Link Building

The State of Backlinks for SEO in 2021: What 800+ SEOs Think About Link Building

Joanne Camarce
September 16, 2021

Google is constantly changing its algorithm to deliver better results to searchers. But, year after year, backlinks continue to be an important ranking signal. 

Links from other sites pass authority to your site. They remain the clearest indicator that you’re a good source of information and worth ranking on the first page.

However, thanks to updates like Google Penguin (which focuses on link quality), you can’t just blast your site with low-quality links and expect to rank number one overnight.

Quantity is not the end-goal now. Quality is. But don’t take our word for it. Take Google’s John Mueller: 

Quality, digital PR backlinks (links in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize) move the needle.

So what does work when it comes to link building? What tools and strategies are professionals in the industry using to get results?

To find out, we surveyed 800 folks in the SEO industry to get their thoughts on the importance, strategies, and impact of link building.

This State of Link Building report is broken down into the following chapters:

In a rush? Here’s a quick summary:

  • 58.1% believe that backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings
  • 56.3% believe that link quality and quantity impact rankings
  • 54.58% think that nofollow links improve authority and/or rankings
  • 84.39% think that link building has a big impact on brand authority
  • 59% say backlinks will have more of an impact on rankings in the next few years
  • 38.4% spend $1,000 to $5,000 a month on link building
  • 40.7% say content marketing provides the strongest passive link building results
  • 37.3% use organic traffic to measure the quality of a link

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get into it.

Our Participants

Before diving into the link building results, here’s some background information about our participants.

What kind of company do you work for and/or own?

We were interested in knowing what kind of company our respondents worked for.

  • Personal website: 25.60%
  • Freelancer / contractor: 20.42%
  • Agency: 15.25%
  • In-house SEO / SEO for a brand: 14.19%
  • Consulting / strategy: 12.33%
  • Other: 12.20%

A quarter of the participants we surveyed (25.60%) indicated that they do SEO for their own personal websites, followed by 20.42% who either freelance or work as a contractor. 

Only 15.25% of participants responded that they work in marketing agencies and 14.19% do in-house SEO.

How many years have you worked in digital marketing? 

Next, we were interested to know how long our participants have been in the industry to gauge their experience.

  • Less than 1 year: 19.27%
  • 2-3 years: 38.14%
  • 3-5 years: 25.47%
  • 5 or more years: 17.12%

38.14% of respondents indicated they’ve been in the industry for 2 to 3 years. This was followed by 25.47% who have worked in digital marketing for 3 to 5 years and 19.27% who have been in the industry for less than a year.

A healthy mix of respondents to hear both old and new opinions. Nice!

Now let’s dive straight into the link building data.

The Impact of Link Building

In this section, we asked participants to share their views on the impact of link building on organic rankings, its importance in their SEO strategy, and more. 

How much of an impact do you think backlinks have on search engine rankings?

We asked participants to select how much of an impact they think that backlinks have on rankings.

How much of an impact do you think backlinks have on search engine rankings?

  • Big impact: 58.10%
  • Moderate impact: 37.34%
  • Low impact: 4.05%
  • Other: 0.51%

More than half of our participants (58.10%) indicated that backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings, while 37.34% said that links only have a moderate impact. 

Just 4.05% said that links have a low impact on rankings.

Takeaway

Over half of the professionals we surveyed see a strong correlation between backlinks and search engine rankings.

Unless you’re targeting an extremely obscure keyword in a non-competitive niche, trying to rank without any links is next to impossible. Sites that rank number one have 3.8x more backlinks than sites that rank in positions 2 to 10. 

Here are some of our favorite outreach link building strategies to build high quality backlinks:

  • Guest columns: Guest columns, or guest blogging, involves publishing content on relevant websites. In exchange, you get a high quality link to your site and build E-A-T signals. Win win! 
  • Requesting a link: This approach is more straightforward. It involves finding blogs in your industry and simply requesting that they add a link to your site. Warning: this is heavily saturated. You should have a clear-cut outreach strategy in place. Just blindly firing off emails will net zero links. 
  • Broken link building: Broken link building involves finding broken backlinks on other websites and recommending they fix it with a link to a similar resource on your site. 
  • Blogger outreach: This link building strategy involves collaborating with bloggers in your industry and getting them to link back to your site.

