Samuel Darwin August 20, 2020 Link Building Survey 2020, COVID-19 Edition: Here’s What We Found In this age of COVID-19, no doubt businesses across the world are feeling the strain of our volatile market. Many are shifting their focus back to their web presence – which is all too important. With all this, the link building landscape is continuing to change as well. We thought it’d be a perfect time to check the pulse of the link building world! So we recently surveyed hundreds of SEO professionals from around the world. We compiled all of the key insights and relevant information below. You’ll learn the most popular and effective link building methods, tools, metrics, and training resources that power today’s SEO. Summary of FindingsTo gain an overview of the industry, we surveyed 210 professionals working in SEO today. These include professionals at agencies, in-house SEO professionals, independent consultants… basically everyone who touches this industry in any shape or form. Here’s a high-level overview of what we found: 74.3% of SEO professionals reported spending $2500 or less on their average monthly link building budgets. SEO professionals rely on a wide range of link building methods in their daily work. Content creation and outreach were rated as the #1 link building method. More than half (55.2%) of SEO professionals prefer Ahrefs. There are many metrics to assess the quality of a website, but most professionals use Domain Rating by Ahrefs (44.2%) and Domain Authority by Moz (39.9%). The vast majority of SEO professionals (79.1%) believe that link building is most effective when combined with other marketing activities. The most common link building challenges in 2020 include client budgets, unrealistic client expectations about costs and timelines, difficulty obtaining high-quality natural links, and the cumbersome, difficult nature of link building. Over half (55.2%) felt that they’re not ready for the upcoming Google Page Experience Update for 2021. SEO professionals turn to a wide range of resources for skill-building, with Ahrefs blog, Moz Blog, and Neil Patel’s resources leading the pack. COVID-19 has negatively impacted many SEO professionals. Half reported budget cuts, another half slowed their link building operations, and some lost their jobs. Who took this survey? Link Building Methods Tools Metrics Effectiveness of Link Building in 2020 Challenges Readiness to Google Page Experience update Link Building Resources people use Covid-19 Impact Who took this survey? We spread our survey far and wide to get the best results. In the end, we reached 47 countries and had respondents from every continent except Antarctica (not much SEO happening there anyway…!). ⅓ of our respondents were from North America, a bit more from Europe, and a strong representation of Asian, African, Oceanian, and South American professionals. The top three countries in our sample are people from the US (32.4%), India (8.6%), and UK (7.1%). More than half of our survey respondents (56.2%) were independent SEO consultants, followed by agency SEOs (35.2%), and in-house SEOs (8.6%). Of these SEO professionals, more than half of our sample have been working in SEO for 5+ years, while the other half have less than 5 years of experience. Part of our analysis included understanding the average monthly budget allocated for link building activities. In-house SEOs shared their own link building budgets, while independent SEO consultants and agency SEOs shared the average dollar amount of their client’s monthly link building budget. Although about one-quarter of respondents (25.7%) report having monthly link building budgets of $2500 or more, the majority (74.3%) report spending $2500 or less. Of those spending less than $2500 per month on link building activities, about half (47.6%) report spending less than $1000 per month. Link Building Methods SEO professionals are keen to stay on top of the most effective and popular link building methods. Methods are constantly changing. So much so that last year’s top-rated methods might not perform nearly as well this time around. Our survey showed that SEO professionals rely on all the link building methods they can to get the job done. What they choose depends on a variety of things like market pressures and client preferences. Frankly, this is the best way to create a natural link building profile. SEO professionals know it’s super important to avoid building links that trigger patterns, as heavy repetition will certainly do. Our survey respondents shared all the link building methods they use. You can check them out in the chart below: The following quote from one of our survey respondents summarizes this link building behavior perfectly. Depends on the client and the market. It’s very interesting to work with white hat for sure. But sometimes I use business listings, free article postings, indirect link exchange. It’s not always my own choice here. For sure, paid links would not be in my top methods. But this is something that clients want sometimes. Let’s