Link building can be confusing, especially when you are starting out.

Whether you are buying links or building them on your own, it can be difficult to gauge the quality and value of a link.

Many search engine marketers rely on third-party quality rankings from SEO tools like Moz, Ahrefs, and Majestic.

  • Moz has Page Authority and Domain Authority Metrics (PA/DA)
  • Majestic has Trust Flow and Citation Flow (TF/CF)
  • Ahrefs has Domain Rank and URL Rank (DR/UR)

These metrics serve their purposes but they all have one common pitfall. Third-party metrics are created by third-party companies, not Google. This leads to two main issues for link builders:

  1. We don’t know if these metrics are inline with Google’s metrics for gauging link quality
  2. They can be manipulated

The first point should be obvious. We don’t really know if a “DA 50” link means anything to Google. There is definitely a correlation between Google’s link quality metrics and third-party metrics, but it’s far from exact.

The second point is even more concerning.

Third-Party Metrics Can Be Manipulated

Third-party metrics are determined based on unique algorithms. Each SEO tool uses a unique algorithm, but every single one of them can be manipulated.

While this may not be a concern if you are doing your own research, it is a major concern if you are buying links. For example, if I am researching sites with a DA over 50 for my own outreach campaign, I can do in-depth research to find out which sites are actually legitimate (more on this later). If I rely on a seller, I may simply be purchasing a “DA 50 link” that I know nothing about.

These metrics can be manipulated in a way that can be detrimental to your efforts. Whereas a real DA 50 link is likely to be a good link, a manipulated DA 50 link could be garbage.

I ran a test on one of my throwaway sites to show just how easy these rankings can be manipulated. I spent $10 on a specific type of links in an effort to manipulate my Ahrefs Domain Rank (DR). At the start of the experiment, the DR was under 5. After a few days, it skyrocketed to 56.

Ahrefs Domain Rank Example

Interestingly, this manipulation only worked for the DR/UR metrics. This isn’t to say that DA/PA/TF/CF metrics can’t be manipulated – they just require a different type of manipulation.

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Here is how that same site is ranked by Majestic:

Majestic Trust Flow and Citation Flow

And here is how it is ranked by Moz

Moz Domain Authority Example

There are two key takeaways from this experiment.

The first is that any third-party metric can be manipulated. In this example, I was able to increase my DR by 50 for only $10. If I was selling links (which I don’t do), I just increased the sale price of this link by $50-$100 without increasing it’s value. While I only manipulated the DR metric, I could do this for DA/PA and TF/CF as well.

The second takeaway is that you should check multiple metrics if you are using third-party metrics to gauge link quality. Legit sites have consistent metrics in all SEO tools. Of course, these can be manipulated across the board, which leads to the main takeaway of this article.

“Organic Traffic” is the Most Reliable Metric

There is one metric you cannot manipulate – organic traffic. Organic traffic is a metric that estimates the average monthly traffic of a site based on it’s keyword rankings.

This metric offers hard proof that Google deems a site worthy of ranking. Remember the example above where I manipulated the DR? Here is the organic traffic from the site:

Organic Traffic Example

I could trick Ahrefs but I couldn’t trick Google. The DR skyrocketed and the Organic Traffic stayed at zero.

Look for Sites With Real Organic Traffic

As mentioned above, organic traffic metrics can’t be gamed. Organic traffic validates a site. It means that Google likes the website’s link profile and content, making for an ideal link-building opportunity.

Of course, you can dig deeper in your analysis to see what type of keywords the site is ranking for and whether or not there are any red flags. That said, I’d much rather rely on a Google-verified metric than a third-party metric.

Organic Traffic can also be a leading indicator. Sites might start seeing organic traffic from Google long before third-party metrics catch up. Check out the example below where a site has a low DR of 8 but traffic that has been steadily climbing over the past year.

Organic Traffic vs. DR

The Power of Link Juice

Some SEO’s believe in the power of “link juice” regardless of organic traffic. They believe that a site with 1000 referring domains (RD) and high third-party metrics can help you rank regardless of the site’s organic traffic.

In certain situations, this can be true. That said, if I have a choice between a high traffic site with high DA/DR/TF and no organic traffic and a site with lower DA/DR/TF and higher organic traffic, I will choose the latter every time.

Third-party metrics are designed to help you gauge the quality of a link but the only analyst of link quality that really matters is Google. Organic Traffic is a direct indicator of Google’s analysis. If Google likes a website, they rank it. That is how the system has always worked.

Third-Party Metrics are Still Valuable

This post is not intended to say that companies like Ahrefs, Moz, and Majestic have dropped the ball. It’s simply stating that SEO’s shouldn’t assign too much weight to third-party metrics.

People will always find ways to game the system. If you’re a diligent SEO, you should rely on multiple data points when making decisions. I still use metrics like DR/TF/RD when making link-building decisions but I always analyze organic traffic as well.