Using these strategies will help you build quality backlinks. 


Adam Enfroy, founder of AdamEnfroy.com

“Link building is all about forming real relationships with people, not websites. While the individual tactics are important, you can’t forget that you need to provide value in return – not send a one-sided request. By working with uSERP and scaling my own link building efforts, I increased my Domain Rating (DR) from 0 to 78 and surpassed 500,000 monthly readers in under 18 months. If you’re starting a new blog, you need to stop writing and start scaling.”


When building links, do you believe in quality or quantity to make the biggest impact on rankings and authority?

We wanted to find out what our participants believe have the most impact on rankings and authority — quality or quantity.

Personally, we think it’s both. However, if we HAD to pick one, quality would win. But, who cares what we think. Here’s what 800 SEOs think:

  • Quality: 35.9%
  • Quantity: 7.8%
  • Both: 56.3%

More than half of the respondents (56.3%) answered that both backlink quality and quantity had the biggest impact on rankings and authority. 

This was followed by 35.9% of participants who believe that the quality of backlinks has a higher impact and 7.8% who indicated that quantity matters more.

Takeaway


Berenika Teter, Content Marketer @ Prowly PR Software

“Building links with digital PR tactics pretty much implies that we value quality over quantity. By creating content that’s attractive for the media (think original research, expert commentaries, visually-appealing infographics, and newsworthy stories that are timely, impactful, relevant, human-interest, or feature an influencer), sharing it with the public, and actively reaching out to relevant media contacts, we can not only build links but also strengthen the backlink profile, gain more credibility, and, ultimately, rank higher in search engines. Digital PR tactics take some time and effort, but they’re definitely worth it.” 


Over half of respondents indicated that both quality and quantity have the most impact on rankings.

Not all backlinks are equal. Google considers the context and relevance of a link when determining how much “juice” it passes.

A single link from an authoritative site in your industry will outweigh hundreds of links from spammy and irrelevant sites. 

Of course, depending on how competitive your target keywords are, just building one link (no matter where it comes from) is unlikely to move the needle considerably.


Neal Taparia
Founder of Imagine Easy Solutions & Spider Solitaire

“I believe that in link building it is all about the golden middle. We should search for a balance between the quality of links and their quantity. Ideally, high quality at a high quantity is the perfect situation.” 


Do you think that nofollow links improve your authority and/or rankings?

We were interested to know whether professionals in the industry believed that nofollow links impact authority and/or rankings.

Nofollow links have been the source of controversy for years. Some SEOs think they’re worthless. Others think they’re better. The results are now in:

  • Yes: 54.58% 
  • Sometimes / It depends: 33.77%
  • No: 11.65%

More than half of participants in our survey (54.58%) indicated that nofollow links improve authority and/or rankings, while 33.77% said these links sometimes have an impact.


Jeremy Galante. SEO Manager at Clickup

“It’s no coincidence that Digital PR is trending in 2021. I’m happy to see most SEOs are leaving behind the nonsense that it’s dofollow or bust when it comes to link building. Nofollow links and even unlinked mentions can have an impact on your authority. The marketers that prioritize brand mentions and relevance are going to win long-term.”


We agree Jeremy, wholeheartedly. 

Takeaway

Over half of respondents have indicated that nofollow links have an impact on authority and rankings, while a third said it depends. 

Nofollow links have largely been regarded as worthless. The rel=“nofollow” HTML tag tells Google to ignore those links.

But Google made some major changes to how it treats nofollow links:

“When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.”

In other words, Google’s algorithm doesn’t entirely discredit nofollow links. Instead they’ll use these as “hints” to determine their impact accordingly.


Dima Suponau
Co-founder @ Number For Live Person

“I totally agree with the point that nofollow links are valuable, bring authority and recognition. The biggest outlets out there stick with Google’s agenda on links and almost all of their links are nofollow, no matter how they got them. But, having a backlink on their websites is still worth an effort since even though the link is nofollow, it generates traffic to your website. Personally I have backlinks on Forbes and they are nofollow, but I believe they are far more valuable than dofollow links from websites with no significant traffic and authority.”