say: it’s a mix of methods (but not broken link-building – too time consuming. Plus, I’ve been doing cold outreach for a month and the response rate is not good , though we offered a $5 Starbucks gift card for a short survey. OK, the answer is long enough ;)” Interestingly, 12.4% of respondents selected “Other” and shared other link building methods beyond our list. These include HARO, directory links, link roundup, skyscraper, business listings, and more. The following word cloud illustrates these open-ended responses. However, when asked to rank their #1 link building method, the answer was obvious – content creation and outreach. This was followed by guest posts, paid links, digital PR, and broken link building. Tools As all SEO professionals know, tools are essential to getting the job done. Reflecting on this, we listed 13 different tools for our survey respondents to choose from and left room for them to add their own choice as well. As you can imagine, tools are plentiful in the industry today! That’s why 17.1% of respondents provided open-ended feedback in response to our question about tool use. The following word cloud clearly illustrates many of the other tools used in the industry, including spyfu, lemlist, seo profiler, link assistant, and ninja outreach. Although there’s no “one size fits all” tool, one tool dominated among our respondents. With 55.2% preference, Ahrefs rules the pack, followed by SEMRush (24.3%), and Moz (8.1%). Metrics In addition to a bevy of methods and tools, tracking the right metrics is key. And SEO professionals use many to assess the quality of a website. The majority of respondents said they use Domain ratings by Ahrefs (64.8%) and Domain Authority by Moz (62.9%), clearly the two recognized leaders in this space. Those were followed by organic traffic, page-level metrics, and others, as illustrated in our word cloud. Not surprisingly, when forced to select just one metric that recognizes the authority of a domain, Domain Rating by Ahrefs (44.2%) and Domain Authority by Moz (39.9%) came out as the clear top preference. Effectiveness of Link Building in 2020 We also wanted to understand how SEOs think about the effectiveness of link building in 2020. According to our survey, the majority (79.1%) believe that link building works best when combined with other marketing strategies. No surprise there. It’s clear that link building campaigns aren’t super effective on their own. It’s much better to have a diverse marketing strategy that includes link building at its core. Also essential to overall strategy is having an exceptional customer experience. Search engines have recently shifted focus to rely heavily on the user experience (e.g., Google is planning to roll out page experience updates by 2021). While user experience continues to gain importance, link building is still an effective strategy. And when combined with other marketing activities, you’ll be right on the road to success. Here’s a great quote from one of our survey respondents who summarizes this trend: Link building is still the most important part of ranking on Google, but nowdays onpage content is starting to creep up in importance. Onpage includes how a user interacts on the page and Google takes this into consideration to. But we are not there yet fully where Google will rank a page based on people bouncing off a site because it can be manipulated too easily. But it is becoming a factor and will increase in its percentage over time but links will always be the defacto number 1 because the whole search engine is fundamentally based on this and it is never going away – it just will be reduced in importance over time. Challenges With all successful tools and strategies come challenges. So, we wanted to understand the significant issues that SEO professionals face in 2020. We kept this question open-ended to allow for as much richness as possible in the responses. We also did a sentiment analysis of the text-based responses to categorize and interpret our survey respondents’ emotions. The following table shows that SEO sentiment tends to lean more negative than positive: It is clear from our survey results that SEOs are facing many challenges today.. The following word cloud should help give you an overall feeling of the response patterns. You’ll notice certain words used over and over, like “clients,” “time,” “quality,” and “harder.” Here are the big issues that SEO professionals reported sharing: Clients—Many people expressed working through challenges with their clients. These include maintaining communication, slow response rates, difficulties convincing clients to invest in link building and dealing with unrealistic client expectations. Quality –Most professionals agree that getting high-quality natural links is becoming more difficult. Time –Many feel that link building is becoming more cumbersome. Harder – Most professionals claim that it is extremely difficult to build links these days. It feels like it is getting more and more difficult to get free guest post based