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05.13 by Cameron Martel

Using SEMRush to Evaluate the Value of an Inbound Link

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Links have been a big part of the SEO conversation since around 2007/2008. Today, links are still a large part of SEO and having a healthy backlink portfolio is key in growing organic traffic and avoiding algorithmic penalties.

Like all things SEO, once people figured out how to game the system and build out large backlink portfolios, the usefulness of the backlink as a metric changed. Still, they are useful and needed… for now.

I’m not a promoter of the “links = relevance and value” equation, but until backlinks are given a big nerf in terms of value, links aren’t going anywhere soon. This means that your website is going to need links in order to rank and build organic traffic.

Google wants websites to have the right kind of links. Depending on the kind of website you have, what “the right kind of link” varies. A big part of SEO is being able to identify quality link sources and nurture those relationships.

Good Link Sources for Small Business Websites

Small businesses tend to really only care about one thing: local search. We focus on building local links for small business SEO clients for that reason.

What does that look like?

  • Industry associations, professional associations, and other industry-related groups
  • Clients, affiliates, and partner companies
  • Local business directories
  • Backlinks from local offline advertising mediums, such as from radio stations or the Yellow Pages
  • Community associations or business development organizations
  • Links from trade shows or events that you participate in
  • Links from organizations or charities that you sponsor or contribute to

All a local link is is a backlink from a website that is local to your geographic area. 

Good Link Sources for Niche Content Websites

Content websites need links a bit more than small business websites do, if only because the lack of local ranking signals means that their on-site experience and backlink portfolio carries more weight.

We look for:

  • Associated or affiliated websites
  • Forums and social aggregation websites (such as Reddit or Digg)
  • Related websites
  • Resource pages
  • Wiki’s and other educational pages
  • Industry associations/think-tanks

When we asses a link source for a content website, we’re primarily focused on a strong value exchange between our website and the linked website. If a link to us from a website doesn’t make sense for that websites audience, we don’t pursue it.

What About Guest Blogging?

I like guest blogging as a link building strategy, but only when it makes sense to do so.

Guest blogging became the de-facto link building method for a lot of SEO efforts, and as a result its value has been diluted.

Of course, the exception here is when the guest post makes sense. If you’re a physiotherapist posting on a website about pelvic floor health, your experience working with pelvic physiotherapy makes you a great resource for people who could benefit from that information. Conversely, it also makes sense for you to engage that audience.

However, obtaining a link to a homebuilder from a pelvic health website brings questionable value. In that situation, a guest post is unlikely to bring benefit to any party and thus the link is likely to be low value as a result.

As a rule, we only guest blog on sites where it makes sense that we would want to engage their audience.

How We Use SEMRush to Evaluate a Prospective Backlink Source

SEMRush makes it pretty easy to quickly scope out a domain to understand its quality. In 2017, it is not uncommon to find fantastic looking, well-built websites that use shady backlinks to grow organic traffic.

The problem with that is that when Google gets wise – and they always do – you don’t want to be associated with a website that gets slapped.

Thankfully, SEMRush can help you avoid splash-slappage.

Step One: Run a Domain Overview Report

The domain overview report from SEMRush gives you access to some important bits of information. When evaluating a website as a backlink source, this is always the first place we start.

SEMRush: Organic Research Bar

  • Organic Search refers to the estimated monthly traffic the domain receives from organic sources. SEMRush makes this estimation by comparing the domain rankings against the average CTR% of the ranks they hold and the average monthly search volumes for the keywords in question.
  • Paid Search would provide similar estimations as the organic search column (if this example had any AdWords running).
  • Backlinks is a listing of the backlinks that SEMRush has indexed. We have found that this number is often wildly inaccurate, so while it can provide prospective into where links to a domain come from, in our experience it is not comprehensive enough to tell the complete story.
  • Display Advertising would provide estimations regarding key metrics tied to a domain’s display campaign (if they have one running).

Of the four elements above, for our purposes we’re really only interested in the organic search and backlinks colums, so open both in a new tab.

Step Two: Dive Into Their Organic Rankings & Evaluate Their Rankings vs. Traffic

In the organic research: positions report, it’s a good idea to set the graph date display to “all time”.

