Incoming backlinks stand out as one of the most important factors that enable a favorable rank in Google SERPs (search engine results pages). One of the three core areas of SEO (the other two being keyword management and on-page optimization), backlink analysis is fundamental to achieving maximized organic search performance. A look at your website’s backlinks reveals vital information, from inbound links that may be detrimental to your website’s performance, to content gems that provide clear direction for future content creation. Equally if not more valuable is a side-by-side analysis of your website’s backlink profile with those of your competitors’, which yields an understanding of your website’s comparative rank in the SERPs, and of what needs to be done in order to improve it. You discover new keywords, link prospects, and learn which keywords and which pages on their websites are most important to your competitors. A competitive advantage is also to be gained as you learn from their successes and avoid their pitfalls.
The importance of an optimized backlink profile remains, despite changes to the level of importance that links have carried over the years, and new methods the search engines use to evaluate them. The number of ‘votes’ specific pages receive from external (and hopefully independent and unbiased) sources continues to serve as one of the primary criteria for a given page to prove more important than another. This fact makes an analysis of your website’s backlink profile alongside your competitors’ one of the most important resources for your SEO efforts.
The backlink profile analysis of your competitors is an initial step to determine what it is that makes them rank well for their targeted keywords.
There currently isn’t a way to see for certain which of your competitors’ links are helping or harming them in SERPs. Emulating their link profile won’t take your site far. However, there are several useful things that can be learned when looking at your competitors’ backlink profile: the keywords (and therefore products or categories) they are targeting, link prospects to consider adding, and the most important pages on your competitors’ websites.
Importance Assigned to Different Keywords
An understanding of your competitors’ prioritization of keywords can be gained with an analysis of the distribution of backlinks or unique linking domains that make up a link building campaign. The data needs to comprise all keywords being used as anchors. The results will show which anchors are most used in those links. This in turn shows which keywords your competitor is putting the most effort towards in order to rank.
For example, Interflora’s backlink anchor report on Majestic SEO clearly distinguishes between the brand keywords (blue shading), non-optimized, more natural keywords (yellow shading) and SEO-targeted keyword anchors (pink shading).
List of Potential link Prospects
Once again- merely copying your competitor’s backlinks won’t be of any help. However, it is useful to see which backlink building campaigns have helped them the most.
If they are guest posting on other sites, you can see what types of blogs they are targeting. You could also see the kinds of posts that are generating the best results for them. This includes infographics, news coverage, and opinion posts. The frequency of their posting activity could also be listed. This information would be beneficial to your website if you are facing difficulty finding linking opportunities, and can jumpstart link-building campaigns by providing a lot of starting points.
As a starting point, you can download a list of domains that are linking to your site (a report readily available through Majestic SEO Site Explorer) and a similar list of linking domains for your competitor. Then you can perform a simple VLOOKUP function to search for those domains that link to your competitor and doesn’t link to you:
You can then analyze that information in numerous ways. For example, you can take the list of domains that link to your competitor, but not you, and create a Google custom search engine based on those domains only. You can then use that search engine to look for your targeted keywords in order to assess relevancy of these potential link sources to our site/link building campaign:
Figure 3: Sample Google Custom Search Engine, showing the list of URLs that link to Interflora’s competitor, do not link to Interflora and have the exact match keyword “flower delivery” somewhere on the page
Most Important Pages on the Competitors’ Sites
Backlinks have two ends – source and target. Looking at the distribution of targets can be just as informative as the distribution of sources.
Imagine an e-commerce site with a large number of product categories. By looking at which categories/ products are getting the largest portion of keyword-rich anchored links, you can learn which categories/ products are the most profitable for the e-commerce website owner. This information can be of great value if you are choosing which of the sections of your own website you are going to strengthen through on-page and off-site links or if you are looking into starting an affiliate site offering products from a single category.
Below (figure 4) are the most linked-to pages on interflora.co.uk. The vast majority of the most linked-to pages (by descending order of number of the linking domains) are category pages or pages that redirect to the relevant category page. Marked in blue are category pages, yellow marks the pages that redirect to category pages and orange are the core site page which are probably not targeting Interflora’s keywords.