The takeaway here is to not completely ignore nofollow links. Nofollow links from trusted sites carry value (according to half of our participants) and can generate a ton of referral traffic.

How much of an impact do you think link building has on your brand authority?

We were also keen to find out whether our participants believed that link building impacts brand authority.

Brand authority is vague, but becoming increasingly important. Rand Fishkin of SparkToro believes they are just as important as actual backlinks, calling these mentions inferred links. 

  • Big impact: 84.39%
  • Low impact: 15.61%

An overwhelming majority of respondents (84.39%) indicated that link building has a big impact on brand authority. 15.61% said that links have a low impact on brand authority.

Takeaway


Farzad Rashidi, Co-founder of Respona

“Building editorial links from relevant sites is one of the most important factors for gaining brand authority. Having a strong brand can help your domain rank better for targeted keywords in your niche and build long term evergreen organic traffic. Plus, search engines aren’t the only ones noticing your links. As you continue to build links on quality sites and increase your domain authority, it opens doors for new relationships with other brands and experts in your space. This way you can build an overall brand authority that appeals to your audience and encourages opportunities for mutual collaborations.”


A majority of SEO professionals we surveyed believe that backlinks impact brand authority.

To build your brand authority, link building needs to be a priority. Backlinks signal to Google that others find your site valuable enough to link to it.

Check out this resource, “How to Increase Domain Authority” for tips to build your authority and make your site more trustworthy.

How important are backlinks in your SEO or content strategy? 

Next, we asked our participants to answer how important backlinks are for their SEO and content strategy. 

  • Equal priority to content: 45.04%
  • They are my main priority: 29.77%
  • If I get them, I get them: 19.34%
  • Not a concern / not my priority: 5.85%

45.04% of our participants indicated that backlinks are equally important to content. This was followed by 29.77% who said that backlinks are their main priority.

Takeaway

The results indicate that half of professionals in the industry spend equal amounts of time on link building and content creation.

It’s interesting to note that 19.34% of respondents selected “If I get them, I get them.” This suggests that many professionals take a more passive approach to link building.

However, a majority place them as either equally or more important. 


Anastasiia Prach Outreach Specialist at Snov.io

“On the early stage when you need to spread the news about your product or show who you are — they are really important to drive early traffic. When you’re a big company, links help develop your content strategy and promotion.”


In the next few years, do you believe that backlinks will have more or less of an impact on search engine rankings?

We were interested to know how our participants felt about the future of backlinks on search engine rankings.

  • More impact: 59.00%
  • The same impact: 33.84%
  • Less impact: 7.15%

Over half of respondents (59.00%) indicated that backlinks would have more of an impact in the next few years, while 33.84% said they would have the same impact. 

This was followed by 7.15% of respondents who indicated that links would have less of an impact in the coming years.

Takeaway

Backlinks are alive and well. A significant majority of respondents indicated that backlinks would have more or the same impact on rankings in the coming years.

There’s strong reason to believe that backlinks will continue to have a measurable impact on rankings. And the data that we got confirms that assumption.

While we can’t know for sure, it’s becoming increasingly more saturated. Content is better than ever, making distinguishing quality harder. Links are a great indication that your content is good enough for great websites to refer to it as a valuable resource. 

Link Building Process and Strategies

In this section, we asked our participants about the strategies they use to build backlinks, which ones deliver the best results, how much they spend, and more.

Do you use agencies, freelancers or contractors for link building?

We wanted to find out how many of our participants outsource their link building to agencies or freelancers.

  • Yes: 60.05%
  • No, it’s all in-house: 29.18%
  • No, we don’t do link building: 10.12%
  • Other: 0.65%

More than half of respondents (60.05%) indicated that they work with agencies, freelancers, or contractors for link building while over a quarter (29.2%) said they manage their link building efforts in-house.


Zbigniew Drozdz, SEO Specialist at Booksy

“Using agencies (like uSERP) is simply way more convenient. There is no tedious hiring process, and establishing new workflows, KPIs, and goal setting strategies. I believe that agencies are much more capable of reaching the target than freelancers, too. There’s simply more workforce, and for large campaigns that is the only proper way.” 


