The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

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The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

I know for most of the year I’ve been telling you that links are going to lose value – and I still think it’s true. However, I’ve been careful to point out that for now, links are still pretty powerful stuff in SEO.

Further, even if links eventually lost all their (direct) power to move your rankings, they’d still have value for you as a marketer, because links are great for exposure and branding.

But the ultimate link is not just good for SEO and branding, it also sends referral traffic.

What’s so great about referral traffic? Do you really have to ask?! Referral traffic is great because it gets your content in front of new audiences, creating new opportunities for audience engagement and conversions.

A recent survey of MozCon attendees showed that after organic search, referral traffic is the channel marketers most want to grab more of (social media is a form of referral traffic too):

But do all links naturally lead to referral traffic?

I Got A Sweet Link! That Means I’ll Get Referral Traffic Too, Right?

Sorry, dude. The fact is, not all editorial links – even links from big domains that gets tons of traffic – translate into referral traffic. That’s because people aren’t necessarily going to follow every link they see in an article.

Sometimes a link is just there as a kind of hat tip (as in, this is where we got this information) but there’s no need to actually follow the link, because the site you’re on provides all the context you really need. Similarly, some links are there only if you’re looking for more information (as in, “Hey, if you’re unclear on this concept I just mentioned, you can read more about it here”), and a lot of readers won’t be in “further research” mode.

To drive real referral traffic, there has to be a compelling reason for the reader to click through to your site. And if that traffic is going to be ongoing for you, the linking page also needs its own source of ongoing traffic – for example, if it ranks highly in a high-volume keyword search, it will continue to get evergreen traffic, so the link will drive evergreen traffic your way as well.

With this in mind, here are three types of links that will cause a noticeable bump in your referral traffic numbers.

#1: Links From News Aggregators

News aggregators like Reddit, Hacker News,, Growth Hackers etc. usually use a submission and upvoting system where users can submit cool links and vote on their favorites. Other times, a single editor or editorial board is making the call on what’s worth sharing (see the Boing Boing model). When a link makes its way to the top of the front page, it has high visibility and attention, since the assumption is that it’s already been vetted as high-quality by other users in the community or by a trusted source.

Why These Links Drive Referral Traffic

The aggregators just aggregate links, they don’t reproduce the content. So you have to actually visit the site to get the value and see what all the fuss is about. Hence, the incentive to click through is extremely high.

Example of a news Aggregator Link

Back in May, Larry wrote an article analyzing why eBay got slammed so hard by Panda 4.0. The stars aligned and we got a ton of pickups, including great placement on several major news aggregators (including and Hacker News). But the biggest spike in referrals was driven by Ars Technica – they gave us a link in the “Editor’s Picks” box on the home page, real estate we shared with the New York Times and National Geographic. Not bad, right?

The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

Plenty of other sites (Search Engine Land, Forbes, etc.) wrote up the story and gave us credit and a link, but most of those sites wrote a summary of our findings, so the incentive to click the link was low. Incentive to click an “Editor’s Pick” link is high.

The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

That Ars Technica link was responsible for a lot of this huge spike in referrals.

Note: The downside to this kind of traffic is that it is a spike, not an ongoing stream. News aggregators are constantly refreshing, so your link isn’t likely to stay on top for long. (It was lonely up there anyway, right?)

Similarly, a share on a social network from someone with a huge following will drive a spike of social referrals, but once your link falls away from the top of the stream, that traffic will die off. C’est la vie.

Since these traffic spikes aren’t evergreen, it’s awesome if you’ve already got something in place to capture some of those visitors and turn them into return traffic – for example a prominent blog or newsletter signup prompt.

How to Get News Aggregator Links

Create awesome content and then promote the shit out of it. It’s helpful if you’re already active on some of these communities, because then it’s more likely that other users are already reading and interested in your stuff. Also, check out these data-driven tips on how to get more upvotes on

#2: Links In Lists Of Resources

Getting a link like the one on Ars Technica is a major win for an SEO; you’ll feel that link buzz all day. But it’s potentially even more valuable to your business to score a link in a list of resources. That’s because the incentive to click through to your site is equally strong – and you have the added bonus of evergreen value.

Why These Links Drive Referral Traffic

Let’s say a user googles “best keyword tools” and finds a list from a reputable site, ranking near the top of the SERP. They are obviously looking for a keyword tool, so intent is really high. They don’t just want the list of tools, they want to check out the tools themselves. If your keyword tool is on that list, they’re highly likely to click through. And “best keyword tools” is an evergreen keyword with steady traffic month over month, so as long as that list maintains its ranking, it’s going to keep sending clicks your way.

Example of a Resource List Link

We get thousands of page views every month from this one link:

The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

As of today it’s the #4 organic result in Google for the keyword “SEO tools,” so no wonder!

The 3 Types of Links that Send Legit Referral Traffic

(And can’t hurt that we’re #1 on the list.)

How to Get Resource List Links

Create link-worthy resources, of course! These could be tools or high-quality learning guides, like Moz’s SEO Beginner’s Guide or our own PPC University.

#3: Links In Third-Party Reviews

This is a pretty similar scenario to the one above, but if you’re lucky, instead of a spot on a list, you’ve got a whole article dedicated to a review of your offering alone.

Why These Links Drive Referral Traffic

Again, the process works like this:

Step 1: Person who is curious about products like yours searches for more information

Step 2: Person finds positive review and clicks through to your site to try it or learn more

Once again intent is high, and a third-party endorsement increases trust, so they’re all the more likely to click to your site and hopefully take the next step (i.e. buying your stuff or signing up for a free trial).

Example of a Review Link

Another solid source of month-over-month referral traffic is this review in Search Engine Land of our AdWords Performance Grader.

