Posted by Nicholas-Chimonas
[Estimated read time: 18 minutes]
SEO futurists have predicted the death of links as a ranking signal for years on end. That hasn’t happened yet, and I'm happy to say that link building as a practice has greatly evolved.
But rapid change often creates confusion, and there doesn't yet seem to be a strong consensus on how link building teams should be constructed, where they fit in the marketing plan, and how much ought to be invested into link acquisition.
To bring more clarity and transparency to a complicated pillar of SEO, I'm proud to present to you the 2016 State of Link Building Survey results!
Let’s be frank: link building has had a volatile history filled with spam, tricks, and get-rich-quick schemes. When Google introduced the first version of Penguin in April of 2012, the practice of link building received a severe shock to the system.
In the minds of many, content marketing has been the modern replacement to link building. To me, this is a flawed perspective, as content marketing has many goals beyond links; link acquisition is a highly ancillary product amidst the primary goals of content marketing. Links also serve a different set of goals than content marketing.
The process was supposed to look something like this, from Rand’s Search Love deck.
The manual promotion, the deliberate intention of earning all of the links you deserve via manual outreach, is what seems to have been missing in many marketing strategies of late.
If you’re interested in learning about how we promoted this survey, check out the methodology section below. Otherwise, hit the jump link to get straight to the questions and results. You can access this year’s raw data sheet here. I encourage you to create your own graphs/analysis with Google Sheets (Insert > Chart...) and share them in the comments! First make sure to create a copy (File > Make a copy…).
I have immensely enjoyed the fascinating data presented in the 2013 and 2014 annual link building surveys. 2015 passed without a survey, and I felt compelled to gather updated data from the industry at large. It’s interesting to note we had 435 responses to this year’s survey, as compared to 315 total in 2014.
It’s also important to mention that this survey doesn't contain the exact same questions presented in 2014’s survey. Link building has been a constantly evolving landscape, and our survey has attempted to evolve with it.
Check out Moz’s link building category page and skim through the posts of 2015 and 2016. There are some very smart, very legitimate evergreen digital marketing strategies in there, as opposed to “the next big trick” or which tactic is on the chopping block for overuse.
As such, the questions in this year’s survey were designed to reflect link building’s evolution into a more legitimate and integrated marketing channel.
I’m not the David Bowie of the SEO world, so I knew I’d need help promoting the survey to gather an acceptable sample size. To that end I reached out to the founder of Credo, John Doherty. He’s a fellow who has bestowed plenty of wisdom upon me with his digital writings, and has conducted similar research on the average cost of SEO consultation recently. He agreed to co-author this post with me, and aid in promotion.
Beyond emailing our own newsletter subscribers of Credo and P1P, we spoke with a few people in an attempt to increase our reach with the survey. To each one of these individuals we want to express our sincere gratitude. Thank you!
- Rand Fishkin tweeted out the survey several times over a couple of weeks
- Dharmesh Shah shared the survey on his twitter feed
- BuzzStream emailed their customer base, thanks to Paul May
- Anneliese Sparks shared the survey out through the SEMrush twitter account
- Brian Dean of Backlinko tweeted the survey
- Mary Green, community manager of Inbound.org, stickied the LB survey
- Online Geniuses shared the survey out in an email newsletter, thanks to Adam Steele
Without any further ado, let’s jump into the data.
Who took the survey?
As expected, a majority of survey respondents were agencies. Link building is still typically an agency offering, despite predictions of link building moving in-house or to PR teams. In our 2016 survey, the percentage of Agency respondents versus In-House has actually increased.
27% of respondents in 2016 selected In-House SEO compared to 30% in 2014 that responded as “SEO Manager or head of SEO”.
However, this year we segmented our In-House answer selections to include "In-House Content Marketer" and "In-House PR." In 2014, the only option potentially relevant to In-House professionals was SEO Manager, so it isn’t quite a direct comparison. That said, we had more available answer selections for In-House than before, and Agency still won out.
It’s interesting that In-House PR received so few responses. There have been many blog posts proclaiming the need for migration of link building responsibilities to PR departments, but in my experience that hasn't been reflected in reality.
In an overwhelming majority of link building campaigns I’ve been involved in, link acquisition is simply not at the forefront of the minds of PR agencies. While successful PR does create some of the highest-quality link opportunities, most of them are left on the table; they still require manual outreach to convert to links.
It’s possible our promotional efforts are the reason we didn’t reach many in the in-house PR role. However, in my experience collaborating with in-house PRs, it is very rare to encounter someone who focuses on building links.