How Search Engines Treat Backlink Behavior in Specific Niches
In different niches (defined by search keywords), different parameters will be considered average.
For example, there will be a different threshold for “artificial links” in the online gambling niche than in organic gardening. The rate at which links are acquired in a newsworthy niche (such as ‘US presidential elections’) will be different from rate of links created in a less flashy niche (such as ‘electronic parts for hearing aid implants’). It’s important to assess what the parameters are, and to think of average allowed thresholds in link-related factors.
For example, figure 5 shows calculations of exact anchor match links and linking domains for top 5 sites in two completely different niches. If you look at the percentage of links that use the search query as an exact match anchor across different ranking sites in a certain niche, you may get a feel for the level of optimization and amount of leeway search engines are leaving for targeting exact match anchors. If you look at the top 5 sites ranking for [flowers delivery], you will see that 4 out of 5 sites have a relatively low percentage of exact match anchor text links.
Figure 5: Percentage of exact anchor links for ‘flowers delivery’[/caption]
The outlier in this case is the site located at #4, which has, relatively to the rest of the competitors on that page, a large percentage of links targeting that exact keyword through anchor texts. Interestingly enough, the site at #4 is Interflora.co.uk, which was recently penalized by Google, possibly (among other strategies) for unnatural link building. You can safely assume that the majority of these links were/are now being removed or disavowed, hence the restored high ranking.
A different example would be the same kind of analysis for the query [car insurance quote]. The average and median percentages of exact match anchors for total count of links and linking domains are higher there than in the case of [flowers delivery]. Furthermore, you can see that the two websites located at #4 and #5 are “allowed” much higher percentages of exact match anchors. This could hint at higher tolerance for exact match anchors in this niche and this could serve as a potential guide in planning a link building strategy.
Figure 6: Spread of percentages of exact anchor links/linking domains in top 5 sites ranking on Google for a query [car insurance quote]
Identification of Bad Backlinks
Backlink profiles of almost every site on the internet usually include a varying percentage of links that do not bring ranking benefits and may even harm the chances of a site to rank for its desired keywords. The identity of these bad links changes with Google algorithm changes, but regularly checking to ensure that all of your own website’s backlinks have a ‘natural fingerprint’ is critical.
If the Google Spam team were to decide that a large portion of their SERPs was being influenced negatively by blog comment spam, they might pull the lever down, to some extent, on blog comment links. A percentage of links that were deemed useful in the past, may also become a burden on your link profile and cause your rankings to drop. This has become especially true in the wake of the Penguin algorithm update.
Google now provides a way to remove those links from the backlink profile without needing to actually make sure that each and every link is physically removed from the originating page. You would still need to attempt to contact the linking webmasters. In order to compare your backlinks to what Google considers the best practice at that specific time, you will need to go over your backlink profile and identify links that may be pulling you back or you think have the potential of doing so in the future.
When looking at your backlink profile to identify these type of links, you may want to look at:
- Whether the links are using optimized keyword anchors or not. By looking at anchor text reports, you will see how many links are targeting exact match keywords. These will be the first links that hint link abuse to search engines. In case of unnatural link warning or penalty, they should therefore be the first ones to be potentially removed.
- Whether the links are sitewide or only from a number of pages on a specific domain. Sitewide links are another tell-tale sign of link manipulation, especially if the sitewide links have SEO targeted anchor texts.
The Majestic SEO linking domain report should provide you with the number of links per domain. In some cases, you can even see up to 50% of several millions of incoming links coming from only a handful of domains. Below is a list of linking domains with the number of total links pointing to a target domain, percentage of total links and cumulative percentage of links (all link percentages added up so far). The red line demonstrates the number of domains that contain 50% of total backlinks pointing to a target domain. In this case, 19 domains, out of 79,884 total linking domains (or 0.02%), contain 50% of total links. The profile looks anything but natural.
