If you’re thinking about ways to make your SEO campaign bulletproof by dominating the competition, then you’ll be well aware of the importance of link building.
We’ve been doing it since day one here at FATJOE, and we like to think that as SEO awareness has increased, people are pretty switched-on to the undeniable value it offers.
What we’re instead going to cover here, then, is the value of spying on your competitors’ link building.
We’ll cover why it’s essential to do so, how to do so, and how you can then turn their link building wins into your own success.
Want the quick takeaways? Check out our video here!
All done with the video and ready for the full breakdown? Let’s dive in.
Why Competitor Analysis is Essential for Link Building Tactics
Competitor analysis is vitally important. You need a plan. Gone are the days when simply building links without any particular thought or strategy could pay off with big returns.
In order to outdo your competition, you need first to understand what they are doing before you will be able to outmaneuver and outperform them.
Analyzing their backlink profiles will reveal where they get links from, the value of those links, and any potential weak spots that you can turn into SERP domination on your side.
Proper competitor analysis will offer you a wealth of information, allowing you to surgically target your link building (and your spending) for maximum returns.
Competitor analysis will allow you to:
The first and most obvious benefit is that it allows you to find your competitors’ existing backlinks.
The value of this is that it will help you understand the scope of your project and, therefore, the efforts required to execute your strategy and outrank the competition.
Handy free tools like this one from Ahrefs will allow you to easily scope out the backlink profiles of competing sites and pages. The free version actually limits the number of results which could help cut down the noise and analysis paralysis from too much data!
When you review the results, has your competitor got an unattainable amount of links? Then, perhaps it will be best to look elsewhere to optimize your returns, seeking out longtail keyword opportunities with weaker competitors.
Are they instead dependent on a few cornerstone links and not much else? Excellent! This could be a great opportunity to outcompete them with only a few more links. Perhaps you could even try to convince the external site owners to link to your pages instead if you feel your product/content is superior!
This leads on to the next benefit…
Sneakily Identify The Best Link Prospects
Once you’ve found where your competitors are receiving links from, you can start to identify potential linking opportunities for yourself. After all, if they’ve linked out to a similar page once, they may well do so again!
When analyzing these existing links, you can start to decide which you’d like to target for your own links. We’d advise selecting prospects based on authority, contextual relevance, the types of links, and the likelihood of attaining a link.
Analyzing the links will allow you to determine what types of link the opposition are acquiring.
The types of links are:
- Regular hyperlinks – naked URLs and domain names
- Text links – In content links using anchor text
- Image links – logos, screenshots, infographics
- Frame links – embedded into HTML iframes
- Redirects/Canonicals – URLs which direct to another page
Tip: You can filter backlink profiles by their link types in Ahrefs’ Backlinks report:
You can use this information to see what kind of link they are receiving and, therefore, what type of link you’re likely to get.
If they are getting text links, a guest post pitch might work well, or perhaps skyscraper content.
Image links might instead imply they’ve had pickup from an infographic outreach campaign.
This knowledge will help you tailor your outreach and general campaign prep.
So, with this in mind, how do you actually identify a good backlink prospect?
Given the way you’ve found them, you already know the site is willing to link out to sites within your niche, which is a great start. You now need to work on what makes a good link prospect and, importantly, how to know which ones to leave alone.
Relevance should always be your first port of call. With Google’s ongoing commitment to the EEAT guidelines, you should always ensure inbound links are coming from natural, relevant sources wherever you can.
Difficulty will be the next deciding factor. Is the site you’re looking at open to brand collaborations with an active and easy-to-contact social presence? Great! The chances are they’ll at least be receptive to your pitch, whether that be some excellent content or just a suggested link to one of your pages.
Are they instead closed off? Inactive? Perhaps instead a little spammy? It’s best to leave them alone in that case or at least push them to the bottom of your priority list. While a link from them could be useful the increased difficulty it takes to secure the link might outweigh the benefits, particularly if you’re doing everything manually.