What size of companies are actively involved with link building?
This was a “Select as many as apply” answer set, but with a majority of respondents selecting 1–200 employees, link building appears to still reign supreme in the SMB market (although it's worth noting that 10% of respondents were from large businesses). The common line of thought is that enterprise businesses naturally earn so many links that active link acquisition isn’t as necessary.
To dive a bit deeper, I further segmented the data by respondent type with Google sheets’ Charts function. It isn’t surprising to see agencies and in-house professionals working with a higher number of larger enterprises compared to consultants, freelancers, and business owners. Still, across every respondent type, SMBs were the most popular selection.
How many people are on your link acquisition team?
81% of respondents reported they work alone or in link building teams of 1–5 members. It’s possible those building the links are typically wearing many hats, with link building packaged into a larger service or part of many other in-house responsibilities.
I’ve worked with a few larger businesses’ in-house teams of full-time link builders, but it's a rarity. The largest in-house link building team I’ve worked with had 20 employees on staff. Clearly this is by no means commonplace. Most businesses either don't need or don't believe they need full-time link builders. It’s mostly SEOs — who are typically members of small teams already — that either do the work, or recognize its value and outsource to agencies with small, dedicated teams.
I also broke this out into agencies versus in-house. Although agencies did submit more responses with larger team selections, the spread is quite similar.
As you can see, there are far fewer lone wolves in an agency setting. In-House folks responded with nearly double the selections of “Just me!” compared to Agencies. In every other team size category, Agencies responded more than In-House. Keep in mind these are fairly similar sample sizes, with 180 respondents identifying as Agency and 163 as In-House.
What is the average client’s or business’s budget allocated to link building per month?
On this question, we requested in-house folks calculate the total of all link building employee's monthly salary. Being a part of a larger package or add-on duties to an in-house team could affect this spread, with over a third of respondents selecting under $1,000.
In 2016, our audience reported much lower costs for link building compared to the 2014 survey. This could be due to a different audience reached, or less focus on link building itself.
The $10K–$50K option was too large of a range in 2014, and with 0% selecting $50K+, we lowered and segmented our ranges further in 2016. This is 2014’s distribution of the same question:
This year’s data becomes more interesting as you break it up by our audience’s professions. Two distinct groupings within our respondent types were exposed. Agency and In-House are similar in cost spread, with In-House having slightly more on the higher end. The other similar grouping was Consultant/Freelancer and Business Owner.
What model do you use to charge for link building services?
This spread is somewhat deceiving, as there was essentially only one answer for In-House respondents to select. 154 respondents selected the top voted answer, which would make sense with 163 identifying as In-House. Remember though, this isn’t indicative of reaching more of an In-House crowd as opposed to agencies (180 responded as Agency).
This question was structured this way specifically because there are so many different ways that Agencies and Consultants/Freelancers sell link building in 2016.
Still, this question confirmed a suspicion raised by the earlier question regarding team size. Packaging link building as part of a larger service is indeed the top-selected option for all other respondent types besides In-House, and that probably affects the necessary team size of dedicated link builders.
The responses typed in when “Other” was selected are quite interesting. A couple of “other” responses actually fit in other buckets that were options, so they aren’t included. I’ve also segmented the selections by respondent type in the pie charts below.
“Other” entries by agency respondents:
“It's wrapped into our monthly retainer.”
“We're a public university running on an agency model; this is included in budgets.”
Business Owners, Consultants, Freelancers:
“Other” entries by Business Owners, Consultants, and Freelancers:
Author note: A comment like this indicates that some survey respondents identifying as “Business Owner” may actually be agency owners, rather than business owners that handle link building on their own. It’s possible the Business Owner data is somewhat skewed by owners of agencies. Only 9% of survey respondents identified as Business Owner, so the data should not be too far off.
“Charge a flat fee for contacting a set number of websites.”
“I do it for myself.”
“Fixed plus performance-based rate.”
“I don't link build, I consult on how to do it the Google-compliant way.”
“Everyone in the SEO/Content Team does link building as part of their jobs.”
“We have a PR person do our ‘link building.’"
What percentage of the overall SEO budget is dedicated to link building?
What percentage of your SEO work/campaigns is focused on link acquisition?
These two questions were designed to be complementary and are most interesting assessed together, rather than separately. One might assume that the % cost of link building will be equal to the % time of a campaign spent on it, but that was clearly not the case.
This data seems to suggest that as an industry we aren't charging enough for our link building services. Significantly more votes were towards a lesser percentage of budget, while spending a higher percentage of time on the service! Although 230 responses fell in the 0–25% of budget range, only 156 responses were in the 0–25% range of time spent.