- Whether the links come from domains that are all hosted on the same IP or same C-block. In some cases, webmasters who own link networks get lazy and host all of their sites on the same IP. Sometimes they are webmasters of large corporate sites which are all hosted on the same server. The bottom line is this: getting hundreds of thousands of links from hundreds of domains, all coming from the same IP or same C-block of IPs is highly suspicious of link manipulation.
Figure 10 shows an anonymized example of a linking IP report. Notice the IPs marked in orange, hosting hundreds of domains linking to one target domain:
- Whether the linking pages have a natural fingerprint (pages with discussions happening in the comments, pages that are themselves getting links, pages with social sharing activity, etc.). In the past, RankAbove published guides on how to get social data on a list of linking pages using only Excel and APIs of social network sites.
Figure 11 shows an example of one such report – it lists the top links to a website in a competitive e-commerce niche (links with high social activity are outlined in pink):
In some cases, especially with sites that are competing in niches of very technical or obscure nature, it is hard to find related keywords.
The Keyword Tool on Google Adwords can provide some solutions to this problem, but it largely depends on how well you do your initial searches there. Searching for keywords related to a main topic of a website will quickly bring you to a dead end. This would be due to the relatively low volume of searches performed for obscure keywords.
In such cases, looking at the backlink profile of some of your known competitors can provide a priceless list of keywords used in backlinks to those websites. This is an opportunity to get a glimpse into your competitors’ marketing priorities, in case the links are a result of a targeted link building campaign. For natural link profiles, you can see what keywords the general public is using when linking to their website. This is information which may prove to be even more valuable.
In addition to looking at the keywords used in the anchor texts of internal links, it is useful to look at which pages get the majority of external links and then the on-page optimization of those pages to harvest potential keyword targets. If the competitor has already invested in link building for a specific set of pages, it is safe to assume that they will already have done the work of optimizing the target pages for desired keywords. Therefore you can see what it is that they wish to rank for and evaluate those keywords for your site.
We cannot stress this enough: it is important to not automatically adopt your competitors’ keyword marketing plan without giving it a critical look. The fact that your competitor has chosen keyword A instead of keyword B does not mean that keyword A is a better choice. Competitors sometimes make mistakes that you shouldn’t copy.
Finally, backlink reports are a great way to see what content is being linked to, either on your sites or on your competitors’ sites. There are two main ways of approaching this task:
• Performing a regular backlink report for your competitors sites, seeing what types of content got the most links (from most unique linking domains) and analyzing how can that type of content can be incorporated into your own site
• Performing an outgoing backlink analysis on your own blog/site. The fact that you link out to a certain blog post or site often can mean that this kind of content will be useful for your readers, which means there is a need for that kind of content. Writing updated blog posts on the same or similar topic or adapting it to your own niche creates a valuable resource that people will like linking to.
A complete website backlink analysis will help clarify and direct your SEO efforts, and in some cases certain parts of your general business strategy. Just don’t forget some important points:
- Do not duplicate competitive backlink strategy; analyze how you can incorporate it into your own.
- Make note of the type of content that generates the most traffic for your competition.
- Stay on top of how search engines are treating backlink behavior.
- Remove the bad backlinks in your own profile, and look into potential link prospects.
- Pay close attention to the keywords that work for competitors, and how they use them.
- Create content that will be useful to the readers in your niche.
About the Author
Branko Rihtman has been working in and contributing to the SEO industry since 2001. Since then he has helped numerous companies increase revenue in some of the most competitive online niches. Branko believes that the SEO competitive advantage is to be found in proper testing and analysis; he applies his scientific training to plan and execute extensive SEO experiments.
Branko was a featured speaker at a number of leading SEO conferences in the US and in Europe, such as LinkLove London, SMX Advanced Seattle, Sphinncon, MIT Forum, and Affilicon. He is currently getting his PhD in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Warwick, UK.
Branko joined RankAbove in October 2011 as Senior Analyst.
© RankAbove, Ltd. 2013