With over 5.6 billion searches performed on Google each day, it’s no wonder that search continues to deliver 30% to 60% of the monthly traffic to our think tank clients.

Yet many think tanks fail to invest the time and money necessary to improve their search engine performance. This might be because SEO is seen as complex, expensive, and confusing.

While it’s true that SEO is a huge topic and that it takes time to master, the fundamentals are quite simple:

Quality Content + Quality Links
+ On-Page Optimization = Ranking

That’s it. Let’s break those down:

  1. Quality Content: Think tanks already have this nailed. High-quality, unique content is the single most difficult part of search engine optimization, yet think tanks are machines for creating just that. With some fine-tuning around keywords and proper formatting, think tank content is good-to-go.
  2. Quality Links: This is where think tanks vary wildly. Groups with similar budgets can have radically different numbers of incoming links. Part of this is due to subject matter and audience sizes, but some of this variation could be blamed on a lack of strategy for building high-quality links.
  3. On-Page Optimization: Our research shows that think tanks vary wildly on this score as well. We’ll be covering this area in subsequent posts in a way that we hope is illuminating and avoids techno-babble.

So let’s focus on quality links.

What are quality links and how do we know if a think tank is performing well in this regard?

Creating a Domain Rating Score

Search engine optimization (SEO) companies use a measure called Domain Rating (DR) to simplify the incoming link quality question. As the CMO at Ahrefs puts it:

Domain Rating is a metric that shows the ‘link popularity’ of your website compared to all other websites in the world on a scale from 0 to 100.

I’ve covered the details of this in “How Domain Rating Works,” but here’s the short version:

  • The total number of links doesn’t matter, it’s the total number of domains. So, the first link from cato.org will improve your DR, but the second and third link won’t. Each domain can vote for you once.
  • The quality of those domains also affects DR. Higher-rated domains like pewresearch.org (DR of 91) will improve your DR more than lower-rated domains.

According to experts, ranking domains according to DR makes sense. In his post “We Analyzed 1 Million Google Search Results” Brian Dean of Backlinko writes:

Google wants to see several different sites endorsing your page. And the more domains that link to you, the more endorsements you have in the eyes of Google. In fact, the number of unique referring domains was the strongest correlation in our entire study.

How does budget affect Domain Rating?

When we started looking at Domain Rating for think tanks, it occurred to us that larger, better-funded groups might have an advantage. So, we sought out publicly available financial information and used it to plot annual expenses vs Domain Rating.

Click to enlarge

The graph below shows SPN State groups in dark blue, SPN National groups in light blue, and unaffiliated groups in grey. Annual expenses are expressed on a logarithmic scale as they range from $100,000 per year to well into the nine figures.

While there’s a relationship between annual expenditure and Domain Rating, it’s not a strong one. There are diminishing returns for groups at the high end while groups with smaller budgets have domain ratings that vary widely.

That said, a larger budget does seem to raise the Domain Rating floor. For that reason, we’ve made our data sortable by Annual Expenditure Range, so you can sort and filter where relevant.

Top Rated Think Tanks by Annual Budgets

Here are all 310 think tanks on our list ranked in lists by expenditure range.

Domain Rating is shown encircled in gold.

For think tanks with the same domain rating, the number of referring domains was used a tie-breaker to determine their rank.

Our full data set is available below via AirTable and includes interesting figures like total referring domains, referring governmental domains, and referring education domains.

$30m and Up

  1. 91Pew Research Center
  2. 91World Economic Forum
  3. 88Human Rights Watch
  4. 88Brookings Institution
  5. 87National Bureau of Economic Research
  6. 86RAND
  7. 86Kaiser Family Foundation
  8. 85Pew Charitable Trusts
  9. 84Center for American Progress
  10. 84Urban Institute
  11. 84World Resources Institute
  12. 83Heritage Foundation
  13. 83Council on Foreign Relations
  14. 83Union of Concerned Scientists
  15. 82Cato Institute
  16. 82American Enterprise Institute
  17. 82Center for Strategic and International Studies
  18. 82CFA Institute
  19. 81Southern Poverty Law Center
  20. 81Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  21. 81Aspen Institute
  22. 80Freedom House
  23. 80Commonwealth Fund
  24. 79New America Foundation
  25. 78Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  26. 78International Food Policy Research Institute
  27. 77Carter Center
  28. 77Milken Institute
  29. 75Vera Institute of Justice
  30. 75National Center for State Courts
  31. 74Judicial Watch Inc.
  32. 72MDRC
  33. 68Freedom Forum
  34. 66Institute for Defense Analysis