An alternate explanation is that people don't put “budget” towards link building in a traditional way, but do spend significant time on it. Link building isn’t a service that is necessarily expensive in a monetary sense. Low overhead, relatively inexpensive tools, and as a later question in this survey illuminates, frequently cheap labor.
2016 is only the second year the link building survey has asked this question, and there are significant differences in our dataset compared to 2014.
The 51–75% budget range has fallen in this year’s survey from 40% to 16%.
Here are a few possible explanations I could think of; let me know your own ideas in the comments!
- We may have reached a different audience than the 2014 survey. With the evenness of sample sizes between agencies and in-house, we received lesser responses of dedicated budget towards link building.
- We had 120 more respondents, comparing 315 in 2014 to 435 in 2016. Perhaps this contributed towards a more even spread.
- People are putting less dedicated budget towards link building. In the past two years, link building has become more integrated into other departments and marketing processes, packaged in as part of a holistic service, and less specialized link builders exist overall.
- A mix of all of the above.
What is the average salary of a link builder?
This was another question where we asked non-agency respondents to deliver a unique answer. If they were the only one responsible for link building, we requested they enter their personal salary. If multiple employees work on link building in-house, we asked for respondents to average their salaries together for a single response. All answers are in USD.
Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised to see $20,000–$29,999 reign supreme. Here are the breakdowns by respondent type.
In-House clearly has a much more even distribution than agencies. This is probably influenced by agencies that outsource work, which makes me wish I had included a response option for “Do you outsource work?” Alas, hindsight is 20/20. I have a hunch this did affect agency salary ranges.
Another possible contributing factor to the more even spread of In-House into higher salary ranges is the types of businesses that hire in-house SEOs, content marketers, and PRs. From what I’ve observed, most in-house jobs are with larger enterprises that are located in bigger cities. The cost of living is higher, and so are the wages. Agencies, on the other hand, are in all ranges of city size, some with a lower cost of living.
I didn't originally plan to include Consultant/Freelancer or Business Owner segments in this section of analysis, but it's an interesting side note that the distributions were within 1–2% of one another.
It’s also curious that over half of Consultants/Freelancers reported earning less than $40k per year, with 35.3% reporting $50k or more for their annual salary. 11.8% reported $80k+! To me, this speaks to the low barrier of entry to link building. If you can communicate digitally and write well, there are many agencies that will train you on the technical side of link building.
With a low barrier to entry, there's an abundance of entry-level link builders, but not nearly as many with years of experience. Once you learn link building, you can grow into many different avenues — technical SEO, web development, marketing, possibly even PR. The truth is, the best link builders I know have grown branches of their skills in these ways, and naturally become a T-Shaped marketer.
Which types of clients do you work with the most?
This was another “Select all that apply”-type answer. Earlier in the survey there were indicating factors that SMBs were the most popular clientele of link building, and the data supports that. SMB won far and away, but it’s fascinating to see that B2B and B2C were an exact even tie!
This spread has held true for my own experience working at an agency the past few years. I’ve always felt like we’ve serviced an even number of clients in both B2B and B2C, and a majority have been small- to mid-sized businesses. However, enterprise clients have become more frequent. Today a significant share of our revenue is from a smaller set of large enterprises, but they make up the smallest percentage of our actual client base.
With the even spread of B2B versus B2C, John thought it might be interesting to compare average monthly budgets for LB. The distribution is very similar across the two, with exactly the same number of respondents.
It would appear to not be an impacting factor on spend; neither B2B or B2C is necessarily more expensive than the other. To me, this makes sense. The necessary spend for link building is dependent upon the needs of the brand, which is generally dictated by their size and competition.
As such, I also compared the average monthly spend of SMB versus Enterprise responses. Keep in mind that there were 214 responses for SMB and only 90 for Enterprise. I used a line chart to better display the trends, rather than the comparison of total responses per client type.
Although a majority of both enterprise and SMB budgets were in the "Under $1,000" to "$2,500–$5,000" categories, there is a distinct difference. Within the SMB trend, the number of responses went consistently down with each increase in budget tier. In the enterprise responses the opposite is true, as the numbers trended up with each budget tier increase.
It’s also interesting to note that after the first 3 budget tiers, SMBs responded with an even amount of higher tier budget ranges as the enterprise. This was even with over twice the number of total SMB responses compared to enterprise.
Which link building tactics do you use?
