How to Assess Backlink Quality in 2023
Assessing backlink quality can be a nightmare.
Do some research and you’ll find that everyone has a different opinion, and it all just seems like guesswork.
And truthfully, a lot of it is at least partially guesswork.
That’s the nature of SEO… Google keeps the details of their algorithm quite secret, so all we’re left with is running tests and using educated guesses.
While there’s a million quality theories you could consider, we’ve found that just a few factors have most of the impact on quality.
Our approach is to focus on doing an exceptional job with these small few factors, and disregard the rest.
This is the philosophy upon which we’ve built our backlink quality framework.
And it’s working nicely – We’ve built over 10,000 backlinks for clients, and we pretty consistently see positive impacts on their organic traffic.
Moving the needle for our clients is all the evidence we need.
In this article I’ll give you our exact quality assessment process, including a custom tool that you can use to easily check every link you build.
Checking link quality will feel like a breeze by the time you’re done!
Here’s what we’ll cover (including the custom tool):
- Definition of a high quality backlink
- Why backlink quality matters
- Quality factors to consider
- Assessing link quality with our custom tool
- Link quality examples
Definition of a High Quality Backlink
Here’s our definition:
“A backlink which appears natural, and positively influences the algorithm.”
Let’s break down those two parts a little bit.
In an ideal world, all of your links would come from other website owners loving what you’re doing and linking to your content often.
Those are what we’d call “natural” links.
And they’re the links upon which the logic of the Google algorithm is built. A website linking to you because they love your stuff is exactly why the algorithm rewards links so much.
Of course, we don’t live in that ideal world and in reality you need to be much more assertive to get your links built.
But when you boil it down, the ultimate aim is to mimic natural links. You’re trying to build links that appear as if a website owner linked to you because they find your content valuable.
You can worry less about specific quality factors if you just think about link building through this simple lens.
Positively Influencing the Algorithm
Appearing natural is great, but it won’t be super effective if all your links are coming from weak websites that don’t have much impact on the algorithm.
A strong website which will deliver a big impact mostly comes down to how many links that website itself has from other websites.
All that link equity (also called link juice) is passed through to your website, which influences the algorithm to reward your website.
Why Backlink Quality Matters
The importance of backlink quality is two-sided:
- Good links move the needle and benefit your SEO
- Bad links risk negatively impacting your SEO
Moving the Needle
The Google algorithm rewards websites that have more links, relative to other websites who cover the same topics.
This is why each link carries value for your website.
But Google is also smart enough to identify low quality links, and discount (or remove) the value to your website.
You need links that are above a certain threshold of quality to sufficiently impact the algorithm and move the needle of your SEO.
Low quality links are super easy to build.
It’s tempting to drop a few bucks here and there to get easy and quick links from cheap vendors.
Sometimes those links may even be beneficial in the short term, and have a positive impact on your SEO.
But generally the easier it is to build a link, the lower the quality.
And Google slowly but surely gets better over time at identifying low quality links and removing the value to your website.
The risk here is that you invest in links now and see benefits, only for those benefits to be removed suddenly in a future Google algorithm update when they decide your links are too low quality.
This plays out as growing traffic in the short term, followed by a sharp fall when the value of your links is removed and you now have less than your competitors.
Imagine backlink quality can be graded on a scale of 0-100 (what our custom tool will do for you later).
We could say that links scoring below 60 are too low quality, and pose a risk to your SEO.
With 60/100 as your minimum threshold, you’ll have a bell curve distribution of quality scores from 60 to 100.
While links above are of an acceptable quality, will benefit your SEO now, and don’t have a high risk of being devalued in the future.
The conclusion is simple – Focus on building links which exceed this threshold.
Backlink Quality Factors to Consider
With the philosophy, groundwork, and definitions out of the way we can now start to look at specific quality factors.
At We Outreach, we’ve chosen these quality factors to reflect the philosophy covered already in this article – To build links which appear natural and exceed our quality threshold.
We’ll break down the factors now, but it’ll really start coming together in the next section as we start using our quality tool.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Basic quality factors
- Website authority (DR or DA)
- Website organic traffic
- Outbound link quality
- Topical focus
Basic Quality Factors
These are the simplest and most obvious factors which most people already know.
You want dofollow links, located in the main content, in a way that makes contextual sense, with a relevant and natural anchor text.
Links from website directories, social pages, forums, or anywhere else are not relevant for our link quality assessments. These may have other benefits, but they’re not the type of links that have a big impact on SEO.
From a link building perspective, the “authority” of a website is based on how many links a website has from other websites.
