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Prospecting and Link Building: The Shortlist Way

When Shortlist was started in 2018, the first service we designed was link building. The biggest aspect that differentiated that service from other providers was our adherence to quality metrics. 

Since then we’ve acquired over 20k links for our clients, including dozens of different industries as well as different languages and countries.

But back when we started there were a lot of low-quality providers. I know because, before starting Shortlist, I experimented with a number of them for my own web properties. 

Many of the links provided had little to no authority or traffic. Sometimes what little it did have was faked. 

Sites were clearly what’s referred to as private blog networks (PBN), most likely owned by the service providers themselves, so they could post content for whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted, at virtually no cost. 

These sites often provided very little value, if any, to clients. Maybe a short-term boost, at best, and at worst it could lead to penalties. 

Sadly many clients didn’t know how to recognize these links, since, after all, link building as a discipline is relatively niche.

Years later, due to higher expectations and market pressures, things are a bit better. Vendors have added a few minimums, typically related to a site’s Domain Authority and Organic Traffic.

While this is a good start, it still leaves a lot to be desired, for example:

  • Domain authority can be easily faked, by buying an expired domain and then putting new content on it. 
  • Organic traffic perhaps is not so easily faked, but if we are not paying attention to the trend, may pass a minimum requirement but still be a site that was penalized or saw significant declines over months and years.

I’ve still yet to come across any service providers that consider all of the metrics we do in evaluating the sites we work with. 

It’s largely because of this that Shortlist has:

  • Never had a client penalized or needed to have links removed. 
  • Rarely (on average, less than once per year) gets a refund request for ANY of our services, including link building. 

Nevertheless, with so many different providers out there I can’t personally comment on all of them, but I would like to clarify how we approach building at Shortlist. 

Prospecting

Prospecting is at the core of our services – we are adding sites to our database daily. 

With so many new sites popping up, and others no longer being operational, it’s important that we continue to grow our network so that we can more effectively service the wide variety of clients that come to us with the most relevant sites. We primarily implement two methodologies to source sites.

1. Relevance-based prospecting via Ahrefs & Google: When it comes to launching a proper link building campaign, relevance is everything, and we do our best to avoid general sites that write about this, that, and the other. Ahrefs is a powerful tool that allows us to find websites through keywords and titles that directly match the client’s niche utilizing their content explorer features.

2. Competitor-Based Prospecting via Ahrefs & Google: Your competitors are a tremendous source for viable links, and while we’re not in the business of playing catch-up, we do want to fill any obvious gaps. 

First, we identify 5 direct competitors for our clients. For us, competitors are not necessarily always about the product or service they offer, but about the organic keywords they’re ranking for. 

Then, we analyze the competitor’s backlinks and determine which ones could be suitable for targeting.

Evaluation

After sites are discovered, they have to be evaluated. 

One of the things you have to understand is that the incentive of most link building providers is to have loose metrics so as to have a larger pool of sites to draw from. This allows them to scale and also to hunt for the best rates. 

Shortlist isn’t like that. 

We’re not the biggest player in the market – far from it. 20k links in 6 years is a lot and it qualifies us as experts in our space, but it’s still a tenth, or less, of what the big guys are doing. 

We prioritize quality over scale because our driving metric is how many of our customers are satisfied as opposed to how many customers we are serving. 

Shortlist has created a proprietary tool that no one else has full access to called Shortlist Metrics, which helps us quickly apply our standards to our websites and determine if it is a fit or not. 

We refresh our database regularly to make sure that sites maintain these standards or we don’t work with them. Specifically, these are the criteria we consider.

Please note the below minimums (and in one case maximums), but also understand that many of our websites, most in fact, pass these thresholds by a lot.

External Backlinks: 

What it is: External links create connections between websites, allowing users to navigate from one to another easily. An External link is a hyperlink that leads to a page or resource outside a particular website.

Why it matters: Legitimate sites are linked to, and illegitimate sites are not. The presence of external links lends credibility to the site being legitimate.

Shortlist Minimum: 500

Referring Domains: 

What it is: Referring domains are domains from which the target website or web page has one or multiple backlinks. For example, if a web page has a backlink from the New York Times, then it has one referring domain. If it has a link from the New York Times and Forbes, it has two referring domains.

Why it matters: The number and quality of referring domains are key for SEO because they signal page authority and trust to search engines. High-quality backlinks from diverse domains can boost a site’s rankings in search results, driving more organic traffic and enhancing its online visibility and credibility.