Prioritize Your Targets to Create a Link Building Strategy
Now that you’ve got your list of targets, it’s time to turn this into an actionable strategy.
Listing your targets in order of priority allows you to direct your energy best, putting the most time into the most promising opportunities and ensuring the best return on investment for your time (and money).
Prioritizing and strategizing your link acquisition also lets you assess each domain individually, brainstorming a specific plan for each site. This can mean tailoring your outreach emails for broken link replacement, editing your content for guest post pitches, generating creative PR opportunities for potential pick-up, and such.
Think of it like editing your CV and cover letter/resume for job applications. The best applications are always edited to be specific to the job opening at hand, and your outreach work should be similarly unique each time. It will really pay off when the site owners see you really are delivering an excellent opportunity specifically for them.
We’ve previously covered various strategies to get more backlinks here, but to summarize the options available to you:
- The number #1 way to get links is to build relationships. Reach out and say hello. That might just be enough to get a link.
- Could you contribute a guest post, complete with a link to your site?
- Contact the webmaster and suggest that they include a link to your site on a particular page?
- Link out. Don’t be a link hoarder. Share the love by linking to others to gain favor.
- Create infographics. While this has been oversaturated, there is still an opportunity if your content is genuinely worth embedding.
- Use the skyscraper technique. Find competitor content that receives a lot of links, then create a better version.
- Find competitor links from brand mentions. Your brand might also be mentioned in the content but not linked to (yet).
- Create quality content. This doesn’t involve any outreach at all. This one has more of an “if you build it, they will come” mentality, but you can still target your content creation according to your link building strategy.
- Answer questions on forums and provide links to relevant resources from your own pages.
Again, you need to tailor your outreach for each specific opportunity.
Once you have collated your potential link sources, you can assign one of the above methods to each of the prospects.
Assuming you have found the prospects by monitoring your competitors’ backlinks, your default is likely to be using the same method they appear to have used. If they’ve got a link to an authoritative piece, you’ll want to create your own version and ‘skyscrape’ it.
If they instead appear in a contributed post, you can write your own to pitch to the website.
Assigning specific methods to each prospect will increase your chances of success across the board and, ideally, help diversify the way you receive links.
Acquiring a variety of links is always beneficial as it broadens your link base, provides different opportunities for referral traffic, and most of all it looks natural to Google.
Now that you’re sold on the value of competitor analysis, it’s time to learn how to actually do it.
Step One: Identify Keywords
Keyword research is the backbone of any SEO campaign, and it is also the starting point for competitor analysis.
The reason keyword research is so vitally important to competitor analysis is that it allows you to understand where you are competing with your rivals, and helps you find new ones to focus on.
This might seem obvious to you, but keyword research might actually reveal that you are competing for very different terms to the site you consider your ‘main rival’. You might also be missing out on exciting opportunities by under-utilizing longtail keywords your site is almost ranking for currently.
A little work on an overlooked and under-optimized landing page can return a better yield for your time investment than a full-on outreach campaign.
The easiest way to conduct keyword research is to simply pay for a keyword research service. A service like this will prepare an easy-to-read and actionable list of keywords based on your given topics for you to then target as you see fit.
If you’d rather handle it yourself, we’ve got a thorough post here on how to conduct keyword research, including a helpful video!
Step Two: Find The Websites That Are Competing For Your Keywords
Once you’ve conducted your keyword research, you’ll be able to compile a thorough list of all the sites that are competing with you for your chosen topics.
You’ve found the competition; now it’s time to see how you stack up against them.
You should compare the following:
The first port of call is the total number of backlinks they have in comparison to you.
This can give you an idea of how far you have to go to keep up, whether you’re just a few links off or perhaps astray by hundreds.
If you’re off by several dozen or even hundreds of links, then it might be best to focus your efforts elsewhere for now. Keep them in mind, but it could be a better use of your energy to compete for the quickest gains.