$10m to $30m

  1. 79Guttmacher Institute
  2. 78Atlantic Council
  3. 78Brennan Center for Justice
  4. 78Peterson Institute For International Economics
  5. 78Center for Global Development
  6. 77Bipartisan Policy Center
  7. 77Coaltion for Environmentally Responsible Economies
  8. 76Santa Fe Institute
  9. 76Food Research & Action Center
  10. 75Mercatus Center 
  11. 75Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
  12. 75Social Science Research Council
  13. 75Public Policy Institute of California
  14. 74German Marshall Fund
  15. 74Demos
  16. 74Resources for the Future
  17. 73Human Rights First
  18. 73Hudson Institute
  19. 73Institute for Justice
  20. 73Center for Reproductive Rights
  21. 73Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
  22. 72Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  23. 72Reason Foundation
  24. 72American Legislative Exchange Council
  25. 72Chicago Council on Global Affairs
  26. 71Acton Institute
  27. 71Institute for New Economic Thinking
  28. 71International Center for Research on Women
  29. 70Americans for Prosperity Foundation
  30. 70Young America’s Foundation
  31. 70W.E. Upjohn Institute
  32. 65Federalist Society
  33. 65Natural Resource Governance Institute
  34. 64Pacific Legal Foundation
  35. 64Center for International Private Enterprise
  36. 63Texas Public Policy Foundation
  37. 61Institute for Humane Studies
  38. 60Atlas Network
  39. 60Center for Financial Inclusion
  40. 56Charles Koch Institute
  41. 56Leadership Institute
  42. 53Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
  43. 50Fund for American Studies, The

$5m to $10m

  1. 81Economic Policy Institute
  2. 79Population Reference Bureau
  3. 78Center for Public Integrity
  4. 78Public Citizen
  5. 78Migration Policy Institute
  6. 77Foundation for Economic Education
  7. 75Heartland Institute
  8. 75Common Cause
  9. 74Smart Growth America
  10. 73Middle East Media Research Institute
  11. 73Competitive Enterprise Institute
  12. 73Center for a New American Security
  13. 73Third Way Institute
  14. 72Discovery Institute
  15. 72Middle East Institute
  16. 72Center for Law and Social Policy
  17. 71Public Agenda
  18. 71Roosevelt Institute
  19. 71Washington Center for Equitable Growth
  20. 71Institute for Transportation & Development Policy
  21. 71SPUR
  22. 71Environmental Law Institute
  23. 70Institute for War & Peace Reporting
  24. 70Mackinac Center
  25. 70Illinois Policy Institute
  26. 70Henry L. Stimson Center
  27. 69R Street Institute
  28. 69Philanthropy Roundtable
  29. 66EdChoice
  30. 64Becket
  31. 64Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
  32. 64International Peace Institute
  33. 63EastWest Institute
  34. 61Pacific Research Institute
  35. 61Goldwater Institute
  36. 60National Right to Work Legal Defense & Education Foundation Inc.
  37. 57First Liberty Institute
  38. 55Berggruen Institute
  39. 55Institute for Sustainable Communities, Advocay & Leadership
  40. 48Foundation for Government Accountability
  41. 44Freedom Foundation
  42. 37National Review Institute

$2.5m to $5m

  1. 82Ballotpedia
  2. 81Tax Foundation
  3. 81Center for Democracy and Technology
  4. 77Employee Benefit Research Institute
  5. 76Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
  6. 76Institute for Women’s Policy Research  
  7. 76Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
  8. 75American Press Institute
  9. 74Century Foundation
  10. 74Center for Voting and Democracy
  11. 74Data & Society Institute
  12. 73Institute for Policy Studies
  13. 73Christensen Institute
  14. 72Independent Institute
  15. 72Americans for Tax Reform
  16. 72Fordham Institute
  17. 72American Action Forum
  18. 72Economic Innovation Group
  19. 71Project on Government Oversight
  20. 71Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
  21. 70Bill of Rights Institute
  22. 70Inter-American Dialogue
  23. 69FreedomWorks
  24. 69Institute for Higher Education Policy
  25. 68American Conservative Union Foundation
  26. 66National Taxpayers Union
  27. 65Committee for Economic Development
  28. 64Citizens Against Government Waste
  29. 63Center for Security Policy
  30. 63Capital Research Center
  31. 62Students For Liberty
  32. 61Ethics and Public Policy Center
  33. 61Global Integrity
  34. 60Independence Institute
  35. 60Foreign Policy Association
  36. 57Center for International Policy
  37. 57John Locke Foundation
  38. 57American Council of Trustees and Alumni
  39. 56Washington Policy Center
  40. 56Free To Choose Network
  41. 51Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
  42. 49Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives
  43. 48Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge
  44. 46Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
  45. 43Center for the National Interest
  46. 36National Institute for Public Policy