How to Get Review Links

First you need something reviewable, but if you’re a business you should already have this (duh). If the reviews aren’t coming naturally, look for sites that review similar products or services, then create a pitch list. Offer free demos or a free extended trial (if it’s a software product) or send out samples if it’s a physical product – if you get a review and it sends referral traffic, the giveaway should pay for itself. But make sure you wait until you have a stellar product before you do outreach. Negative reviews aren’t going to help you much.

What Kinds Of Links DON’T Send Referrals?

There are plenty of other kinds of links that won’t be referral traffic goldmines. Here are a few types that generally don’t send much referral traffic:

  • Links in guest posts and contributed articles – Contextual links in contributed articles can send traffic – if there’s a really good reason for the user to leave the article they’re currently reading and if it’s a blog with a big readership, but they won’t always. Likewise bio links are a best practice (see Rand’s “Mad Scientist” slides for the reasons why) but they probably won’t send you much actual traffic.
  • Image credit links – Again, nice to have for branding and a few people will click through. This is why “linkable assets” are, well, an asset. The vast majority won’t care, won’t click.
  • Blog comment links – Just DUH. It’s 2014. You’ve gotta have a better link building strategy than this. We went ahead and killed all the links in our comments, in fact. They were always no-follow, but we decided recently that spammers don’t even deserve a no-follow link. (The exception: You’re a proven, respected member of a community and you share a truly relevant link; we got quite a bit of referral traffic when Gianluca Fiorelli, a Moz regular, left a link to our blog in a comment on a Whiteboard Friday post.)

I’m not saying links that don’t get clicked are worthless, of course – links from authoritative domains are still influential in the ranking algorithm and they can still be great for branding. But if your manager is on you to increase referral traffic – not just links – focus on the types of links that actually get clicked.


This post originally appeared on WordStream, and is re-published with permission.

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the Content Development Manager at WordStream Inc., a provider of AdWords solutions and other tools for PPC and SEO. She manages the WordStream Internet Marketing Blog. Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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  • scottmckirahan

    I rarely say this lately, but great article! It’s so hard to find anything being written these days that hasn’t been done to death. Well done!

    #3 is the easiest to do if you are creating your own products. Places that sell other people’s products may have a tougher time with this (like most eCommerce sites), but as long as your cost of the product isn’t too terribly high, it’s still doable, provided you do your research first and make sure the reviewer has a large set of eyeballs on him/her.

    • Elisa

      Thanks Scott! For e-commerce sites, you could always try to get a review of your site itself…

  • Stuart

    Great post. I was wondering, does your referral traffic generate much conversions for you? I’ve actually found that my referral traffic has a lower bounce rate and generates more conversions than other traffic sources.

    • Elisa

      Great question, Stuart! And yeah, our conversion rate for referral traffic is higher than our conversion rate for organic! (That said, we get many times more organic visits than referral visits, so organic is a more important channel for us overall.)

  • Gautam Sehgal

    Very well covered article Elisa!
    Well you are right, I always think that every link we get from a good source, is valuable, Be it a “NoFollow” link or a “DoFollow” one. I feel that even if we get a link from an authority website, we cannot get a good referral traffic, until the link is supported with a fine piece of content around. If I am write at my point, Even a comment dropped below a valuable content can drive a lot of traffic as referral, But one has to make sure that the comment should also add quality to the article.
    Enjoyed reading as usual. 🙂

  • VJ Kaushal

    Great post, I liked the point “What Kinds Of Links DON’T Send Referrals?”. All these techniques are penalized by Google. So Avoid doing these techniques.

  • Elliott Brown

    Thanks for mentioning the piece I did on LinkedIn, Elisa!

    Should have posted it on my home base at SurveyMonkey to get referral traffic where I really wanted it to go! With that said, I think your “producing killer content” point is one that can’t be stressed enough. When you provide research, an angle, or news–I guess “value” is really the word I’m looking for–you’re going to eventually bubble to the top.

    For example, my article that you mentioned includes independent, original research that people find valuable. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, and consequently, the piece gets 100-200 visits a day.

    Not to blow my own horn, but surveys are a great way to get the sharable, referrable info that people value so much.

    • Elisa

      Thanks Elliot, agree that surveys are a great way to create reference-able stats!

  • Nathan Ambrose

    Hi Elisa.

    Thanks for that article. It was useful to find an in-depth analysis of how the various referral methods work. It’s one of the best articles that I’ve read on the subject.


  • Alexander

    Easiest way to get those sweeeeet resource links is broken link building. Just use some nice Google operators like “keyword intitle:resources” and there you go + Use Chrome plugin Check my links to find the bad ones 😉

    Also: Had incredible results with Wikipedia resource links. Sure, they are nofollow but if you are on a decent page and offer something special you got yourself a new steady traffic stream.

    Greetings from Austria,


    • Elisa

      Great tips! Completely agree on Wikipedia.

  • Christopher West

    Nice set Elisa. I noted some blogs end my own site referrals and even good local-directories (the kind that actually publish a hard copy news paper).

  • iDCx

    Nice post, forum links carry a good amount of traffic through to a site, no need to anchor text as youll just be thrown out but dropping the product page of an ecommerce site here and indeed you should see clicks, not forum signature links but actually in the posts…

    Blog comments are still a decent strategy, but yea to centre your strategy on them might be a bit prehistoric nowadays, although still part of a mixed bag!

    Nice read, indeed build links for traffic or build links to get higher ranks and thus traffic – you decide!


  • Ryan

    Sometimes I switch up my twitter posts to link to my account, which will link to the article I am promoting. This helps with inflating referral traffic from different sources.