links. Pretty much all bloggers that we reach out to now (even the ones that are not in the marketing world) ask for a payment in exchange to place a link in the form of guest post. I remember even 3 years ago, every 100 emails would have resulted in 10-15 free guest post opportunities which has come down to around 3-4 now at best. People now understand the value of links more than ever. Therefore there are a lot of greedy people who want money even when you’ve done a great article, have a relationship with them, and delivered a great idea. After years of building backlinks for the projects, it’s quite difficult to find the new/fresh donors, another thing is that each year we have to spend more and more for links. And the biggest problem is that when you work in some highly competitive niches most top players just overspammed their backlink profiles with thousands of “black” links and it is still working perfectly for them. So the only factor is a huge budget here, no creativity, strategy etc. Seems boring for me The clients usually have an unrealistic expectations of delivering results. They’re only focused on the short-term, hence they need to be educated on why this is an important activity and why it cannot provide a great ROI in one month. Valuable paid links are too expensive while manual outreach is very labor consuming. Therefore, cost of good white hat SEO has risen dramatically. It takes time and effort. Because the best quality links come with custom content and relevant content, it takes longer to build them than before. But I think that if you are already writing blogs and doing content marketing, then that’ll save you a lot of time. It is a little harder to get top tier guest posts because their email inbox gets flooded. More creative ways are needed to get their attention, basically how can you provide value to their audience and make the editors job easy and a no brainer to have you guest post on their site. Readiness to Google Page Experience update In thinking about the upcoming Google Page Experience Update for 2021, we wanted to gauge how prepared people are feeling. And also, what actions they are taking in response to the update. Our survey reveals that over half (55.2%) of respondents felt that they were still not ready for the upcoming change. The good news is that SEOs still have plenty of time to prepare for the update. Link Building Resources people use Our survey also explored the topic of training. From a list of 9 popular link building training resources, we asked respondents to select all the resources they have used to improve their skills and included an “other” category to collect additional training resources beyond our fixed list. Not surprisingly, professionals use a wide range of resources to grow their link building skills. Although there is no clear winner, Ahrefs blog, Moz Blog, and Neil Patel’s resources lead the pack. Additionally, survey respondents listed many other resources that went beyond our list, indicating a ton of diversity for resource use. As illustrated in the following word cloud, Youtube dominates the pack, followed by industry blogs, webinars, conferences, training materials, and others. Covid-19 Impact Finally, the global Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, socialize, and play, and has genuinely shaken each and every one of us to our core. Since we fielded our survey during these turbulent times, we had to ask a few questions on the topic. It’s undoubtedly had a massive impact on the industry. To learn how everyone’s been coping, we asked respondents to report the impacts on link building budgets, link building activities, and employment. Here’s what we found. About half of our respondents reported feeling the severity of the crisis. Almost half (48.1%) reported budget cuts. About 44.7% reported that they’ve either slowed down their link building efforts or stopped them altogether. That’s some serious negative impact. But unfortunately, it doesn’t end there… Sadly 18.6% of our survey respondents reported being furloughed or let go from their jobs. Interestingly, some survey respondents reported positive growth in link building budgets (6.7%) and link building volume (11%) since the crisis began. This uptick likely reflects the growth of businesses considered “essential” during COVID-19 (e.g., medical, pharma, cleaning and paper products, etc.,). ConclusionI want to thank all of the SEO professionals who took the time to participate in our survey and provide such exceptional feedback. These insights will surely help us all improve our link building services in the future. Now, it’s your turn. What do you think about link building in 2020? What is your take away from this report? Feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Samuel Darwin Samuel Darwin is the President at LinkDoctor.io, where he helps businesses do more through SEO and Link Building. As a digital marketing professional, Sam has worked with several Fortune 500 brands across the US, UK, and Australia to improve their online presence.