The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic


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.

legit 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):

referral traffic

Image via LinkedIn

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,, 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 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?

news aggregator link

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.

referral traffic spike

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

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:

referral traffic link

As of today it’s the #4 organic result in Google for the keyword “SEO tools,” so no wonder!

keyword volume

(And can't hurt that we're #1 on the list.)

How to get traffic from resource list links

Create link-worthy resources, of course! These could be tools or high-quality learning guides, like Moz’s SEO Beginner’s Guide or our own PPC University.

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.

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Dave Schneider
Jul 23, 2014

Hey Elisa,Interesting article. You are absolutely right about focusing on third-party reviews for referral traffic.Cheers!Dave at NinjaOutreach

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 23, 2014

Thanks Dave!

Nov 27, 2014

Thanks for reading Lawrence! I agree completely that link building takes dedication

New York Social Media Agency
Aug 06, 2014

Interesting article shared !! The points you have shared above are really useful and these points would definitely helpful for novice .Nowaday's  , Word of mouth is more in demand for promoting business compared to link buliding . 

Aug 14, 2014

Hey,      Super interesting article, ive found it very helpful. But i have this question, Is it possible for a website to rank for many keywords. What i mean to say is, will google penalize me for putting in many keywords in a content?Warm regards,Richard

Vipul Mathur
Sep 09, 2014

Quite informative. I hope it benefits to all those having a website. This way, they would know how to build quality backlinks along with relevant traffic.This is because link building is a time consuming process. So, wheather you have a shopping site, digital site or any other site, you need link building, and for that, you need to implement all such tips and tricks. Thanks for sharing.

majid pervaiz
Dec 16, 2014

Great post and quite some effective techniques to get more trafficbut what are your thoughts about hiring companies who provides 100% guaranteed White hat SEO??

Elisa Gabbert
Aug 14, 2014

Hi Richard, it's possible for a website to rank for hundreds or thousands of keywords, yes. Remember keywords are just words! It's hard to have content without keywords, the question is how you use them in your content. As long as you're not keyword stuffing or using keywords in spammy, thin content, you should be good!

soul seeker hacks
Jun 02, 2015

Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon on a daily basis.
It will always be helpful to read articles from other authors and practice something from other websites.

Jul 24, 2014

Hyee Elisa Gabbertit was really great article i know about refferal traffic but not deeply as u discribe.. thanks a lot.. one more thing can i share your article on my blog.???Thanks   

Jasper Oldersom
Jul 24, 2014

Hi Elisa, I really loved your article and i took notes. was new for me :) I registered myself immediately.What confuses me about the article is 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"Do you mean that engaged readers who leave a link to their own site on the place "URL" are considered spammers? Because i don't think people feel it that way.Actually i prefer a commenting system like Disqus, and for the amount of readers you guys attract on the valuable blog, i think engagement could be higher. Don't get me wrong, Wordstream is one of the blogs i read consistently, i just think comments is something you guys could improve on.Dan Shure wrote a great article about this metric on MOZ, but i won't leave a link  It's called: the broken art of company blogging. 

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 24, 2014

Hi Jasper, thanks so much for reading!I don't really think ALL commenters are spammers, of course, but many of our comments over the years have come from people who tried to use keyword-rich anchor text to get an optimized link back to their site (for example instead of putting their name down as "Acme Agency" they used "Florida SEO Agency" as their "name"). We couldn't go through every single link and we don't want to link to "bad neighborhoods" even with a nofollow link, so we solved the problem by killing them all. However, I do still allow relevant high-quality links in the comments themselves. For example, if you had linked to Dan's Moz post I would have approved it!In the future, we will probably move to a Disqus-type system. Our current Drupal module is FAR from perfect.Thanks again :)

Jasper Oldersom
Jul 24, 2014

Hi Elisa,Thank you so much for your fast and detailed comment :) I get what the problem was now and i understand that going through every single link costs a lot of time.Especially because you have found that a lot of people have taken advantage of this feature, i think this is a good way to solve it for now. Since the Moz post is an example of an high-quality and relevant link, here it is - I highly recommend it. Keep at it Elisa, because me and (i am sure) a lot of people are enjoying and soaking up the information you spread. :) Cheers! 

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 24, 2014

I've actually already read the post and can vouch for it too! Have a great week, Jasper.

Jul 24, 2014

Referral links should be craved for by every marketer that wants to expose his brand. News Aggregator sites are known for providing powerful links. I would gladly take steps to learn how to get referral links from this site.Luckily, the details shared in this post are practical. I think trying the steps to create legit referral traffic would be a bonus!

Dave Weightman
Jul 25, 2014

Nice post! Interesting and helpful for many online marketers. Thanks for sharing.

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 28, 2014

Thanks Dave!

Lawrence Berry
Jul 28, 2014

Hi,I don't know much about SEO and linking builidng, but I am really starting to get the hang out of it. Articles like these are very informative. Link builidng is a procerss that takes dedication, creativity, and patience. As you say, link building may be losing its value, but it can still send traffic in a variety of ways. Ways mentioned in this article. Also, I agree that blog comment links are not usefful, unless the blog has commentluv in my opinion. Good article and thanks for sharing.Regards,Lawrence

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 28, 2014

Thanks for reading Lawrence! I agree completely that link building takes dedication, creativity, and patience -- and a good attitude in general since you can always lose any link you build.

Geeta Sharma
May 29, 2015

Nice article

Jun 16, 2015

what a nice post,thank you for sharing. I have a lot of work you will find a lovely support.This post is very inspiring me. I always take your advices very seriously, keep posted.

Kashif Malik
Jul 27, 2015

I worked according to the steps mentioned above and find the vigorous change on the traffic on my site ie , really thankful to this article

Aug 08, 2015

Love the post and inspired by the idea of a resources guide simple but I hadn't really though about it

Safi Ullah
Sep 12, 2015

great article thank you for posting.

Feb 16, 2016

Thanks a ton for this article, just looking for the information, the difference in the simplest way between nofollow and do follow. :)

افلام سكس عربي
Apr 01, 2016

What a great strategies you shared with us! I can't wait to apply all of it.

Johnny Moran
Aug 26, 2016

Hey Elisa, thanks for the great article. Question regarding blog comments: we answer questions through our blogs and then direct users to our site, which typically result in a higher than average conversion rate. Is that not an effective strategy? Thanks for your attention.

Faisal Khaleel
Sep 15, 2016

Hey Elisa,
Just read your article, and i am charged up for the new challenge of increasing website traffic.

Nisha Paul
Dec 16, 2016

It does not matter that how good content i write for website but they always give a nofollow link in return. So as per you written above, commenting is not a very good idea if you want to increase your visitors.

Alain Filiatrault
Mar 02, 2017

Thanks for the awesome article! I was looking for referrals links ideas!

Mar 09, 2017

Thanks for sharing this Information.

Oct 03, 2017

Loved the article the image just nailed it.. some great ideas for legit referral traffic

Dec 25, 2017

Great article ,Thanks for sharing

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