Have you ever heard that "SEO/link building/buying links is dead"?
I BET you have. You'd have to live on the dark side of Jupiter to not have heard that.
But, in fact, paid links are alive and well – thanks for asking.
Do not take my word on it: Read this in-depth article by Glen from Viperchill on how well paid links work.
But what would it cost you to buy a link to your website? Or asked with less malicious intent: What is a organically acquired link worth to your business? Let's find out!
Thanks to contributors
Before we start, let me say "Thanks" to a few people: Michael Buckbee, Barry Welch and Sean Fioritto for the constant nagging and great feedback. Cyrus Shepard and Jennifer Sable Lopez of Moz, who both kindly reviewed this blog post and delivered exceptional feedback.
$17,000 per link? Or maybe just 6 cents?
According to this article BankRate bought the domain CreditCardGuide.com mainly for its link profile and rankings. They paid a whooping $17,000 per link.
90 links for $5 means you're paying just 6 cents. However, these are poor quality comment links, not the high-quality editorial stuff you would want.
Both examples are outliers of course and so we need another way to determine the value of a link.
Looking at the market
If we want to know the value of anything, economics 101 teaches us to look at the market.
Unfortunately, Google doesn't like link selling and thus it is rather hard to find working markets for links. It is one thing to sell comment links on Fiverr, but a totally different one taking the risk of being de-indexed with your website because you were selling or buying links.
However, marketplaces do exist out there and I went and collected data from one of them. I only collected data for editorial links offered as one-time payments (you pay once and the link stays up for good). That way you get good quality links for a fixed price.
In total I collected 349 data sets consisting of top-level domain, price, Moz Domain Authority(DA) and keywords.
To give you a rough idea of the data set, here's a breakdown by top level domains:
As you can see, .com domains make up just over three quarters of all domains; with .org and .net bringing in another 15% combined, that means 90% of domains are .com/.org/.net.
Here's another graph that shows Domain Authority(DA) over price for all data sets.
As you can see, most of the sites are huddled together in the low-DA/low-price corner of the chart – but there are a few sites that have a pretty high Domain Authority OR a higher price point. Interestingly, in the Top 10 – by Domain Authority – the websites ranked #9 and #10 have the highest prices.
Manually Identifying Websites
I took some time and tried to identify the websites behind the offers. For that I looked at the description the selling party gave for each website. Often people would either directly mention the site name or use their unique slogans – which means finding the website is as easy as doing a Google search for said slogan.
That way I was able to identify 8 out of 10 of the most expensive websites and 4 out of 10 of the websites with highest Domain Authority. I find it amazing that people are so open when they are clearly out of "white hat terrority". To be perfectly clear, it takes 30 seconds to create an account on the marketplace and maybe another 2-5 minutes to find the website behind a listing. If you're doing something that could cost you your standing with the search engine gods, please be a bit more careful in hiding it
To Publish or Not to Publish the Names?
Having that data made me wonder: Should I disclose the names of the websites selling links?
On the pro side those websites aren't into white hat SEO and if Google finds out they have to accept the consequences of their own actions. Naming the websites also increases the credibility of this study and allows me to tell richer stories. This could make marketing my content easier, which I wouldn't mind 😉
On the other hand, some of the websites don't directly sell links on the market. Rather one of the writers seems to be making some money on the side, which means that the website probably does not know and I would be damaging innocent bystanders. Also: Who am I to judge/report this behavior? After all they are not trespassing the law; they are just doing something that Google thinks is wrong.
In conclusion, I will not be naming names, except for one website. I am sure that with a Domain Authority of 91.33 my tiny blog post can not hurt them; and to be honest, if it does I do not have any sympathy for them.
(Thanks to Glen Allsopp for his help & inspiration in choosing this path)
Shortcomings of the Data
I do not want to skip over the points where my data falls short of a perfect sample and hope that no one notices.
First of all, it is a small sample of only 349 data sets – alas I can not help it without mixing different marketplaces which would introduce new errors.
Secondly, the people who go and sell links at an online marketplace might not be representative of the web at large. They might be better (or worse) educated about SEO & online marketing than the average webmaster; and they might be different in a wide variety of other factors.
Lastly, and most importantly, I have no information about volume or the buyers. I do not know how many of the websites on offer ever sold a single link or if they are selling links regularly.
