g., rel=sponsored), and through clear disclaimers on the page itself for the reader.

As we know, abuse of links as a form of ranking manipulation can lead to penalties, and penalties lead to penalty removal (services).

So in January this year, I started to collect responses from SEO professionals through Twitter and various Slack groups who graciously gave their time and expertise to analyze 50 real backlinks that point to a real travel website, of a company that has been in business since 2002, and the domain itself live since 2013.

The working hypothesis is that if you ask X number of SEOs the same question, you’d get variance in their responses. I wanted to find out how varied the perception of backlink value is.

In total, 203 SEOs responded to the survey including (based on LinkedIn titles): Generic SEO agency directs and seniors, owners and seniors of white label link-building agencies, and a cohort of SEO professionals of mixed roles, from various parts of the world including South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.

Study Methodology

Having prior knowledge of the domain, I selected 50 backlinks from their backlink profile and asked respondents:

  • Do you think the link is natural, or made for SEO purposes? (Artificial, Natural)
  • Do you think the link looks like it could have been paid for? (Paid for, Probably not paid for)
  • Would you disavow the backlink if the domain got a penalty? (Yes, No)

Respondents were given:

  • The link URL
  • The destination URL of the real website
  • The anchor text
  • The Domain Rating (DR) of the backlink source

And no other form of instruction (so as to not bias them). Respondents were able to use any tools, or methodologies they wanted to come to their conclusions.

The Domain Rating (DR) for the backlinks included in the survey ranged between 34 and 89.

All responses were anonymized, and submission dates were removed, as well as the respondent’s location and job title.

Results Overview & Observations

  • 100% of respondents identified links as being paid for (unnatural), but then would not disavow that link
  • 63% of respondents identified links as being both unnatural, and paid for, but then would not disavow them
  • 45% of respondents would disavow the links from directory websites
  • 71% of respondents identified certain links as being natural, but then would still disavow
  • No 100% consensus was reached on any of the 50 links as to how they are perceived or handled

The closest to 100% consensus was a link from a profile, on a DR74 website that lets you make free accounts to track other company profiles, generating a “follow” link in the process.

99% of respondents claimed this was a natural link, but then 100% agreed it wasn’t paid for (it’s a free link), and 100% agreed they wouldn’t disavow it.

The most contentious link was one from the Huffington Post to the website in question, where 50% of respondents claimed it to be natural and the other 50% that it was artificial.

The same respondents aligned as to whether or not it was paid for, but then only 10% of respondents said they would then disavow it – 6% of which also concluded that it was artificial and paid for (thus breaking Google guidelines).

This specific link I included because the anchor text linking is fragmented, for example, the term “solar energy”, but “solar” and “energy” both link to different websites.

Industry Specific Blogs

With this being a travel website, there were also a number of classic “travel blogs” that include the “work with us” pages, selling articles, and other promotional activities.

Ten of these website types (stereotypical travel blogger sites) were included in the data set, and eight of them were marked by all respondents as being “artificial” links whereas two had mixed responses, but both with more than 70% of respondents highlighting they were artificial.

High DR Websites v Low DR Websites

Taking the five highest DR websites on the list, aside from the 5th highest – a website that describes itself as a social bookmarking website – 97% of respondents would not disavow the four links (DR range 80 to 89) regardless if they marked it as natural or unnatural/paid for. The social bookmarking site, by contrast, had 70% of respondents respond that they would disavow it.

By contrast, the 5 lowest DR websites in the list (DR range between 34 and 36) saw 68% of respondents claim they would disavow them, despite the greater majority highlighting that they don’t believe the links were paid for and that they were natural.

This does indicate a bias towards DR as a deciding factor, versus the backlink source relevancy (as a topic) to the target website.

Why The Mixed Results?

In addition to the survey responses around the links themselves, I requested some information from random respondents as to the types of tools they used and other methodologies to analyze the backlinks.

As you can imagine the usual lineup of tools was used, using third-party metrics like DR and DA with the perceived quality thresholds of whether or not a link is “quality”, with some reporting that anything below a DA/DR 40 was considered for Disavow on this basis.

Others used the guidance of the “toxic link” report in a third-party tool, and others cross-referenced the backlink URLs against lists of “Disavow-worthy domains” produced by other SEOs and agencies.

Because of the breadth and differences in approach, it’s not surprising that the results varied.

One of the issues is, is that over the years we will all have encountered varying degrees of success when it comes to removing link-based penalties, in our link-building campaigns, and ultimately the efforts required to drive success for clients.



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