It’s based on Google’s PageRank (PR) technology, which shows that the more links a website has, the more beneficial a link from that website is for your website.
For example, a link from a website which itself has 100 links will provide more value for your website than a link from a website which itself has 10 links.
Google used to provide a PR score of every website on the internet, which made judging the authority (and associated benefit) very easy.
These days PR is no longer public, so we must rely on metrics developed by other companies which aim to mimic PR. These companies crawl and index the whole internet (in a similar way to Google), and can thereby create a map of links between all websites.
From this map of links they can create metrics similar to Google’s PR, with more links equalling more authority.
The most useful such metrics are:
- Domain Rating (DR) by Ahrefs
- Domain Authority (DA) by Moz
- Authority Score by Semrush
- Trust Flow by Majestic
It’s important to remember that these metrics aren’t a perfect representation of PR, as the algorithms of these companies are like a dumbed down version of Google.
While they’re not perfect and you shouldn’t put too much stock in them, they are an overall quick and useful way to assess the authority of a website.
Domain Rating by Ahrefs is our metric of choice at We Outreach.
Website Organic Traffic
While website authority is a valuable quality factor because we can see Google cares about it from the PR metric, organic traffic as a factor is a bit more guesswork-y.
The logic is that if a website ranks well and gets a lot of traffic from Google, then surely Google views it as high quality, right?
And therefore they probably look similarly positively on a link from that website.
That’s some educated guesswork within the link building industry, but it’s commonly accepted as being useful, and I think it’s a reasonably logical assumption.
At We Outreach we assume that the more traffic a website has, the higher the quality of a link from that website.
We also consider the countries from which it receives this traffic and the overall trend (up, down, or stable). Traffic from developed English speaking countries and a stable or upward trend are preferable.
Ahrefs (and other SEO tools) can estimate the amount of organic traffic a website receives from Google each month.
It’s not totally accurate and almost certainly won’t align with the real traffic a website receives.
Nevertheless it’s once again a quick and useful estimate, good enough for our purposes
Outbound Link Quality
All too common these days are link farms – Websites that exist purely to sell links to other websites.
Link farms are almost always very low quality and risky links.
Selling links in itself is not the issue, but rather selling links so excessively that it creates a strong and obvious pattern across the website which the Google algorithm may recognise.
The issue being that if Google recognises this pattern, they’ll consider it a spam website and devalue all of the outbound links.
Therein lies the risk – If you have a lot of links from link farms which are devalued at some point in the future, then your website suddenly loses a lot of authority and can experience a sudden drop in rankings and traffic.
In short, we don’t want links from websites which excessively link to other low quality websites.
How to Assess Outbound Link Quality
It’s important to realise that almost all websites where you’ll be able to get links have at least a few low quality outbound links.
A few of them isn’t an issue because it’s not enough to create a strong pattern and push us across our risk threshold.
The point is not to obsess about a small number of links, because you’ll have a very hard time building links if you only accept 100% clean websites.
What we’ve designed at We Outreach is a quick and easy way to assess the strength of a pattern of low quality outbound links, for any website.
We’ve identified a few industries which are commonly linked to from low quality websites, and simply do a quick check for links to those industries when assessing a website.
For example, low quality websites very commonly link to gambling websites.
So if we see a website linking to a lot of gambling websites, we treat that as a strong signal of a low quality outbound link profile.
We don’t need to assess every single outbound link, but rather just look for these high level patterns.
This is really effective at identifying low quality websites, and also takes mere seconds to complete.
You’ll see this process fully explained later in this article when we go through our custom quality check tool.
Backlink relevance can be broken into two parts:
- Relevance of the linking website
- Relevance of the specific linking page
Relevance of the website as a whole matters, but relevance of the specific page matters more.
The website as a whole should be at least somewhat related to your website.
While the specific page should be hyper relevant.
This is easier to explain with some examples. Let’s imagine we’re assessing the relevance of links to a gardening website:
- From a page about gardening, on a website all about gardening – Fantastic
- From a page about gardening, on a website about home life – Great
- From a page about gardening, on a website about technology – Bad
- From a page NOT about gardening, on a website about technology – Very bad
The more relevance, the better.
But as with all these quality factors, the key is to decide where your minimum threshold lies.
In the case of relevance I think the first two points are acceptable, while the others are not.
Point 1 is clearly fantastic, with high relevance at both the site and page level.
Point 2 is also very good. It’s a hyper relevant page, on a website which is also somewhat related (home life and gardening).
Point 3 is bad because a page about gardening on a site about technology just doesn’t make much sense. A link like this probably won’t pass much value, and may even be at risk of being entirely devalued.
