We all know that backlinks are one of (if not) the most important ranking factors to determine where your site ranks on Google.
As SEOs, we spend a lot of time and money trying to get as many high quality backlinks as possible from sites with high authority.
While the focus tends to lean in the direction of the link itself, we need to think about the domain providing the link. These are the “referring domains.”
The referring domain tells us a lot about the quality of the link. If the site linking to us is below average, then the value of the link is also below average.
If the site linking to us has awesome content and only links to other sites with awesome content, then we can determine that a link from that site would be incredibly valuable.
In this article, we’re going to break down the details behind referring domains, why they’re so important, and how you can earn more backlinks from great referring domains.
What is a Referring Domain?
A referring domain or linking domain is a website that links out to another website. We refer to this as “receiving a backlink” but the website that links to you would be considered the referring domain in this case.
If we use SEO tools like the Ahrefs’ report above from NFL.com, the official website of the National Football League, we see that they have 39.2 million backlinks.
But, they only have 213,000 referring domains. This would tell us that many of the referring domains linking to NFL.com are providing more than one link.
When you look at referring domains, you’re looking at the total number of websites that link to you. If a website links to you 500 times, the number of referring domains does not increase.
Difference Between Backlinks and Referring Domains
We’ve discussed this a little so far but let me elaborate. I’ve stated that referring domains is the total number of websites that link to you, but what are backlinks?
A backlink occurs when a website references you in some way and provides a link to your website. These are called “backlinks.” The sites that provide the backlinks are called referring domains.
The referring domains and backlinks play a role in your ranking on Google and the more high authority backlinks you have, the better your website looks in the eyes of Google.
Why Are Referring Domains and Backlinks Important in SEO?
Why do referring domains matter? Why are referring domains even a factor we should talk about when trying to rank a website for relevant keywords?
It’s important to understand that more than 90% of content will never see traffic and the number one reason for this is because the website does not have any backlinks.
According to a study done by Ahrefs, 66.31% of pages have zero quality referring domains. This means that zero websites are linking to the page they’re trying to rank.
If a site does not have any referring domains, it means that they likely have a thin backlink profile. If they don’t have any backlinks then how can they expect to rank?
Plus, the correlation between referring domains and search traffic is crystal clear.
The more referring domains you have, the more traffic you have.
All of these factors around referring domains and backlinks work together. It’s all part of an overall link building strategy.
You need sites referring to your domains to increase your authority and you need to increase the authority of your domain to increase your organic traffic.
Is that it though?
Of course not, it all starts with good, well-optimized content that provides value to a direct and well targeted audience. If you have that, you need to ensure you have enough referring domains directing links to your content.
Using the Ahrefs Google Chrome extension is also an incredibly helpful way to determine keyword competition. Many SEOs like to focus entirely on the competitiveness of a keyword but you should also look at the number of backlinks by top ranking articles on page one.
These are the middle of page one search results for “best weed eater string.” The metrics in the rectangle are the backlinks and referring domains (RD) for the website as a whole. You don’t want to look at these when determining individual keyword difficulty.
Look at the metrics in the oval shape. These are the backlinks and referring domains for the article itself.
If you wrote an awesome and incredibly valuable article about weed eater string, you might only need a few backlinks from a few different referring domains to rank in the middle of page one for this keyword.
The Quality of The Links Matters
Here’s where things get interesting. There are people all over the internet selling massive amounts of backlinks for small amounts of money.
Are these good backlinks from quality referring domains that will improve your overall backlink profile?
If you’ve been in SEO long enough, you know the image above is from Fiverr.com. We’re not trying to bash anyone or delegitimize anything, but you get what you pay for when it comes to backlinks.
It’s important that you do not glamourize quantity over quality when it comes to building backlinks and referring domains.
To increase your domain authority and rank higher on Google, you need backlinks from high authority referring domains.
Links that come from efforts like in the image above are not going to increase your domain authority and in fact, can have the adverse effect by looking sketchy and result in you getting penalized in the next update.
The quality of referring domains you get backlinks from is just as important as the number of backlinks you have to your domains. In fact, the quality of the referring domains might have a stronger impact on your link building strategy overall.
Quality vs. Quantity in Referring Domains
Lastly, it’s important to understand that this is all hearsay. No one knows exactly what the Google algorithm is thinking and we need to remember that link building of any kind is technically “against the rules.“
But, if we had to guess, a blend of quality and quantity will result in the highest boost for your website.
How to Check Referring Domains
If you’re trying to build a website, knowing the number of referring domains you and your competitors have is important.
Using SEO tools like Ahrefs, we can find out how many referring domains our competitors have which will provide us with an idea of how many we’ll need to have if we intend on ranking for the same keywords.