$1m to $2.5m

  1. 85Federation of American Scientists
  2. 82Electronic Privacy Information Center
  3. 81Center for Responsive Politics
  4. 78Worldwatch Institute
  5. 77Center for Economic Policy and Research
  6. 75Sentencing Project
  7. 75Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  8. 73International Institute for Strategic Studies
  9. 72Jamestown Foundation
  10. 72Environmental and Energy Study Institute
  11. 71Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy
  12. 70Breakthrough Institute
  13. 69Center for an Urban Future
  14. 68Foreign Policy Research Institute
  15. 66Property & Environment Research Center
  16. 66Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies
  17. 65Arab American Institute
  18. 64Eagle Forum
  19. 64Eno Center for Transportation
  20. 64Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management
  21. 63Independent Women’s Forum
  22. 63Women’s Environment & Development Organization
  23. 63Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy
  24. 63Alliance for Health Policy
  25. 62Center for Education Reform
  26. 60Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research
  27. 60Center for Effective Government
  28. 60Civitas Institute
  29. 57Lexington Institute
  30. 57Concord Coalition
  31. 56Employment Policies Institute
  32. 56Northeast-Midwest Institute
  33. 55Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center
  34. 55Energy and Environmental Research Center
  35. 54American Council for Capital Formation
  36. 52Policy Matters Ohio
  37. 51American Foreign Policy Council
  38. 51Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth
  39. 51Libertas Institute
  40. 49California Policy Center
  41. 49Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress
  42. 49Pinchot Institute for Conservation
  43. 47Institute for the Analysis of Global Security
  44. 47Center of the American Experiment
  45. 47Yankee Institute for Public Policy
  46. 46Buckeye Institute, The
  47. 46Institute for Free Speech
  48. 46Show-Me Institute
  49. 45James Madison Institute
  50. 44Badger Institute
  51. 44Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty
  52. 44Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-International
  53. 43Institute for Religion And Democracy
  54. 43Alabama Policy Institute
  55. 39Georgia Center for Opportunity
  56. 38Mountain States Legal Foundation
  57. 37Sutherland Institute
  58. 37Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs
  59. 36Beacon Center of Tennessee
  60. 33Franklin News Foundation
  61. 30School Choice Wisconsin
  62. 29Jesse Helms Center
  63. 28Wyoming Liberty Group
  64. 24National Tax Limitation Committee
  65. 21Think Freely Media
  66. 1.2Center for Independent Employees

$100k to $1m

  1. 75Prison Policy Initiative
  2. 72East-West Center
  3. 72Institute for Family Studies
  4. 71World Policy Institute
  5. 71Families and Work Institute
  6. 70Student Free Press Association
  7. 66National Foundation for American Policy
  8. 65Institute for Science & International Security
  9. 63Nautilus Institute for Security & Sustainable Development
  10. 59Empire Center for Public Policy
  11. 59Center for Public Policy Priorities
  12. 59Association of American Educators Foundation
  13. 58Oakland Institute
  14. 58Christian Coalition of America
  15. 58James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, The
  16. 56Political Research Associates
  17. 56Institute for Energy and Environment Research
  18. 56Institute for Policy Innovation
  19. 55Campaign Finance Institute
  20. 54Commonwealth Institute
  21. 54Center for Progressive Reform
  22. 54Truman National security Project
  23. 54Free the People
  24. 53Lugar Center
  25. 51Galen Institute
  26. 51American Consumer Institute, The
  27. 51Ignatian Solidarity Network
  28. 50Institute for Global Ethics 
  29. 49MacIver Institute for Public Policy
  30. 48Beacon Hill Institute
  31. 48Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies
  32. 47George C. Marshall Institute
  33. 47Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom
  34. 45Nevada Policy Research Institute
  35. 44Hispanic American Center for Economic Research
  36. 42Cascade Policy Institute
  37. 42Maine Center for Economic Policy
  38. 41America’s Future Foundation
  39. 40Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
  40. 40Maryland Public Policy Institute, The
  41. 39Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
  42. 39Mississippi Center for Public Policy
  43. 39Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, The
  44. 38Idaho Freedom Foundation
  45. 38Free State Foundation
  46. 37Energy & Environment Legal Institute
  47. 37Georgia Public Policy Foundation
  48. 36Rio Grande Foundation
  49. 36Kansas Policy Institute
  50. 36Louisiana Family Forum
  51. 35Bluegrass Institute
  52. 35Maine Heritage Policy Center
  53. 35Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy
  54. 35Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence
  55. 33Archbridge Institute
  56. 32Young Voices
  57. 32Center on Global Interests
  58. 32Liberty Justice Center
  59. 31Public Policy Institute of New York State
  60. 31Pelican Institute for Public Policy
  61. 31Platte Institute for Economic Research
  62. 29Ethan Allen Institute
  63. 291851 Center for Constitutional Law
  64. 29Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity
  65. 28Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy
  66. 27Empower Mississippi Foundation
  67. 26Steamboat Institute
  68. 26Indiana Policy Review Foundation
  69. 26Leadership Program of the Rockies
  70. 25Palmetto Promise Institute
  71. 24Virginia Institute for Public Policy
  72. 22Benjamin Rush Institute
  73. 21Policy Circle, The
  74. 19Garden State Initiative
  75. 17Caesar Rodney Institute
  76. 15Montana Policy Institute
  77. 13Arkansas Policy Foundation
  78. 10Center for Independent Thought
  79. 10Forge Leadership Network