If they’re performing well with relatively few backlinks it might be an indicator that they’re getting highly relevant, highly authoritative links. These are perfect for you to then target yourself!
Total Number of Unique Referring Domains
In a similar vein, you can compare how many unique referring domains they have.
Links from a relatively shallow pool of unique referring websites is a giveaway that the links are highly useful and likely authoritative. While links aren’t the only ranking factor, they are highly important, and if their pages are achieving strong rankings without many different domains linking to them, it implies those domains are particularly impactful.
Conversely, if pages receive links from a lot of different referring domains, and their rankings are still relatively weak, then perhaps the link value is more diluted across their overall profile. It could indicate spammy practices if a lot of the domains are low-value, but this isn’t a given.
There should always be more links than domains, but the more domains, the better.
More domains shows a more natural and organic spread of links being acquired from a number of sources, rather than all coming from a small pool of sites that may have been manipulated or alternative link sources, such as product supplier links.
Step Four: Analyze The Quality Of The Domains
Now it’s time to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Analyzing the quality of your competition’s referring domains will help you decide which ones you want to target yourself. You don’t want to just blindly copy them, but rather you should look to focus on the best available link sources for the most bang for your buck.
Semrush’s Domain Overview can provide a quick insight for you:
To analyze the linking domains, you should consider:
Many different metrics have been created by third-party companies to try to ascertain the relative strength or value of domains.
We’ve got a comprehensive list of the top SEO metrics and how to use them available here.
Our favorites are Moz’s DA and Ahrefs’ DR. You should never limit yourself to just one metric, however. Dodgy sites might be able to game or artificially inflate a single metric, but it’s difficult for them to do so for multiple.
If you compare across a few tools, you’ll be able to get a picture of the domain’s overall health and strength.
A site’s organic traffic is an excellent indicator of its health and reputation. As ever, you shouldn’t place all of your trust in just one metric, but you can compare across a few traffic estimation tools to get an idea of how popular the site is.
If the site has a suspicious lack of organic traffic compared to the number of links it has itself, it may have been penalized, meaning it’s not a site you’d want to then associate yourself with by getting a link from it.
Check out what kind of posts the linking domain makes. What topics do they cover? Are they relevant to your competitor and, therefore, to you?
It might be a fantastic DA85 site, but if it’s a cooking blog and you sell bicycle helmets, then there’s likely no relevance there, and it’s not something you’d want to pursue (a link that obscure would also likely have been acquired by dodgy or black hat methods)!
This is more of a gut-feel measurement, but if you want something to validate how you measure context and relevance, then Majestic has a feature to compare Topical Trust Flow.
Step Five: Analyze The Quality Of The Links
There are a number of ways to assess and categorize the quality of the specific links they have.
You can assess:
The Anchor Text Being Used
How relevant is the anchor text? Are they picking up a lot of links through brand mentions, keywords, or naked URLs?
Assessing this will give you an idea of the way users and bloggers are writing about your space and, therefore, will provide an indication of how you would be best off approaching your own link acquisition.
If brand names are mentioned a lot, you’ll likely need to work in conjunction with a strong brand awareness push to really drive those mentions.
If, instead, there are a lot of longtail keyword-based anchor texts to blog posts, you know you can focus on your content marketing plan to start acquiring similar links through useful (and ideally even better) content.
Are any of them coming through spammy practices? If so, you can discount those. It might feel rough ignoring them when they’re providing value for now, but as Google’s algorithms continue to improve, they’ll likely be swept away and may even damage the site they link to.
Finally, is there much variation? If the links are coming from consistently similar sources and link types, then you can focus your efforts specifically on acquiring that style of link – it clearly performs well in your space.
If there is instead a lot of variety, this opens the door for you to conduct more varied outreach.
The Source URL
How relevant is the source URL compared to the target URL? If you struggle to see the contextual relevance of the link, it might indicate it was acquired spammily, or even accidentally. This can then be discounted as a link opportunity.
