TLDR; Majestic, Moz, Semrush and Ahrefs have large backlinks indexes. Comparison of these indexes is difficult. Google has made it very clear that backlink volume is no indicator of ranking success, and one only needs to look at affiliate marketing to see that quality of placement matters outside of search. Backlink checkers should act with caution before commissioning and publicising comparisons of indexes based on perceived counts of backlinks or referring domains.

We have had concerns with vendor led backlink size comparisons for some time. However, we have had a difficult time forming the appropriate words to convey our frustrations. In attempting to put together a response to the current wave of backlink index size comparisons, events have overtaken plans. We would like to thank Patrick Hathaway for attempting to move the debate on.

Patrick’s tweet resonated with us. If backlink index providers like Majestic send messages that could be interpreted as “more links matter,” then these messages could contribute to the proposition that link building is a game of quantity over quality. Experienced SEOs may be able to take a more nuanced viewpoint on these studies, but to new SEOs, and potential customers of Digital PR services, “more links good” can be a very confusing message.

We believe that SEO toolsets like Majestic owe it to the industry, and in particular, our agency clients to help reduce the spread of misinformation. Our job is to support our clients who do the heavy lifting in helping to promote the digital services of others.

By focusing on backlink counts, and glossing over the bigger picture, we fear backlink providers inadvertently risk counter-productive messaging regarding link building and Digital PR.

An Apology

In Patrick’s thread, he observes that it’s, “pretty disappointing to see so many of them choosing not to take the moral high ground on this sort of thing.

Unfortunately for us, it’s a position we could not seek to attain without first observing the English proverb, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

We hold our hands up. We are not innocent when it comes to using size to promote our product.

Homepage circa 2017Blogpost from 2009

Can any backlink checker say with clear conscience that they haven’t promoted index size, backlink counts or number of referring domains as a key indicator of service quality?

We are listening and do recognise the problems over-promoting backlink counts may cause our clients.

The issue is not ours to own exclusively. There are a range of backlink indexes on the market. The studies we’ve seen have focused on Majestic, Moz, Ahrefs and Semrush, with Moz and Semrush behind the most recent major vendor-backed studies ( links to blogs on: Moz’s Study, Semrush’s Study ).

All products have their own unique strengths. Moz has an awesome brand, with a long history of thought leadership and industry contribution. MozCon remains a key event on the industry calendar. Semrush has a huge toolset, and have set a benchmark with their recent market flotation and $2 billion+ market capitalisation on the New York Stock Exchange. Semrush appear to have the strength and position to benefit our industry by informing and expanding our digital marketing and SEO activities. The breadth of services that Ahrefs has been able to deliver, with a focus on a lean team is worthy of note. For our part, Majestic has focused on backlinks, bringing additional metrics like Trust Flow, Topical Trust Flow, and a range of specialist tools and visualisations focused on exploring the link graph.

Given the significant engineering challenges needed to become (and compete) as one of the “Big4”, it’s natural that marketing teams will want to celebrate their engineering teams’ successes.

However, while we each take pride in our relative product, we think it’s right to focus on something more important. We need to consider our customers’ interests and listen to the industry when it has valid concerns with the way we use our influence.

In SEO and Link building there is a legacy matter of the historic use of high volume, low quality backlinks to attempt to influence search engine ranking. This practice has, for the most part, been consigned to history. Unatural link building for the sole purpose of ranking is against Google guidelines, and carries a risk of penalty.

There are subtleties and nuances to this argument – such as Marie Hayne’s observation that volume of backlink counts was also relevant some years ago for disavowing spammy links.

However, this ingrained issue of link building by volume creates a problematic background. By yelling about backlink QUANTITY, those on the fringes of the industry can come to the wrong conclusions. The issue isn’t limited to new colleagues. When we shout about the importance of the number of backlinks, we can risk contributing to a fog of information and disinformation that our customers, and (crucially) our customer’s clients, have to navigate.

While we’re incredibly passionate about this issue, we don’t want to adopt a soapbox position on the right way to measure and compare backlinks. We believe the matter is inherently subjective depending on your intended use of the data.

Sometimes lots of backlinks can be a bad thing.

No one wants to deal with data they are not interested in, but there are many potential uses of backlink data. What is important backlink data to one party could be irrelevant to another.

What counts as a useful backlink to some people may be useless to another.

Coming up with a clever way of removing noise that keeps as much data that many people value is a difficult undertaking.