Looking at Domain Authority
Let's start by taking a look at Domain Authority first. The lowest Domain Authority in the sample is just 10.15, which I find quite interesting as www.linksspy.com has only some 60 incoming links and scores a Domain Authority of 20 – almost twice the value.
The website in question is a press portal with topics ranging from baby information to Windows 7 to hunting – quite an interesting combination – and links are selling for $40.
On the other end of the spectrum we have a website scoring an incredible 91.33 points of Domain Authority! You're wondering which website it is? It is BuzzFeed.com and links are selling for just $106. I am not exactly sure whether this is an official offer or one of the writers is making some money on the side; probably the latter.
The average Domain Authority is 27.79 (Median is 26.48), which means they get links from about 15-20 different domains.
Overall, it seems logical to me that not many websites with high Domain Authority sell links – at least not publicly. They supposedly get a ton of organic traffic and loosing that traffic (which often equals "shutting down") is too big a risk to take for even a few hundred dollars.
Taking a look at the price
Now let's get to the more interesting part: the price.
The lowest price offered is $20. The highest price asked is $800! I can see someone making a decent living just from selling links at that price point. You will see an in-detail analysis of that website in a second.
The average price is a moderate $89.73 and the median price is just over $73. At that price point I assume that selling links is not the main cashflow for most websites.
Examining the Most Expensive Offering
The most expensive website asks for $800 for a single link. What is it that they can ask for 10x the average price? Let's have a look!
There are actually a few things that set this website apart from the rest – and allows them to charge 10x more:
- 37.41 points of Domain Authority is 10 points more than the average *
- the website claims over 50,000 visitors per month
- Just under 500,000 fans on Facebook
- a Twitter following of almost 29,000 followers
- for $800 per link text AND images are included. Providing text is pretty common on the marketplace, but images to go along with the text is quite unique
- The website is focused around health & beauty – a price-y category (more on that in a minute!)
To fully understand the implications of the slightly higher Domain Authority you have to keep in mind that this is a logarithmically scaled metric: 10 points plus means that you have about 10x the links!
Indeed the website has 148 linking root domains and a total of over 2,000 links pointing to the homepage.
The website itself has a nice design and publishes about 10-15 articles each month. The main topics seem to be makeup tips and product tests.
Some example headlines (obfuscated to protect the innocent):
- "6 Things We Can Learn About Beauty From Superstar Emma Watson"
- "4 Tips About How to Apply Make-Up"
- "Winter Hair with Sassy Scissors"
- "Get the Look: Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars"
What immediately caught my attention was the fact that despite the HUGE social media following most articles do not get spread far on Twitter etc. I have not found a single post with more than 10 Tweets. The situation is even worse for Facebook: The best I could find was 7 shares – out of a 500,000 strong following.
Is it just me or are these numbers extremely low?
In my opinion the big factors at work here are the rather high Domain Authority, the big social media following (after all the numbers are impressive) and the category the website is in. We will see in a bit that websites in health & beauty related verticals can command higher prices, but having a lot of traffic and a huge community surely does not hurt.
Which Keyword is the Most Expensive?
Just from looking at the top 10 most expensive websites made it very clear that the niche you are in heavily affects what you can charge for a link. After all why should selling links be different from any other form of paid acquisition?
But where exactly can you make the most money? Which are the money-keywords?
The 349 websites use 2,262 keywords in total and 986 unique keywords. The average website makes use of 6.4 keywords.
Out of the 986 unique keywords 710 keywords are used only by a single website – the famous long tail at work right there. Only 87 keywords are used by more than 5 websites.
The Most Competitive Keywords When Selling Links
Here's the list of the 20 most competitive keywords:
- travel (49 mentions)
- business (43)
- fashion (43)
- finance (38)
- health (38)
- technology (37)
- lifestyle (34)
- shopping (32)
- beauty (32)
- family (29)
- education (23)
- food (21)
- parenting (19)
- seo (18)
- marketing (17)
- recipes (17)
- home improvement (16)
- home (16)
- career (15)
- news (15)
You can also view the chart here:
In those verticals you will face a stiff competition if you are trying to sell links on your website. Sadly, "SEO" is also on this list – there goes the business model for the LinksSpy.com blog 😉
Kidding aside, I would expect quite a bit of competition for organic search engine rankings with those keywords as well. Hence it does not come as a big surprise that link sellers (& probably buyers) are targeting the same keywords. Also consider that all but one keyphrase ("home improvement") are just one word – another reason increasing competition for sure.
