How Many Links Do You Need?

One of the more common questions you see asked in forums is “How many links do I need?” in order to rank for a certain keyword phrase. The question doesn’t really have a specific numerical answer, rather the number of links you need is proportional to the number of pages competing for the phrase. Less competition requires fewer links to rank. More competition requires more links.

Consider a made up word like “grabandle.” None of the major search engines are returning any results for the word and with good reason. I’m probably the first person to type the made up word “grabandle” on a web page. I’ve now typed it twice and would expect that not too long after this post is indexed it will rank #1 for the word.

Assuming no one else decides to adopt my new made up word and use it, this post should require exactly zero links to rank for the phrase simply because the competition for the phrase is also zero. This post should soon be the only relevant web page for the query “grabandle.” No competition requires fewer, and in this case zero links to rank.

Now consider the phrase “real estate.” Google is estimating there are 549,000,000 results for the phrase. Looking at the #1 result for the phrase Yahoo shows 352,000 links into the site and 249,000 into links to the specific page ranking.

I won’t expect this page to rank for “real estate” any time soon and neither should you. More competition requires more links.

Competition vs. Links

If we were to graph how much link juice or linking power you need given the competition that graph might look something like:

Graph of competition vs. link juice needed

Starting at the origin with zero competition you need zero link juice. As the competition increases so too does the link juice required to rank. While I’ve made no attempt to actually plot how many links (and the associated linking power) are needed for various phrases, I would think the link juice necessary would increase exponentially as shown on the graph. The curve, of course, might look different in reality. The main point to take is that as competition increases the link juice needed to rank well also increases.

Please note the use of link juice or power in the graph as opposed to the number of links. Links aren’t equal. Links have different signs of quality. A link from a forum signature is clearly less valuable than a link from the New York Times. There isn’t a 1:1 correlation between links, which is why the graph above refers to link juice instead of the shear number of links.

Strategies for Ranking

The above is all fine and good, but probably nothing earth shattering. Common sense alone should tell you it will take more links to rank when there are more sites and pages wanting to rank for a given phrase. So how can we use the information?

If you’re starting a new site in a competitive market such as real estate you should realize it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to rank for the more generic phrases on your topic. It’s going to take a long time to build the links required to rank for the most generic “real estate.” Knowing that you should understand that a long term strategy is going to be necessary to rank for that phrase. The tactics of the moment are not going to be your salvation. You’d sooner want to look at what will be working tomorrow or next year.

If your business model doesn’t allow for such long term results you’d need to look at other ways to market your site such as pay per click advertising. You’d also look for long tail keywords you could rank for much quicker.

On the other hand say you do have a site that’s acquired a good deal of link juice over the years. Even if you’re not already in a specific market you may be able to rank well for phrases simply by using them on the page. You already have the juice, or near the juice, to rank. If CNN covers a story there’s a good chance the story will rank for the phrases used in the article, based on all the links that site has.

Odds are your somewhere in between the extremes. You have some link juice, though not enough to rank for anything you want. You have enough to rank for some phrases, but not quite enough to rank for others. How can you tell what you can and can’t rank for?

Server Logs Reveal Link Juice

Your server logs will tell you what you’re ranking for. They’ll also tell you what you could be ranking for. As an example this post on centering with css routinely picks up search traffic for long tail phrases that include words like “css,” “center,” “centering,” etc. A phrase like “css center,” while not the most searched for phrase is likely a phrase the post could rank well for with a little optimization for the page. Not necessarily a great phrase, but one that has a little more competition and can bring a few more visitors each month.

My search logs tell me that I have enough, or close to enough, link juice to rank for the “css center” phrase should I want and some on-page seo might well be enough to bring in search traffic for the phrase.

Your real estate site might be ranking well for “San Diego, real estate for sale” and other similar phrases. That might also indicate you’re ready to rank for “California real estate” or something something somewhat larger with presumably more competition than San Diego real estate.

By showing what you’re ranking for now, your server logs are intimating what you can rank for next. Your server logs will tell you qualitatively what you can do with your current link juice.

Getting back to the original question, “How many links do you need?” the question again isn’t one that’s going to be answered by a specific number of links. You don’t need a specific answer to the question, though. Consider the competitiveness of the phrase and look through your server logs to determine if you potentially have the juice to rank for the phrase.