Takeaway

Link building is a time-consuming effort. It’s not surprising that more than half outsource their link building. 

In addition, outsourcing allows for almost instant results compared to establishing workflows, testing pitching, and refining a process over months and years. 

What we did find surprising though is that 10% indicated they don’t do link building at all! Given the impact that backlinks have on rankings, those who aren’t building links are at a significant disadvantage against those who are.

How much do you spend on link building every month?

We were interested to find out how much professionals in the industry spend each month on link building.

  • $0 – $1,000: 34.14%
  • $1,000 – $5,000: 38.43%
  • $5,000 – $10,000: 20.29%
  • $15,000+: 7.14%

38.43% of our participants spend between $1,000 to $5,000 on link building. This was followed by 34.14% who spend $0 to $1,000 a month. 

20.29% of our participants spend $5,000 to $10,000 a month and 7.14% said they spend over $15,000 a month on backlinks.

Takeaway

To remain competitive and increase rankings, many in the industry are allocating some of their marketing budget towards link building.

Link building costs depend on different factors. But the average cost for low authority links is $150 to $300 per link.

Digital PR style, high authority contextual backlinks (links that appear naturally within the body of an article) cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

It’s important to note that there are different factors that affect link costs. These include domain rating, site traffic, relevance, link placement, anchor text, and many more.

What link building tactics do you use?

This question focuses on the tactics that respondents used to build links and asked them to select all that apply.

  • Content marketing: 13.1%
  • Guest posting: 11.2%
  • Forum links: 10.2%
  • Link insertions: 10.4%
  • Link exchanges: 10.4%
  • Directory link building: 9.5%
  • Redirecting domains: 8.5%
  • Press releases: 8.6%
  • Broken link building: 6.8%
  • Unclaimed brand mentions: 5.6%

The responses were fairly close as you can see. 

However, content marketing was the clear winner with 13.1% of respondents choosing this link building tactic. This was followed by 11.2% who selected guest posting to build links. 

Takeaway


Itamar Blauer, SEO Manager @ Cure Media

“No matter what link building tactic someone is using, the commonality between all of them is building relationships with a webmaster. At the end of the day, you are relying on someone else to provide a link to your website. I’ve found that the best ways to achieve this are by creating valuable relationships and being sincere about your intentions to help the prospect improve within an area of their website. This approach is also great because it can facilitate acquiring more backlinks in the future, so I’d definitely recommend holding onto the relationships that you build when pursuing link building activities.” 


Content marketing remains a popular link building strategy. Engaging content that delivers value is more likely to earn links than content that was haphazardly put together.

It’s interesting to see other link building tactics evenly split. This seems to suggest that respondents are aiming for a more varied backlink profile.

Which of these link building tactics provides the strongest results for you?

Of course, we also wanted to know which strategies provided the strongest results and asked respondents to select those that apply.

  • Content marketing: 12.5%
  • Guest posting: 11.7%
  • Link exchange: 10.9%
  • Link insertions: 9.9%
  • Forum links: 9.7%
  • Directory link building: 9.5%
  • Press release: 9.0%
  • Redirecting domains: 7.8%
  • Broken link building: 7.4%
  • HARO / expert roundups: 6.1%

12.5% of respondents indicated that content marketing was the most effective for link building, followed by 11.7% who saw positive outcomes with guest posting.

Takeaway

The most popular link building strategy — content marketing — also delivered the strongest results. Publishing quality content remains an effective way to earn links.

We’re also not surprised to see guest posting delivered strong results. These types of links boost domain authority and result in a ton of referral traffic when done right.

It was interesting to see respondents selecting forum and directory links as providing strong results. This seems to suggest that these types of links are still worth paying attention to.

Link Building Tools and Reporting

What tools do respondents use for link building? What metrics do they use to measure the quality of a backlink? That’s what this section is all about.

Reporting and tools can be controversial in SEO and link building in particular. 


Andy Crestodina, Co-founder & CMO, Orbit Media.