Shortlist Minimum: 100

TrustFlow:

What it is: Trust Flow is a flow metric score, which is weighted by the number of links from a seed set of trusted sites to a given URL, or Domain

Why it matters: It measures the quality and trustworthiness of a website based on its backlink profile, specifically the quality of sites linking to it. A high Trust Flow indicates that a site is linked by reputable and authoritative sites, which is a strong signal to search engines of its credibility. 

Shortlist Minimum: 10

CitationFlow: 

What it is:  Citation Flow is a flow metric score, which is weighted by the number of citations to a given URL, or Domain

Why it matters: It measures a website’s link influence or ‘popularity’ based on how many backlinks point to it. A high Citation Flow indicates a site has many backlinks, suggesting wide recognition or authority in its field. 

Shortlist Minimum: 15

TrustRatio (TrustFlow/CitationFlow):

What it is: The trust flow and citation flow metrics are a way of measuring the trustworthiness and authority of a website. The trust ratio is the calculation of the trust flow divided by the citation flow. This helps to give a more accurate measure of how trustworthy a website’s backlink profile is.

Why it matters: The Trust Ratio is vital as it balances quality with quantity in a site’s backlink profile, indicating not just how many backlinks a site has, but how trustworthy those links are. A higher Trust Ratio means a site has high-quality backlinks relative to the total number of backlinks, signifying its reliability and credibility to search engines. This balance is crucial for SEO strategies, as it ensures that efforts to increase backlinks also focus on gaining links from reputable sources, ultimately improving search engine rankings and online visibility.

Shortlist Minimum: 0.30

Domain Authority (DA): 

What it is: A score range from 1 to 100 that aims to predict how likely a website is to appear in the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

Why it matters:  It provides a comparative tool to gauge the potential of a website to rank on search engines. A higher DA score suggests that a website has a stronger link profile and is more likely to rank well in SERPs, making it a valuable metric for benchmarking against competitors. It helps in prioritizing link building efforts, identifying potential sites for backlinks, and understanding the overall health and SEO performance of a website. While not a direct ranking factor, improving DA can correlate with increased search visibility and organic traffic.

Shortlist Minimum: 25

Spam Score (Moz):

What it is: A metric indicating a website’s risk of being penalized by search engines due to spam practices or low-quality backlinks.

Why it matters: Links from high Spam Score sites necessitate quality improvements to prevent Google penalties, essential for SEO compliance, search ranking maintenance, and ensuring a website’s visibility and organic growth.

Shortlist Maximum: 2

Organic Traffic:

What it is: The estimated number of monthly visits that a website gets from organic search.

Why it matters:  Organic traffic is crucial, indicating success in drawing visitors through quality, relevant content. It reflects effective SEO, higher keyword rankings, and precise audience targeting. Essential for gauging a site’s health and SEO impact, it underscores the ability to engage users naturally, supporting sustained online visibility and growth.

Shortlist Minimum: 500 

The Human Element

Metrics are a fantastic way of efficiently evaluating and discarding anything that isn’t a good fit, right off the bat. 

But a review process wouldn’t be complete without some human involvement. 

We take all sites that pass our standards and organize them in a database based on topics and themes so we can quickly identify them for potential clients. 

Finally, before reaching out to them, we review, asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Does the site load quickly?
  • Is the site littered with advertisements?
  • Is the content on the site well-written and thorough?
  • Is the site relevant to a particular niche, or is it general?
  • Has the traffic to the site been growing or are there any instances of penalties?

This helps us understand the story of the website, and more importantly, whether or not it’s going to be relevant to the client.

Conclusion

I hope our open and transparent approach to how we handle this service gives you more confidence in working with Shortlist, or, at a minimum, in more thoroughly evaluating potential vendors you’re considering.

At the end of the day, there is rarely a perfect site that is going to be open to linking to your brand; it’s about finding the best of the available opportunities and having the right expectations. 

There is no single metric that can tell the story of a website. The same can be said about a group of metrics. 

And while it isn’t always the case that more metrics mean better, we’ve specifically chosen the ones above, from a variety of sources including Moz, Majestic, and Ahrefs because they are highly indicative of a website having Trust & Authority. Two main criteria that should be considered when determining whether or not a site is a beneficial link opportunity. 

The third criterion is relevance, and we achieve that through human review. 
While our approach may not be perfect (there is no such thing), it has consistently delivered results for clients and withstood the test of time.

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