For this example, let’s pretend we are trying to rank a home improvement affiliate website. This is a competitive niche so we may end up needing a lot of backlinks.
We want to pay close attention to the referring domain data and especially the quality of the referring domains that link to the domains in the report.
Let’s say we want to rank for the keyword “when to replace a roof.” We put that into the keywords explorer in Ahrefs, and scroll down to the position history section below.
This shows us that many of the websites on page one have held their position for a while which is a good sign.
We’ll want to dive into all of these to see how many referring domains each has. For this example, we’ll use the first result, westfallroofing.com.
We’ll take that URL and put it into the site explorer section on Ahrefs.
This page provides link building and referring domain data that can tell us a lot about the reason certain pages get more organic traffic than others.
We can see that the specific page has 21 backlinks from 13 referring domains.
This means there are 13 linking domains providing backlinks. What this doesn’t tell us is about the quality referring domains or the number of backlinks that are actually determining where the domain ranks.
What it does tell us is that it won’t be exceptionally difficult to rank a website for this keyword. So, we could implement this as part of our link building strategy in the roofing and home improvement niche.
The question is, how do we get a referring domain?
You can continue using Ahrefs to see what domains provide backlinks to your competitors. If you can see where the backlinks come from, you can figure out what referring domain you want to reach out to as part of your link building strategy.
When you have the URL put into the site explorer on Ahrefs, you want to click on Backlinks on the left hand side.
Once in the backlinks section, you want to filter by “dofollow” links. Dofollow backlinks are external backlinks from a website that search engines crawl to determine if they’re quality links or not.
A “nofollow” backlink from a referring domain will not impact your rankings so you don’t want to target nofollow backlinks are part of your link building strategy.
This is the reason why social media backlinks from a website like Facebook or Instagram do not impact your rankings; they’re nofollow backlinks.
That brings us to only five dofollow links to this article from Westfallroofing.com. So, if you write an article about when to get a roof, you could potentially pitch it to the referring domain of your choice in homes that they’ll provide you with quality backlinks.
If they do, they would become a referring domain for your website and add to your backlink profile.
This is an example of a small website, but what if the website is so large that there are thousands of referring domains and they’re all from sketchy looking websites?
In the example above, we used Bobvilla.com which is a huge DIY/home improvement site. This site has hundreds of thousands of backlinks and many referring domain options to choose from.
A website of this size has a massive backlink profile so you need to narrow down to the referring domain choices you’ll want to reach out to for link building.
In reality, you could reach out to a referring domain and end up with low-quality links even though it’s a reputable website.
Here’s how you’ll narrow the search down to make the most of your link building efforts.
Using the filters in the yellow box, we were able to narrow it down to only 14 groups of links. These are all high quality, relevant links from referring domains that have traffic and a minimum DR of 10.
What this does is shows us how the backlink profile of even a large website can have a lot of low quality linking domains.
How to Get More Referring Domains and Backlinks
Knowing how to get referring domains is important but how can you increase your chances of getting them and how can you scale this process so it doesn’t take you forever just to get one link?
Improving the backlink profile of your domain should be high on the list of important tasks for your website. Even if you’ve just started a new website, you can still work towards earning backlinks through manual outreach.
It all starts and ends with amazing content. If the content you have on your website is valuable then you’ll increase your chances immediately.
If the content on your website is sub-par and no different than everything else on the internet, then it might be harder for you.
The success rate of a cold email is around 1% which means you need to send about 100 emails just to receive one response.
It’s important that you separate yourself from your competitors by ensuring content is better, more comprehensive, and more valuable than the other 15 people that emailed them today.
Outreach With a Purpose
In 2010 having good content might have been enough to get a link. The recipient of the email might have thought “wow, this is a great article, my readers will love this, I’ll give them a link”!
Today, they’ve probably already received 50 emails this week of people offering the same story so they’re going to ignore you just like they did the rest.
You need to be different and you need to stand out.
It starts with writing personalized emails with a purpose. Get straight to the point, don’t waste their time, and do your research ahead of time.
Last but not least, your email needs to do more than just ask for a link. There are three primary ways you can provide value in your ask.
Offer a guest post in exchange for a link. You’re offering to write great content for free and all they need to do is provide a link pointing back to your website and you earn the referring domain. You’re doing most of the work so most website owners are pretty receptive to this.
In a link exchange, you offer to find links for a website in exchange for them providing a link to you. This is a great strategy if you have a new website because the people you’re emailing might not want a link from you if your website has a low DR. Get them a link from a high DR site and now they’ll be willing to give you a link.
Pay for Links
Sometimes you have no choice, you have to pay to play and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s important that you make sure the site has a high DR, has its own traffic, and doesn’t necessarily offer a link to anyone.