Indeed, checking the difficulty to rank for those keywords organically with the help of Moz's keyword difficulty tool, you can see that the keywords are difficult to rank for: the easiest one comes with a difficulty of 72%. With up to 2,180,739 exact match searches on Bing alone they are at the same time highly lucrative keywords. Here are the full details of the difficulty research for you:
The average prices in the top 20 are somewhere between $52 and $156 per link and cost a lot less than the most expensive keywords. Of the 20 most competitive keywords only half are also among the top 20 highest paying keywords.
The Most Expensive Keywords
While we are speaking off it, lets have a look at the most expensive keywords.
So what do you think is the most expensive keyword when you are buying links online? "credit card" maybe? Or "payday loans"? Or maybe one of the other notoriously expensive AdWords keywords?
Nope… The most expensive keyword is "makeup" with an average price of $266!
Here is the full list of the top 20 most expensive keywords:
- makeup ($266 per link)
- hair ($213)
- recipes ($156) *C
- beauty ($153) *C
- style ($148)
- children ($147) *C
- DIY ($143)
- coupons ($141)
- cooking ($139) *C
- food ($139) *C
- crafts ($136)
- backpacking ($132)
- family ($128) *C
- fashion ($128) *C
- parenting ($127) *C
- personal finance ($123)
- savings ($122)
- mobile ($118)
- lifestyle ($118) *C
- health ($111) *C
*C – keyword is also among the 20 most competitive keywords for selling editorial links
Again, all of the top 20 are single word keywords – except for "personal finance" on #16. This is probably partly caused by only looking at keywords with at least 5 mentions, but you would expect to find "good"/"easy" keywords in the top 20.
Interestingly, the finance industry – which with keywords such as "insurance", "loans" and "mortgage" has been dominating the top 20 most expensive PPC keywords for years – is practically not present on this list. That could mean their demand for buying links is not met by the market… You link sellers out there: This is your opportunity to conquer a new market!
These keywords are only marginally less competitive to rank for than the other top 20 keywords:
Why are Most Keywords Targeted at Women?
One thing that sticks out to me is the abundance of largely "female-targeted" (sorry, but that is the best word I came up with) keywords: "makeup", "hair", "recipes", "beauty", "style", "parenting" and "fashion". Especially the top 20 most expensive keywords are full of these keywords.
Compare it to the top 20 most expensive PPC keywords and you will notice that none of the keywords is expensive in PPC. In fact most of the keywords cost less than $2 on AdWords; and 7 of my top 20 cost less than 80 cents per click on AdWords.
There could be any number of reasons for that:
- this specific marketplace is attracting a lot of fashion & beauty bloggers
- the sample size is too small and this is just fluctuation
- beauty bloggers find it easier to naturally embed product placements in their content
- beauty bloggers have found link selling to be an attractive way to monetize their blog and word is spreading in the community
Honestly, I know as much about the reasons behind this rather odd finding as the next person, but I sure would like to find out. If you have any insights into this, please let us know in the comments!
How Much Domain Authority Influences the Price
The one last big question that remains unanswered so far is: How much does Domain Authority – the quality of a website – influence the price of links sold?
The answer is: Somewhat. The correlation is 0.412 for the statistics geeks. This means that often a website with higher Domain Authority will charge more for a link. A value of 1.0 would mean that every website with a higher DA charges more than websites with lower values.
This is not the case here and I have shown the major reasons above: Price is influenced by niche/keywords and other factors such as a big social media following or the owner's notion of "that price seems about right".
However, the correlation seems high enough to me, to tell you a very rough formula for how much a link is worth, based on the website's Domain Authority: For every point of Domain Authority a website has, expect to pay another $2.43 for each link.
Here's a nice infographic in case you want to share this knowledgle with your friends:
You can use this infographic on your own website for free – as long as you link back to www.linksspy.com
I found researching for and writing this article really interesting; mainly because I learned a ton. Apart from the obvious details (e.g. average price per link is ~$90), I was surprised by how much prices differ based on keywords.
And I was flabbergasted by how many "women-targeted" keywords were able to command higher prices – I would love a solid explanation for that sooo much.
I would love to do more research into this interesting market and learn a more about it. Maybe I will look at monthly rented links next, because it seems that most links are sold that way instead of one-time payments. And most links seem to be traded in private (for obvious reasons), not on an open marketplace – any ideas how I could acquire significant data there?
Any other questions you would love to see answered? Let me know in the comments!
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