“Even some veteran SEOs get caught up reporting the outcomes of link building. Authority metrics are really just proxies for Google’s PageRank, so they’re not the actual outcome. They’re second-hand estimates. And authority changes very, very slowly, especially when the number is bigger.”


Which tools do you use for link building, measuring, and reporting?

This question asked respondents about the tools they use to build, measure, and report backlinks. 

  • Google Search Console: 24.8%
  • Buzzstream: 14.2%
  • Pitchbox: 10%
  • Mailshake: 9.1%
  • Majestic: 8.8%
  • Screaming Frog: 8.8%
  • Ahrefs: 7.4%
  • SEMrush: 7.4%
  • Moz: 6.7%

24.8% of respondents indicated they use Google Search Console for link building. This was followed by 14.2% who use Buzzstream and 10% who use Pitchbox — popular tools that are used for blogger outreach and link promotion.

Takeaway

Google Search Console was by far the link building tool of choice for nearly a quarter of our participants (24.8%) for link building, measuring, and reporting. 

Google Search Console is a free tool from Google that lets webmasters measure their search traffic and troubleshoot issues. Based on our data, it’s clear that many professionals are getting tons of value from this tool with their link building efforts.

If you could only use one tool for link building, what tool would you use?

There’s no shortage of link building tools, but we wanted to know the one tool that participants couldn’t live without. 

  • Google Search Console: 42.3%
  • Buzzstream: 14.8%
  • Ahrefs: 8.5%
  • Majestic: 7.9%
  • Pitchbox: 7.5% 
  • Screaming Frog: 5.7%
  • Mailshake: 4.4%
  • SEMrush: 4.0%
  • Moz: 3.8% 

42.3% of respondents chose Google Search Console as the one tool they would use for link building. This was followed by 14.8% of participants who chose Buzzstream. We saw responses for Ahrefs, Majestic, and Pitchbox almost evenly split. 

Takeaway

Here we see that Google Search Console is the preferred link building tool for almost half of our participants (42.3%). Buzzstream came in second place with 14.8% selecting this tool.

Google Search Console is a widely used link building tool — you can use it to monitor external links, track rankings for certain keywords, and more.

But Google Search Console falls short in many aspects of link building. 

For example, while you can see external backlinks, you can’t see who is linking to your competitors. The tool also doesn’t show who is outranking you and why.

We’ve seen strategies like guest posting providing strong results for our participants. But you can’t use Google Search Console to find publishers in your niche and send outreach emails. 

To do all of this, you’d have to purchase additional tools and hire an in-house team to manage your link building efforts. Another option is to outsource your link building.

Here’s a quick look at in-house vs. outsourcing for backlinks:

In-house:

  • Tools like Ahrefs, Buzzstream, and email finders are expensive
  • Need a VA (virtual assistant) to build lists for outreach
  • Need to hire content writers and managers for the project

Taking your link building efforts in-house is expensive, time-consuming, and extremely difficult to scale unless you have sizable resources.

Outsourcing:

  • Flat fee for guaranteed performance
  • Near instant results
  • Completely hands off

Outsourcing your link building offers a ton of benefits. It’s also highly scalable, so you can start with an initial budget and gradually ramp up as your traffic starts growing.

What metric(s) do you use to measure the quality of a backlink?

This question asks participants to select the metric they use to measure the quality of a backlink.

  • Organic traffic: 14.2%
  • Trust Flow (Majestic): 11.8%
  • Domain Rating (Ahrefs): 11.7%
  • Domain Authority (Moz): 11.4%
  • Domain Score (SEMrush): 11.4%
  • Niche / website relevance: 10.9%
  • Unique vs. recurring root domain: 9.3%
  • Anchor text: 9.1%
  • Ahrefs rank: 7.4%

14.2% of respondents indicated that they use organic traffic to measure the quality of a backlink. We saw almost evenly split percentages between Trust Flow (11.8%), Domain Rating (11.7%), Domain Authority (11.4%), and Domain Score (11.4%).


Brian Dean, Co-founder at Exploding Topics.