We have been open with our plans to target noise in backlink data, which tend to have been well received to date.  It is our hope that as long as our customer’s opinion of which backlinks are important to see is satisfied, fewer backlinks could be argued to be better backlinks. And here is the rub. No matter how well we distil the best links from the worst, it’s hard to imagine “smallest usable backlink counts” making as many headlines as “biggest.”

Using Referring Domains does not fix this.

Before we move on – we need to address a potential concern where SOME studies compare referring domain counts from vendors in the hope of trying to achieve better credibility.

Referring Domain count based index comparison may not be quite as questionable as backlink count based comparison. However, you should be aware that Backlink Checkers define “a domain” in many different ways. It’s easy for one provider to get a wildly different “referring domain count” score than another even if the underlying data is the same. The justification takes a little explaining, but if you would like to read more, and see some examples of how the same group of ten websites can be interpreted as anywhere from six to ten unique referring domains, you may want to look at our previous, “on Comparing Backlink Indexes” blog post.

Even if it was possible to compare two different backlink indexes to work out referring domain counts the same way, it has to be said that not all domains are equal. Links from obscure domains shouldn’t be considered as relevant as those from relevant and popular websites. Using domain counts for studies may be less incorrect than deriving conclusions from comparative backlink counts, but by treating all domains as equal, concerns over “Quantity over Quality” messaging still applies.

Different data, different purpose.

Majestic has the luxury of having two different indexes. The Fresh Index, and Historic index. We can use these two different indexes to illustrate a point on comparing indexes using referring domain counts.

The Majestic Historic Index contains everything we’ve seen in the past five-and-a-half years, is truly massive, and around ten times bigger than our Fresh Index. But it has a blind-spot when it comes to new data from the past couple of weeks or so.

However, Majestic Fresh and Majestic Historic still count backlinks and referring domains in the same way. Similar code – different data.

Despite the maths being the same, comparing the two indexes by counts to see which one is “best” isn’t the most sensible prospect. 

A flaw in comparing raw counts is that it doesn’t take into consideration the scope, depth and purpose of each backlink index. For most sites, in a referring domain count battle, Historic would beat Fresh because of the greater time window.

However, Fresh would be far more suitable than Historic if you want reports on new domains and links.

In this example it’s clear that link counts or referring domain counts alone will not determine the “best” product.  The “best” tool for the job is the one most suited to the task at hand.

We suggest that product comparisons have more credibility when they take into account the different workflows, deadlines and requirements of their customers.

It’s awesome that there is rich competition in the industry, with a variety of backlink indexes to choose from. Some tools will work for some, other tools will work for others. Some have the luxury of being able to access a range of tools to get their work done. We encourage you to choose the tools that work for you.

A solution to comparison fatigue?

While we would prefer to see comparisons that favour our strengths, like Related Sites, Trust Flow, Link Context and our various data visualisations, we recognise that our competitors have their own strengths. We recognise that perceived backlink index size is an area of overlap between the Big 4.

It’s natural to ask which backlink checker has best coverage of links. It’s natural for providers of backlink indexes to attempt to answer that question. It’s natural to want to compare your product with a percieved market leader. We are not in a position to make demands on the marketing strategies of our competitors.

However, we would like to use our experience as one of the oldest backlink platforms in the industry to attempt to contribute constructively to the discussion.

We have huge respect to the software development teams at Ahrefs, Moz and Semrush for building big backlink indexes. We’ve been doing this longer than most and recognise the difficulty of the challenge.

However – there is an observation we feel it is sensible to contribute. Because this is a difficult challenge, it stands to reason that the companies involved will probably have people, or even teams of specialists capable of pretty sophisticated data analysis.

This raises the question. If these companies are sufficiently data literate to build such huge, awesome products, why is the industry subjected to size based comparisons which tend to omit the larger indexes from Ahrefs and Majestic?

Is it productive for studies to suggest that the size of a vendors index is “just right” and other indexes to be discounted or overlooked because they are “too big” or “too small”?

Index comparison fatigue appears to be setting in. The passion of those who build our systems should not be at the expense of those who use our data. We need to respect the needs of our users as we design our tools, as we develop these tools and as we market them.

Our customers deserve a better level of analysis.

If data providers demand a higher standard of analytics for any comparison commissioned by them or performed by affiliates then HOPEFULLY we can all contribute towards raising the bar of debate, and therefore contributing to, rather than detracting from, wider industry understanding of our products in the process.

Competition between backlink providers is in our customer’s best interests.  And returning to Patricks tweet – we can’t speak for others but hope all involved in backlink indexing want to delight their customers. We are proud of our Historic Index, and Fresh Index, and will continue to develop our services to deliver unique insights to you and your clients.

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