Point 4 is even worse. A link from a page that isn’t even about gardening just looks completely unnatural.
The question to ask yourself here is if the site is focused on just a few topics, or more broadly spread?
A broad site seems to dilute the relevance of links, while a narrowly focused site has the opposite effect.
An excessively broad site is also more likely to be a link farm. Link farm owners are incentivized to cover as many topics as possible, so they have the most opportunity to sell links to different industries.
A broad site can still be a great place to get a link of course, depending on how the site performs on all of the other quality factors we’ve discussed.
How To Assess Backlink Quality (Free Tool)
Before moving onto the specifics of our quality tool, we first need to go over a few principles upon which the tool is built.
After that I’ll share our quality tool, and give you a step by step guide to easily assess the quality of every link you build.
Backlink Quality Principles
These principles underpin our approach to link building and quality assessment, and it’s important to understand them to set the context.
- Balance quantity and quality
- No link is perfect
- Good is good enough
Balancing Quantity and Quality
There’s a careful balance you must strike between link quality and quantity.
If your quality standards are too low, you’ll be wasting money on links that won’t move the needle and may carry risk for your website.
If your quality standards are too high, you’ll restrict your options and build very few links.
Falling too much on either side can undermine the effectiveness of your link building.
No Link is Perfect
It’s important to realise that most links have both good and bad features.
A link is worth building when the good features outweigh the bad.
For example, a link from a site with a lowish quality outbound link profile might still be worth building if it has other good features like high authority and traffic.
Likewise, a link from a site with low authority and traffic might still be worth building if the outbound link profile is clean and the relevance is super high.
Good is Good Enough
In a practical link building strategy where you’re striking the right balance between quality and quantity, some links you build will be fantastic, while some others will be just ok.
Don’t strive for perfection with every link.
Whether a link passes your quality threshold by an inch or a mile, just build it.
With the stage set, we can now move on to the We Outreach quality tool.
Use The We Outreach Quality Tool to Assess Backlink Quality
While our tool is just a simple Google Sheet, it’s incredibly powerful because it standardises every link quality decision.
For each link you can check just a few objective metrics based on the factors discussed earlier, and the tool will tell you whether it’s a pass or fail.
Get your copy here (just click File -> Make a copy): https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1pnEi4jCjYUV2UynyBB5rasX7DPQIJMnvlWYKZazHv6k/edit?usp=sharing
Here’s a video of our account manager Uros explaining the tool: https://www.loom.com/share/059478a52b794aadb8215179c854975c
Note: You’ll need access to Ahrefs to use this tool, as we use their metrics and data.
How the We Outreach Quality Tool Works
For a website quality assessment all you need to do is fill data into the cells highlighted in yellow in the F column.
You’ll note that these are the quality factors we discussed earlier in this article.
Each factor is weighted by importance, and the website is awarded points depending on how strong it performs for that factor (in the H column).
If the total score exceeds 60%, the website has passed the quality check and you should build the link. Otherwise, don’t build the link.
Note that the tool also uses the “no link is perfect” principle from above. If the good features of a website outweigh the bad, it’ll get a passing grade, regardless of which specific factors performed well or poorly.
Finally, you should know the tool uses “hard fail” limits for individual factors.
For example a website will be a hard fail if it doesn’t meet a certain minimum threshold of DR or traffic, regardless of how well it performs on other factors.
Each factor has a minimum threshold which will result in a hard fail if not passed.
Let’s use the tool to assess socoffee.co
Step 1: Enter the Website Url
Paste the url into cell O3.
The tool will use the url to help assess other factors in the coming steps.
Step 2: Find and Enter DR and Traffic (TR)
Load up the Ahrefs domain overview to find the DR and Traffic.
Then enter this data into cells F3 and F4.
Step 3: Find and Enter Outbound Link Profile Data
In this step we’ll look for patterns of the website linking out to industries that are frequently linked to from low quality websites.
We do this by looking for keywords associated with these industries in the urls of websites in the outbound link profile.
As in the screenshots, the keywords we use are:
These industries aren’t inherently bad, they’re just correlated heavily with low quality sites.
We’ve found that a pattern of linking to these industries is a quick and effective signal that a site may have an overall low quality outbound link profile.
For each, open the Ahrefs link in the K column.
It’ll load the outbound links report of the website we’re assessing, filtered for the given keyword.
Do this with each of the Ahrefs links, and enter the number of domains found for each keyword in the F column.
In this case each keyword was found 0 times in the outbound link profile.