If you do, then start optimizing for the phrase. If you don’t look for phrases a little further along the search tail. Choose a phrase that is closer to the head than you can currently rank for, but close enough that you can rank for with a little work. Once you’re ranking for those somewhat more competitive phrases start the process again.

Do you use your server logs to tell you what you can rank for?

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15 comments

  1. Is it possible to view the server logs on shared hosting?
    At the moment I use Google Analytics, Google Webmaster tools and my webhosts AWstats to find useful search phrases, that my sites might be ranked for.

  2. You can get everything you need from Google Analytics or AWstats. When I mentioned server logs here I was mostly referring to seeing the keywords and phrases people are using to find your site. Analytics and AWstats both have that information. You don’t need to view the raw log files.

    Odds are you have access to those raw logs for your site though. There’s probably a link in your control panel in the same place you check AWstats that will show you your raw log file.

  3. I ahve been on the journey and after a year things are falling into place, I only have about 300 links, I will probably need 700-1,000 and of course using anchor text is so important. I wish I knew that 6 months ago. Jim

  4. Good post, great information.

    In Google webmaster tools under Statistics>>Top Search Queries you get a list of the top 20 things that you rank for, and what that rank is.

    If you already rank for a phrase, but at say number 12 then it might be pretty easy to elevate that one onto the first page of the SERPs with just a little bit of effort – on page SEO, a link or two from other pages on the site, or even by disabling some outgoing links from your target page. The difference in traffic from a #12 rank and a #7 could be huge.

    I don’t know of anywhere else that you can get the info contained in this report.

  5. Another great post, Steven.

    Often overlooked in SEO is the “unoptimized” potential of your website. As you describe, it’s a question of how well a phrase ranks in SERPs that appears a couple of times on one page not optimized for it.

    We’ve run into that numerous times with our website, with often surprising results. For example, a cheesecake recipe posted in a blog back before Christmas continues to generate traffic despite the site being focused on student study resources, not recipes.

    There’s an old saying that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the SEO world, the general optimization that you do to your site represents that tide, and it’s alot easier to reach the first SERP page with targeted optimization when you’re already on the second page without it.

  6. @Jim – 300 links is better than none. Are you sure of how many you need? How many links do other sites in your industry have? What is the quality of those links?

    @David – Thanks. I agree. It’s going to be easier to rank for things related to what you’re already ranking for and to improve those phrases that are ranking well. I think you can still find much of the info from your own logs, though showing where you rank for the phrase is a nice touch on Google’s part.

    @Rudy – Thanks. I think many of us overlook some of the obvious things that can potentially bringing us quality traffic.

    One thing to think about with the cheesecake recipe is does that traffic lead to something or are people leaving right after reading the recipe. If it makes sense you might want to create more similar content on the site. Other recipes for example. You’ve found your site can rank for those kind of queries. Now the question becomes what to do with that traffic.

    The saying is a good one. I think it goes beyond moving from page 2 to page 1. I think the saying is also implying the idea that if you rank well for cheesecake recipe you might also be able to rank well for chocolate cake recipe and angel food cake recipe. And as your ranking for all those specific recipes you increase your chances of ranking for recipe.

  7. Steven:

    I feel there was a good need to point out the links in order to rank well. There have been many stories written and many writers claimed to be best. But wait…! Being in the Industry since January-2001, I truely never seen a better story than this! The way you have indicated things is magnificient!

    Last night, I have been checking my rankings for – – – etc, and there has been something I really got wondered. A page appeared from India with no in-links, The website has been prolly new and I checked the Domain WHOis in order to know if I was wrong. But I was right. There have been no back-links created for the website so far, and that Domain was ranking for the SEO Company in all the Data-Centers on the first page.

    I agree….. Linking to the quality website mean ranking well in the google, msn, yahoo and all other search engines, but ranking well with no in-links? Ehh

    Will be looking your feedback

    All the best and have a good weekend

    Ciao – Tina

  8. I think that is not the quantity but the quality of links. A link with pr 7 can be equal to thousands of links with pr 4. A link carries some authority in the eyes of google so quality links matter. Also i want to share with you that scrapebox is the perfect seo tool for harvesting quality links. Is one of the elite tools in my seo armory.

  9. I think quality more important too. More is generally better than less when it comes to links all other things being equal. But their seldom all equal and in that case quality over quantity.

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