Where & How do Top Startups Get Their Links?
[Estimated read time: 7 minutes]
As a startup founder myself, it feels weird to talk about startups through the lens of backlinks. After all, there are so many other things to worry about — how’s my cash flow? Are my employees getting paid? How does the deal flow look? Are we going to hit our targets for this month/quarter? Why is the website/app so slow? Did that vendor pay us that huge amount they owe?
What if I told you that I’ve seen (and helped) companies land funding off the back of solid SEO practices, including link acquisition and content creation? By integrating SEO into PR, outreach, and content initiatives, one specific startup has gone on to do great things.
Startups need to care about marketing
Startups should care about marketing, too. While the SF Bay Area, where I live, is all aflutter over “growth hacking” and some well-known investors are telling startups to not focus on marketing, I tend to disagree with them. (Of course, I’m a marketer!)
Whether or not startups should be doing PR and paid acquisition (I’d argue they should be doing a bit of both), SEO is beautiful in that it sits across or is in constant discussion with a lot of the “marketing” activities — PR, content, email, paid. Want to grow your company and get feedback on your new product faster? You need to be thinking about SEO.
A holistic marketing process
But as we all know, the different marketing channels all work together to help with SEO. Gone are the days of putting content online and predicting where it will rank and for which keywords. Your PR efforts can be very effective in building links for SEO as well as driving referral traffic back to your site, increasing those ever-important signups or purchases. As a startup, showing traction can help you get more mentions from sites that help with VC deal intelligence — sites like Mattermark, Tracxn.com, and Pitchbook. And getting mentioned on these sites can drive more mentions, which build links and drive referral traffic. It’s a virtuous cycle!
Because I’m very interested in how startups get traction and build their companies, I wanted to look at where the top 100 startups, according to Pitchbook’s valuation metric (thanks to Rob Toledo for the data), get links from.
My hope for this post is twofold. First, to educate you about how startups build links these days, and second, to show startups where they should be looking to get links. Of course, I’d be remiss to not also point out that you don’t just want to copy what your competitors are doing. Think about the mentions that will actually get you in front of your target audience. We all want to be written up in Techcrunch, but unless your true customers are VCs or other startups, you likely won’t see a bump from this (though you should retarget all of these visitors and try to get their emails so you can qualify them through your marketing funnel).
Ok, with all of that out of the way, let’s begin!
Who are the top startups?
It’s not necessary to list all of the startups I pulled the linking domains for, simply because the list would be long and that’s not what this post is about. The criteria that we used to pull the startups was fairly simple. I didn’t want the huge ones that everyone’s heard of (e.g. Uber), but I wanted startups that have shown some traction and were able to close a round of funding. The criteria were:
- The top 100 Angel–Series B companies…
- Sorted by valuation…
- That have raised financing from January 1st 2014–present.
This way, we get current companies that are assumedly still alive and building. This includes companies like Porch.com, Tilt.com, ZipRecruiter, Tune, and Mapbox.
Enough already. Give me the links!
Patience, my friend! Here are the top 55 domains that appear most often within the backlink reports (pulled from Open Site Explorer, of course) of the top 100 startups:
You’ve probably heard of many of these sites, as they tend to be the ones that a lot of us in the technology world read (for better or for worse).
I was then curious about the type of links these are. So, I went through and categorized them accordingly. Remember, there are 55 unique domains here so this isn’t quite representative of all of their links, but if you’re looking to build a bed of links for your company this should give you an idea of the channels that work:
As you can tell, by far the most common are from PR, then placed by the startup themselves on their profiles around the web (think Crunchbase), then links that are editorially given. Interestingly, we also see that email providers that by default make the emails sent public (like MailChimp) get crawled and the links counted.
How “normal” are their backlink profiles?
The next question I asked myself was how natural-looking their backlink profiles are. To do this, I graphed the Domain Authorities of all the domains pulled from OSE as linking to these sites. To make it as accurate as possible, I de-duplicated the domains before making this graph.
For many of us who have been in the SEO world for years, this graph should look pretty familiar. Years ago, we would often talk about natural link profiles and point out how many sites who hadn’t engaged in active link building, targeting sites with high Domain Authority, would often see a left-leaning bell curve. This is exactly what we see above. Basically, the reason we expect to see this is that Domain Authority works on an exponential scale. It’s quite easy to go from 0 to 20, but then becomes progressively harder to move that needle. It works a lot like PageRank in that way. So, there are a lot of sites online with a DA under 30–35 and not as many above.
I’ll be honest though when I say that it’s been quite a while since I looked at the link graphs of many sites. So let’s compare the above to a few other sites that have some links. Remember, we’re just looking for directional patterns, not prescriptions.
As you can see, the overall link spread of the top 100 startups is pretty in line with what one could consider “normal.” I’m sure you can find anomalies at an individual site level, but at a 10,000-foot view, they’re natural. This is important because it means that at least most of these startups are not actively manipulating the link graph in a way that could hurt them in the future. Basically, don’t pull a Thumbtack.
Do links vary by stage of company?
The final question I had was how each startup’s site varies with domain authority and number of linking root domains by stage of company (seed, Series A, Series B). Intuition tells me that the further along the company is, the more links it will have and the stronger their site will be. But is this what the data tell us?
To get this data, I used the Moz API to pull the metrics via a Google doc cobbled together from many places. The final working one was sent to me by Tim Allen at Distilled London. Thanks man. I pulled the Series level (Angel, Series A, Series B) from Mattermark’s company profile pages. I had to remove two companies, one Series A and one Funding Unknown, because OSE had no link metrics.
Here are the average number of links (not linking root domains) by Funding Series.
This chart is a bit misleading, however, because one Series A company (Crowdrise) and one Series B company (Porch) have exponentially more links than the other sites in the dataset. Porch has, according to Moz, 142k external links, while Crowdrise has 40k. The next highest is Canva at 18.5k, and the average across all the rest after Porch and Crowdrise is 1,695.
When we remove Porch and Crowdrise from the dataset as outliers, we get a much clearer view of the landscape. Series A companies still have more links on average than Series B or C, which may be explained by the increasing proliferation of tech blogs and the recent funding boom that that occurred in 2013–2015 (which now seems to be cooling). Here’s the look:
So what can we take away from all of this? First of all, let’s all remember that links are a lagging indicator of success, but they can also to some degree tell us who’s popular. And of course, the more quality and high-authority links you have, the better you will rank.
Second, remember the first graph. The ways that the top startups build links are via:
- Placed links (profiles, etc.)
It seems that social bookmarking is dead as a linkbuilding tactic for startups. I’m heartened by this, as it seems that startups focus (as they should) on links from places that will also drive them traffic. If you’re looking for inspiration and more tactics around how to build links, I definitely recommend checking out the Link Building category of the Moz blog.
What takeaways or further questions do you have?