“Interesting to see that most SEO pros use traffic to determine the quality of a link. That’s actually the metric I find myself increasingly using as well. Third party metrics (like Domain Rating) have their place. But organic traffic gives you insight into how Google themselves value the site. In other words, a site with a high Domain Rating but little organic traffic likely means a link from that site will have little value.”


Here’s what those metrics mean:

  • Trust Flow: Trust Flow is a link metric from Majestic that measures how trustworthy a page is by measuring the quality of its backlinks. 
  • Domain Rating: Domain Rating is a metric from Ahrefs that measures the strength of a website based on the quantity and quality of external backlinks.
  • Domain Authority: Domain Authority is a metric from Moz that ranges from 0 to 100. It predicts how well a website will rank in the search engine results. 
  • Domain Score: Domain Score is a metric from SEMrush that measures a domain’s overall quality. 

Takeaway 

It’s clear that professionals in the industry have different methods for valuing a link. Some look at referral traffic, while others look at metrics like Trust Flow and Domain Authority.

Why the discrepancy? 

Because measuring the “quality” of a backlink isn’t easy. Google doesn’t outright tell us what factors it weighs more than others. At the same time, metrics like Domain Rating can still be a useful way to measure backlink quality. 

If you could only choose ONE metric to measure the quality of a backlink, which metric would it be?

Similar to the question we asked about link building tools, we wanted to be more specific here and ask participants to choose one to measure the quality of a backlink. 

  • Organic Traffic: 18.5%
  • Trust Flow (Majestic): 15.9%
  • Domain Authority (Moz): 11.8%
  • Domain Score (SEMrush): 10.2%
  • Niche / website relevance: 10.7%
  • Unique vs recurring root domain: 9.7%
  • Domain Rating (Ahrefs): 9.3%
  • Anchor text: 8.2%
  • Ahrefs Rank: 4.8%

18.5% of respondents chose organic traffic as the one metric they would choose to measure the quality of a backlink. 

This was followed by 15.9% who chose Trust Flow from Majestic and 11.8% who chose Domain Authority from Moz. 

Takeaway

More professionals in the industry are looking beyond popular industry metrics like Trust Flow and Domain Authority to measure the quality of a link. More are placing importance on the referral traffic that those backlinks generate.

But again: it depends on campaign goals, too. Each campaign can serve a different purpose on authority, traffic, and more. 


Stephen Panico, Chief Growth Officer at BuzzStream 

“One of the main things we see people struggling with when managing the efficacy of their link-building campaigns is understanding the end-value the link will have on their business or that of their clients. Essentially, link value operates on a spectrum, and links with the greatest business benefit may differ greatly depending on needs. Getting that huge link in a major publication is fantastic if you are looking to increase your site’s authority in the eyes of Google, but it may not drive much in the way of relevant traffic.

Similarly, if you are able to secure a link on a more niche publication you may end up with significantly more qualified traffic but with a lower impact on authority. It’s important to communicate and set expectations with clients and/or internal leadership before undertaking a campaign, as you will ultimately be judged on the impact of your efforts and it’s very easy to focus on the wrong areas even if they do provide a tangible advantage to the business or client in an area not in focus.”


What is your main KPI when measuring the effectiveness of building links?

Finally, we wanted to ask participants about the main KPI (Key Performance Indicator) they use when measuring the effectiveness of building links. 

  • Overall traffic increase: 22.5%
  • Organic rankings: 19%
  • Total links: 16.5%
  • Number of unique root domains: 12.3%
  • Referral traffic from links: 12.3%
  • Conversions from referral traffic: 10.1%
  • DR/DA increase: 6.7%

22.5% of respondents look at overall traffic increase as a main KPI when measuring the effectiveness of a link. This was followed by 19% who look at organic rankings and 16.5% who look at total links.

Takeaway

Professionals look at increases in overall traffic and rankings as key indicators when determining the effectiveness of their link building efforts.

Final thoughts

The key takeaway from our survey is that a majority of SEO professionals still believe that backlinks have a big impact on rankings and brand authority.

We hope that you found this State of Link Building Report useful. And we want to thank everyone who participated.

Get PR and Links That Increase Rankings.

Show up in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize.

Joanne Camarce