If the source URL is instead nicely relevant to the target URL and your own site, then that marks it as an excellent opportunity to pursue.
You can combine this gut feel approach with metrics to really quantify the potential value of a similar link from this domain.
Use a mixture of metrics such as Page Authority or URL Rating along with the traffic rating of the page itself to determine how impactful that particular link is likely to be.
The key takeaways when assessing the source should be:
Check that the linking content is both high quality and contextually relevant to the competitor and, therefore, you.
Check if the source page is sending a lot of outbound links. If it is, the benefit gained from a link from there may be diluted.
This is also an excellent chance to check for broken link opportunities. If a link is showing up as currently broken, you can swoop in and suggest a replacement to the webmaster – one that just happens to go to your own site. You can also employ this if there are other (relevant) broken links in the post so you can appear alongside your competitor.
The Target URL
Finally, you can look into the target URL itself.
The page authority or URL rating metric of the page can give you an idea of how the page is being rated. If it has good metrics, it’s a good indicator that the links pointing to it are strong links and worth replicating for yourself.
Traffic metrics can also be used to see the relative value of the page and, by extension, the links pointing to it. Use this to help influence your decision-making when you pitch to the site. Matching the style of the page, perhaps by skyscraping content, can work out.
For high-traffic generating links, it could be worth making the extra effort to get a more sales-focused page in there to capitalize on any possible upswing in traffic (as long as it’s relevant to the link you’re receiving, otherwise viewers will just bounce right off your page).
Now that you know what you’re looking for, what tools should you use to get you that information?
We’ve previously covered our favorite SEO tools for competitor analysis here, but our top picks specifically for backlink analysis are:
- SEMRush Backlink Analytics
- Ahrefs Backlink Profile
- Majestic Site Explorer
- Moz Link Explorer
- SEO Powersuite Link Assistant
Similar to a Content Gap Analysis audit, Backlink Gap Analysis can show you what you’re missing out on in relation to your competitors.
Ahrefs’ Link Intersect tool and SEMRush’s Backlink Gap tool both offer valuable insights by showing you which domains have linked to multiple competitors.
All you need to do is enter the URLs of your competition, and the tools will spit out reports showing you which domains have linked to all of them.
For example, if you pop four competitors in and SEMRush shows up a domain that has 4/4 matches, you know that you should get in on that action too. It’s both clearly a domain that is willing to link and one that your competitors have found relevant.
Now that you can see what you’re up against and have identified potential backlink prospects for your SEO project, the next step is to find creative and effective ways to secure them.
Handling things in-house? It’s time to start building those relationships!
You can refer to our advice earlier in the article on how to start conducting outreach to prospective link sources. You’ve homed in on them, and now it’s time to start getting those links rolling in.
Outsource Your Link Building
Conducting outreach and finding creative ways to convince others to publish links to your domain is an art, but it is tricky and can be a low reward for the time you invest, especially if you’re a beginner.
Now that you have an idea of how many backlinks you need to secure and their level of quality, you can eliminate any remaining guesswork and secure quality backlinks quickly by outsourcing your link building. This is a very efficient alternative if you choose a reliable provider.
Alongside analyzing your competitors’ link building activity, don’t forget to monitor your own backlink profile. Auditing your own backlinks is essential for the following reasons:
- Check that new backlinks are being indexed – they’ll only pass value if they’ve been indexed!
- Check for any broken links – a link can’t pass value if it’s broken or not there anymore!
- Be mindful of Link Spam – nothing tanks a site quicker than spammy link practices!
- Identify key links that are driving performance and monitor them regularly
- See how your best-performing pages correspond with different types of links
- Make comparisons between your backlinks and your competitors’
- See which anchor texts and keywords are performing best for you
With all of this in mind you’ll be well on your way to outdoing your competitors across the board on your way to top SERP performance.