This was another question that was in “Choose as many as you like” format. 90% of respondents selected Content Publication/Promotion or Guest Posting as a link building tactic used. Nearly every other tactic received at least 50% of the audience votes.
Content links in the body of the page is what we’re all after. That said, many of the other tactics listed can lead to in-content links; but the creation of content is a value proposition with the strongest chance of leading to an acquired link. Building links by creating content is simply used more than any of the other tactics.
Every other typical white-hat technique listed received a near equal amount of votes. I believe this shows that most of us think a diversified link portfolio is the best path to follow. Many voted for usage of many different tactics, rather than selecting only one option and moving on. It caught my eye to see Digital PR voted so highly, considering the very small number of respondents (6) that identified as an in-house PR.
Only Paid Links and Old School received under a third of the votes — a not insignificant portion. Nearly a quarter of our audience voted for old-school tactics, which is still a higher percentage than I expected.
Which link building tactics do you feel are the most effective?
Again, this question was presented as a “Select all that apply” format, and received far less total selections than the previous question! “Which link building tactics do you use” had 1959 selections. This question only received 1161.
The audience of this survey appears to believe Content Publication/Promotion or Guest Posting is worth pursuing and effective, and that diversification is important… But they’re not quite sure how valuable the rest of the tactics really are.
Every other white-hat link building tactic received half of the respondents’ votes, but only a quarter of the audience feels those other tactics are the most effective. It seems that the third of the audience which responded as using Old School are also diversifying with other tactics they feel are more effective.
Once again, it’s curious to see Digital PR as the second-highest category below content links. It would seem to me that our audience of link builders are adopting the skills and strategies of their PR counterparts, rather than link building moving in-house to the PRs. It’s also possible more agencies are branding their link building as digital PR, a trend I’ve seen rising over the past couple of years.
Which SEO tools do you use in your campaigns?
This question was also “Choose as many as you like,” with the order randomized when presented to the audience. No selection received more votes than the Google suite. I expected a high number of votes for Moz and BuzzStream thanks to Rand Fishkin and Paul May assisting with promotion of the survey, but several other tools held their own!
Tools which received at least 40% of respondents’ votes:
- Google Analytics/Search Console (WMT)
- Screaming Frog
There were 60 custom entries in the follow up question for “Enter any other tools you use that weren’t listed.” If you would like to view them, they're available in the raw data spreadsheet on this tab. Almost every answer was unique; the diversity of responses speaks to the incredible number of SEO tools available.
Only a few tools were mentioned multiple times in “Other” custom entries:
- Citation Labs’ Link Prospector
- Link Research Tools
- Scrape Box
How integrated is your link building with other marketing processes?
There was a huge spread on this question, and respondents had to choose only one number. More people selected 5–10 (64% of votes) than 0–4 (23% of votes). Over two thirds of the audience believe their link building is more integrated than not, or are at least trying to move that direction.
One of my favorite Whiteboard Fridays of all time was by Cyrus Shepard, called "The Rules of Link Building." In it, he shares a quote that has resonated with me to this day:
While I do believe you need the links for better search rankings, I think Cyrus is completely correct in the statement he made in April of 2014. This kind of sentiment is what has driven more collaboration between link builders and other departments in the digital marketing mix.
Only 15% indicated level 9 or 10 for integration, showing this is still a work in progress. 53% of total responses were in the 5 to 8 range, indicating this is something that we’re working towards but many feel still have distance to go.
What is the best name for link building?
Over the years you may have noticed a few different rebrands or identifiers for what some would simply call "link building." This was our final question and another “Select all that apply” type. Though I prefer “link building” to describe what I do, I’ve actually always liked “link earning”; however, it was the least popular selection.
Much of the link work I’ve been involved in could easily be called content marketing, but it was specifically for the purpose of links and improving search rankings. I think it’s really all a matter of perspective in most scenarios.
The link building landscape has always been a swiftly shifting environment. This year’s survey results illuminated an evolution towards integration with other marketing channels, and an alignment with more legitimate future-proof thinking. However, it seems that the cost and salary scale of link building has not yet matured as much as the practice itself.
The past few years have seen link building shaken up, in a state of suspension. 2015 and 2016 so far have been the settling-down period. I see the industry calming down, relying less on tricks and schemes, while taking advantage of link building’s intrinsic presence in all the channels of the marketing mix.
Thank you for reading this year’s link building survey results. A very special thanks to everyone that took the survey and helped promote it. I’m a fallible human with my own biases, thoughts, and beliefs. I tried to objectively view the data to pull out insights, but I’d love to hear from everyone else in the comments.
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