SEMRush: Organic Research PositionsThis change allows us to quickly see if the domain has ever been penalized or slapped. What we want to see is what looks like a natural flow of organic traffic: it’s normal for organic traffic to have ebbs and flows, but it’s suspicious if we see a sharp drop in organic traffic at some point (especially if we don’t see a recovery).

Export the keyword data and create a filterable Google sheet and then compare rankings vs. keyword traffic potential. What we’re looking for here is that the domain is ranking for keywords that are related and relevant.

When looking at backlink sources, it’s wise to avoid domains that have a history of being penalized.

Step Three: Look for Shady, Spammy, or PBN Backlinks

This is where a quick audit can become a timesink, as diving deep into a domain’s backlink portfolio can turn into an endeavor depending on what SEMRush uncovers.

SEMRush: Backlink Summary

  • Check to see how many links are coming from each domain. If a domain is providing a lot of links, perform this exercise on some of the linking domains as well.
  • Look for links from real websites; an active (and engaged) social media presence is a good indicator that the domain in question is authentic.
  • It’s normal for a website to have a mix of dofollow/nofollow links. Our experience suggests that there isn’t an ideal ratio for these; so long as the links are legit, don’t worry too much about whether or not they’re nofollow. While we’ve never seen a nofollow link rank a site, we’ve seen nofollow links send plenty of traffic (and that’s valuable).
PBN’s – or private blog networks – are among the latest type of manufactured links. Used right, they are extremely powerful, but they are also directly in Google’s crosshairs.

No conversation about link building in 2017 would be complete without discussing PBN’s.

They are a poweful and scalable method of building links. However, they also are in Google’s line of fire (and that’s not going to change).

Basically, a PBN is just a network of websites that provide link opportunities. They can include websites, blogs, social media properties (Facebook groups, subreddits, etc.), and other types of platforms where they can direct traffic and links.

PBN’s can be hard to spot, as many are built with all the visual and technical indicators of a quality website. Moreover, they are purpose built so as to appear unrelated to each other.

So Why Are PBN’s a Problem?

If a PBN site is built well and is filled with decent content, why would having a link from one be potentially dangerous? There are a few answers to that question:

  • Google is very-publicly anti-PBN (obviously). In fact, a February algorithmic update directly targeted PBN’s (Moz thinks so, too).
  • If a domain that is linking to your site is penalized, you may suffer some of the fallout as well. At the very least, there’s now a real possibility that you’re in Google’s crosshairs.
  • Many PBN network owners actively engage in selling links on their websites. These kinds of practices are always pursued by Google; getting caught buying links results in a pretty serious penalty.

It comes down to your personal risk tolerance as to whether or not PBN links are worth the gamble. We avoid them as much as possible.

To Recap: How to Assesss the Value of a Link in 5 Steps Using SEMRush


  • Connector.

    Step 1 - Domain Overview Report

    Run a domain overview report on the backlinking domain. Open the organic search positions and backlinks reports in new tabs.

  • Connector.

    Step 2 - Organic Positions Report

    Look at the domain ranking history as far back as SEMRush will show. Make note of major drops in ranking. Look at the keywords the domain is ranking for- make sure they’re related and relevant to your niche.

  • Connector.

    Step 3 - Backlinks Report

    The more links the better, but not at the expense of quality. Look at the referring domains and vet domains that are sending a lot of links.

  • Connector.

    Step 4 - Look For Signs of Engagement & Value

    Once you’re satisfied with the domain itself, look for other signals that indicate that the website/brand is authentic and valuable: an active social media presence, contribution to niche thought leaders or websites, and a strong brand are all signs of quality.

Give it a Try: Audit a Domain Using SEMRush


  • Enter the domain you want to audit in the field above.
  • If you don’t have an SEMRush account, you can create one easily.

SEMRush has a 7-day money-back trial period. If you’ve been considering trying it, I recommend you take advantage of this week “grace period” to see if it’s for you.

I’ve been using SEMRush for over a year and find it has become an increasingly large part of my workflow.

Note: if you do sign up after using the input field above, we may receive a small commission from SEMRush. If this makes you uncomfortable, visit SEMRush.com directly to eliminate the affiliate exchange from the equation.

In Guides, SEMRush, SEO Tools

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