This is very unusual, and is a sign of a very high quality outbound link profile.
Step 4: Calculate and Enter the English Traffic %
In this step we’re assessing roughly which percentage of the total website traffic comes from developing English-speaking countries.
You can see a traffic breakdown by country in the Ahrefs organic search report.
You’ll never need to calculate this percentage too precisely because the tool uses only rough ranges, as you can see in the F10 cell:
- Greater than 50%
- Less than 30%
In this case it’s clear that most of the traffic comes from the US, so let’s select greater than 50% from the dropdown menu.
Step 5: Find and Enter Traffic Trend Data
We want to check if there’s been any sharp falls in traffic in the past one year because this might indicate a Google penalty, which would be a negative quality signal.
We can do this in the Ahrefs organic search report by setting the filter to one year, and then finding the high point of traffic in the graph.
The high point this time happens to be right now, so we’ll enter that in the F11 cell.
If there was a lower point of traffic sometime after this high point, we’d enter that in the F12 cell. The idea here is to measure whether there’s a big difference between the high and low points of traffic, which may indicate a fall in traffic due to a Google penalty.
Since there’s no lower point of traffic after the high point in this case, we’ll just enter the same value in the F12 cell.
Step 6: Assess and Enter Topical Focus
Here we’re assessing whether the website is broadly or narrowly focused, with a narrow site being preferable.
A narrowly focused website covers just 2 or 3 core topics, while a broad website can often cover much more.
The dropdown in F13 has just two options: Broad, or narrow.
To determine this, just look at the website and use your best judgement.
In this case, socoffee.co is clearly a narrowly focused website. They’re a coffee company, and the whole website is focused on their locations, products, and coffee guides.
That’s about as narrow as it gets, so we’ll choose “narrow” from the dropdown menu.
Step 7: Final Assessment
After inputting all this data, you now have a clear pass or fail grade which you can trust in most cases.
Anything above 60% is considered a high quality link, so in our example socoffee.co passes with flying colours with a score of 87%.
The last thing to consider are the specifics of your link placement on the website.
As discussed earlier in this article, you’ll want to make sure your link appears natural and is placed in a way that makes contextual sense on a relevant page.
If all that lines up, you’ve got a solid link lined up which you can feel confident in building.
Backlink Quality Assessment Examples
Now that we’ve gone through our whole link quality framework, let’s add some more colour by showing a few examples.
My goal in this section is to help you go beyond the theory of this framework, and get a sense of which types of websites pass and fail our quality check.
insightssuccess.com – Hard Fail (Low Quality Outbound Links)
Many people would look at this site with DR73 and think it’s a fantastic link.
However when checking the outbound link profile we can see it has an extremely strong pattern of linking out to our red flag industries.
The pattern here is so strong that it creates a “hard fail” based on this factor alone.
This is a classic link farm, existing almost entirely to sell links to other websites, which is very evident from this outbound link profile.
howtobuysaas.com – Hard Fail (Less Than 30% English Traffic)
The DR and traffic of this site are not super high, but that wouldn’t necessarily be an issue because the outbound link profile is very clean (with not even a single red flag link).
Where this site really falls down is having a low percentage of traffic from developed English countries. Unfortunately, less than 30% is our hard fail limit for this metric.
We’re mostly building links for businesses based in the US, so it makes sense for those to come from websites which are also focused in similar geographics markets.
explorelatierra.com – Pass (66%)
With 60% being the threshold, this is a pretty thin passing grade.
The DR and traffic are low, which isn’t great.
However the super clean outbound link profile and narrow focus wins points for this website, and overall gets it across the mark.
techykeeday.com – Pass (61%)
Another very thin pass here at 61%.
This one has a better DR and traffic, but also has a broad focus and quite a few red flags in the outbound link profile.
The quality assessment tool is really useful in close cases like this one.
Without the tool you could spend 30 mins agonising over this website, trying to decide if you should build the link.
But with the tool it’s just a quick 3 minute assessment and you know what to do.
You put your trust in the foundational logic of the quality tool, let it make quick decisions, and use the time you saved to find more link building opportunities.
In the murky world of SEO, it’s really helpful to have a set of principles and values upon which you can build your frameworks.
This article has introduced the values and link quality framework we use at We Outreach.
If you agree with our views, you can easily take this framework and use it as the foundation of all your link building.
Or you may decide to tweak it into something more fitting with your specific needs.
Either way, having a solid foundation will go a long way to making you successful with link building, as it frees up your time to focus on the greater challenge of running your processes effectively.
If you ever need help with link building, feel free to contact us for a chat.