I know for most of the year I’ve been telling you that links are going to lose value – and I still think it’s true. However, I’ve been careful to point out that for now, links are still pretty powerful stuff in SEO.
Further, even if links eventually lost all their (direct) power to move your rankings, they’d still have value for you as a marketer, because links are great for exposure and branding.
But the ultimate link is not just good for SEO and branding, it also sends referral traffic.
What’s so great about referral traffic? Do you really have to ask?! Referral traffic is great because it gets your content in front of new audiences, creating new opportunities for audience engagement and conversions.
A recent survey of MozCon attendees showed that after organic search, referral traffic is the channel marketers most want to grab more of (social media is a form of referral traffic too):
But do most links naturally lead to referral traffic?
I Got a Sweet Link! That Means I’ll Get Referral Traffic Too, Right?
Sorry, dude. The fact is, not all editorial links – even links from big domains that gets tons of traffic – translate into referral traffic. That’s because people aren’t necessarily going to follow every link they see in an article.
Sometimes a link is just there as a kind of hat tip (as in, this is where we got this information) but there’s no need to actually follow the link, because the site you’re on provides all the context you really need. Similarly, some links are there only if you’re looking for more information (as in, “Hey, if you’re unclear on this concept I just mentioned, you can read more about it here”), and a lot of readers won’t be in “further research” mode.
To drive real referral traffic, there has to be a compelling reason for the reader to click through to your site. And if that traffic is going to be ongoing for you, the linking page also needs its own source of ongoing traffic – for example, if it ranks highly in a high-volume keyword search, it will continue to get evergreen traffic, so the link will drive evergreen traffic your way as well.
With this in mind, here are three types of links that will cause a noticeable bump in your referral traffic numbers.
Referral Traffic Source #1: Links from news aggregators
News aggregators like Reddit, Hacker News, Inbound.org, Growth Hackers etc. usually use a submission and upvoting system where users can submit cool links and vote on their favorites. Other times, a single editor or editorial board is making the call on what's worth sharing (see the Boing Boing model). When a link makes its way to the top of the front page, it has high visibility and attention, since the assumption is that it’s already been vetted as high-quality by other users in the community or by a trusted source.
Why these links drive referral traffic
The aggregators just aggregate links, they don’t reproduce the content. So you have to actually visit the site to get the value and see what all the fuss is about. Hence, the incentive to click through is extremely high.
Example of a news aggregator link
Back in May, Larry wrote an article analyzing why eBay got slammed so hard by Panda 4.0. The stars aligned and we got a ton of pickups, including great placement on several major news aggregators (including Inbound.org and Hacker News). But the biggest spike in referrals was driven by Ars Technica – they gave us a link in the “Editor’s Picks” box on the home page, real estate we shared with the New York Times and National Geographic. Not bad, right?
Plenty of other sites (Search Engine Land, Forbes, etc.) wrote up the story and gave us credit and a link, but most of those sites wrote a summary of our findings, so the incentive to click the link was low. Incentive to click an “Editor’s Pick” link is high.
That Ars Technica link was responsible for a lot of this huge spike in referrals
Note: The downside to this kind of traffic is that it is a spike, not an ongoing stream. News aggregators are constantly refreshing, so your link isn’t likely to stay on top for long. (It was lonely up there anyway, right?)
Similarly, a share on a social network from someone with a huge following will drive a spike of social referrals, but once your link falls away from the top of the stream, that traffic will die off. C’est la vie.
Since these traffic spikes aren’t evergreen, it’s awesome if you’ve already got something in place to capture some of those visitors and turn them into return traffic – for example a prominent blog or newsletter signup prompt.
How to get referral traffic from news aggregator links
Create awesome content and then promote the shit out of it. It’s helpful if you’re already active on some of these communities, because then it’s more likely that other users are already reading and interested in your stuff. Also, check out these data-driven tips on how to get more upvotes on Inbound.org:
Referral Traffic Source #2: Links in lists of resources
Getting a link like the one on Ars Technica is a major win for an SEO; you’ll feel that link buzz all day. But it’s potentially even more valuable to your business to score a link in a list of resources. That’s because the incentive to click through to your site is equally strong – and you have the added bonus of evergreen value. This type of link can be a somewhat more consistent way to increase traffic to your website.
Why these links drive referral traffic
Let’s say a user googles “best keyword tools” and finds a list from a reputable site, ranking near the top of the SERP. They are obviously looking for a keyword tool, so intent is really high. They don’t just want the list of tools, they want to check out the tools themselves. If your keyword tool is on that list, they’re highly likely to click through. And “best keyword tools” is an evergreen keyword with steady traffic month over month, so as long as that list maintains its ranking, it’s going to keep sending clicks your way.
Example of a resource list link
We get thousands of page views every month from this one link:
As of today it’s the #4 organic result in Google for the keyword “SEO tools,” so no wonder!
(And can't hurt that we're #1 on the list.)
How to get traffic from resource list links
Referral Traffic Source #3: Links in third-party reviews
This is a pretty similar scenario to the one above, but if you’re lucky, instead of a spot on a list, you’ve got a whole article dedicated to a review of your offering alone.
Why these links drive referral traffic
Again, the process works like this:
Step 1: Person who is curious about products like yours searches for more information
Step 2: Person finds positive review and clicks through to your site to try it or learn more
Once again intent is high, and a third-party endorsement increases trust, so they’re all the more likely to click to your site and hopefully take the next step (i.e. buying your stuff or signing up for a free trial).
Example of a review link
Another solid source of month-over-month referral traffic is this review in Search Engine Land of our AdWords Performance Grader.
How to get referral traffic from review links
First you need something reviewable, but if you’re a business you should already have this (duh). If the reviews aren’t coming naturally, look for sites that review similar products or services, then create a pitch list. Offer free demos or a free extended trial (if it’s a software product) or send out samples if it’s a physical product – if you get a review and it sends referral traffic, the giveaway should pay for itself. But make sure you wait until you have a stellar product before you do outreach. Negative reviews aren't going to help you much.
What Kinds of Links DON’T Send Referrals?
There are plenty of other kinds of links that won’t be referral traffic goldmines. Here are a few types that generally don’t send much referral traffic:
- Links in guest posts and contributed articles – Contextual links in contributed articles can send traffic – if there’s a really good reason for the user to leave the article they’re currently reading and if it’s a blog with a big readership, but they won’t always. Likewise bio links are a best practice (see Rand’s “Mad Scientist” slides for the reasons why) but they probably won’t send you much actual traffic.
- Image credit links – Again, nice to have for branding and a few people will click through. This is why “linkable assets” are, well, an asset. The vast majority won’t care, won’t click.
- Blog comment links – Just DUH. It’s 2014. You’ve gotta have a better link building strategy than this. We went ahead and killed all the links in our comments, in fact. They were always no-follow, but we decided recently that spammers don’t even deserve a no-follow link. (The exception: You're a proven, respected member of a community and you share a truly relevant link; we got quite a boost of blog traffic when Gianluca Fiorelli, a Moz regular, left a link to our blog in a comment on a Whiteboard Friday post.)
I’m not saying links that don’t get clicked are worthless, of course – links from authoritative domains are still influential in the ranking algorithm and they can still be great for branding. But if your manager is on you to increase referral traffic – not just links – focus on the types of links that actually get clicked.