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The Truth and Facts About Link Earning

Bruce Zhang

Earned links have been considered the holy grail for a better ranking in search engines. We want to know what percentage of links is earned in the link universe. The ratio of backlink count (root domains) to Facebook sharing count is used to measure the degree of link promotion. A page with 100% earned links will have a lower Link/Like Ratio (LLR), and a page with link promotion will have a much higher LLR. By comparing the ratio of pages without link promotion with the ratio of pages with link promotion, we found that only 5% of links are earned, and 95% of links are promoted in reality.

Pages on Top US Content Sites Will Earn about One Link Every 2 Months

A great content page won’t earn a single link unless they are visited by many. When a visitor likes a page, he/she may share it on social media or create a link to the page. While the number of backlinks and social sharing counts of a page varies significantly by traffic, page age, content type and content quality, the ratio of backlink count vs. social sharing count should be more consistent for pages created in last 2 or 3 years regardless of the traffic. Old pages will likely have more backlinks and less social sharing counts. The number of Facebook sharing and the number of backlinks have the highest correlation with Google search ranking according to a recent searchmetrics research.

To calculate a more reliable link/like ratio, we collected data on backlink counts and Facebook sharing counts for the pages that meet the following criteria:

  1. Pages that likely get meaningful traffic.
  2. Pages that were created in recent years.
  3. Pages that have not been heavily promoted. They’re either informational in nature or they’re so popular that they don’t need promotion on the web. We have chosen pages from top 3 content sites in US and a few pages from apple.com related to iPhone.
Backlink CountFacebook Sharing CountRatioURL

Facebook sharing counts are collected using Facebook API http://graph.facebook.com/?id=url and the backlink counts (root domains) are collected using Open Site Explorer.

Average LLR: 0.1438
standrad deviation: 0.1626

Three pages from about.com are excluded from the calculation because of the small counts for both backlink and Facebook sharing.

5% of Links are Earned, 95% of Links are Promoted

We also collected data for the homepages of 20 sites that regularly accept guest posts. Those sites are considered quality blogs by any standards. Those sites are real websites, not sites built to sell links. The ratio of backlink count to Facebook sharing count is about 2.6. We assume these ratios represent the distribution of earned links and promoted links on the web.

Considering the LLR of 0.14 for earned links, it is safe to say that only 5% of links on the web are earned links, and 95% of links are promoted.

% of Earned Links = 0.1438 / 2.6 = 0.055
% of Promoted Links = (2.6 - 0.1438) / 2.6 = 0.945

The actual percentages may vary largely if we use a large sample size which is statistically significant. But it won’t change the facts that earned links are a small population in link universe, and promoted links are dominated majority. It is hard to believe any search engines will be smart enough to accurately detect all earned links and use only 5% of links to rank the web pages.

The average web pages may have less quality than the pages we sampled, but the links / like ratio is probably the same.

If we use the pages that target competitive keywords, instead of those sites that accept guest posts to calculate the LLR for promoted pages, the numbers may show a much larger percentage of promoted links.

Linkable Content is Different from Likable Content

Wikipedia pages are usually linked by many sites, but shared by only a small number of Facebook users. Content authors (those who make links) and visitors (those who read content) are two different types of users. If your pages are created to target authors to bait links, you will less likely to attract and retain regular visitors. If your pages are created to target average visitors, they are probably not unique enough to motivate authors to give you a link. Link earning is hard after all.

A Link is not a Vote - This is 2013, not 1997

It is a genius idea to consider links as votes and use the links to rank web pages back in 1997 when the web was not highly commercialized and not being polluted by SEO link building. A natural link is more of a path than a vote for visitors to travel in cyberspace. Web content and user behaviors have been significantly changed since then.

  1. Users are less likely to create links now because advanced search engines allow users to find what they want and social bookmarking has made collecting favorite sites much easier.
  2. There’re more product pages now and product pages are less likely to generate earned links.


This research may be biased by limited sample size and assumptions. However, the numbers do point to the right direction for the trend in link universe.

  1. Earned links are hard to get. Earned links may not generate good traffic and may not be strong enough to rank well in search engines.
  2. The question is not about earned links or paid links. It is about the natural links that are built for users, and unnatural links that are built to manipulate search engines.
  3. It’s not a sound strategy to build unnatural links for many reasons: 1) search traffic will continue to decline as social media sites attract more visitors; 2) there’re more uncertainties in ranking well because only top 10 sites receive meaningful search traffic; and 3) unnatural links have potential to trigger a search penalty.

Related Topics
Link Building - The Easy Ways
A High-Quality Site Hit by Panda, too? Why?
Google’s Real Time Search Strategy
Natural Links - What, Why and How?


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