Full Data Set

The AirTable database embedded below allows you to sort or group data by any of the following criteria:

  • Domain Rating: Shows the strength of the website’s backlink profile compared to the others in the Ahrefs database of 1.76 trillion external backlinks.
  • Referring Domains: The total number of unique domains linking to the target. We used “Do Follow” domains, which filters out “no follow” domains. This means we only include domains pointing to your think tank via value-passing links.
  • Government & Education domains: The number of unique governmental and educational domains linking to your think tank. These include not only .gov and .edu sites, but also domains that Ahrefs consider to be governmental or educational. These tend to be high-authority domains, which is why they’ve been broken out.
  • Annual Expenditure: We’ve classified groups by expenditure ranges to enable apples-to-apples comparisons.
  • SPN Member Status: You can compare SPN or non-SPN members.
  • State/National Status: We looked at the names and missions statements of groups and did our best to separate national from state-focused groups.
  • Domain Used in Testing: We used the secure (https) version of every domain to generate our findings.

Please note that you can download a CSV copy of our data using the link at the bottom of the embed above.

Data Sources

ProPublica Non-Profit Explorer

ProPublica Non-Profit Explorer provides financial information via annual 990 forms. We used “Total Functional Expenses” as a measure of money spent. The figure used is the most recent year available, which is not consistent from group to group.

Ahrefs Quick Batch Analysis

Ahrefs quick batch analysis tool provides web performance components and outcomes.

Our Think Tank List

To begin benchmarking, we had to arrive at a list of think tanks. Rather than invent one ourselves, we used lists from State Policy Network, Harvard Kennedy School, and Regent University. We then removed:

  • Defunct or inactive groups
  • Groups without an accessible website
  • Non-US Think Tanks
  • Groups without an available EIN (this excluded many university centers)
  • Groups with less than $100k in annual expenditures
  • Groups without a separate domain (no subdomains or subdirectories)
  • State or local affiliate groups that used the same root domain

These exclusions allow for fairer comparisons. To compare groups of similar budgets, we need expenditure numbers. What’s why non-US groups and many university-based groups were excluded—no financial info that we could easily query.

Groups without a distinct top-level domain were excluded because measuring their performance was difficult if not impossible. So, our benchmarks include university groups like GMU’s Mercatus Center (mercatus.org) but not Michigan’s William Davidson Institute (wdi.umich.edu), despite it having public budget info.

This produced a list of 310 think tanks including:

  • 81 SPN-affiliated national groups
  • 53 SPN-affiliated state groups
  • 176 unaffiliated state and national groups

More to Come

We’ve collected several other data points, such as PageSpeed Insights scores, domain age, domain expiration, ranked keywords, estimated search engine traffic, and technical SEO score for all 311 groups listed in the table below. We’ll publish those in future posts.

Get in Touch

If you want to learn more about optimizing your website, you can call us for a free 20-minute consultation. We can examine competing domains, look at your top keywords, and dive into other details.

Don’t worry, this phone call won’t be “salesy.” Our call will be focused on learning about your current web strategy, your think tank’s goals, and the problems you’re facing. That way, we can determine if our approach would be a good fit for your needs.


Book a free 20-minute consultation