Competitor Backlink Analysis for the Web Strategist

  |  February 20, 2012   |  Comments

Harvest non-obvious and strategic insights from a commonplace technique.

Link builders use competitor backlink analysis to find websites that have linked to their competitors so that they can replicate them. It is a means of targeting low-hanging link fruit, as it is more likely that someone will link to you if they generally link to sites in your niche.

A criticism of this technique is that it leads to acquiring only links that your competitors already have. I don't believe this is a bad thing, but it is certainly better to acquire both the links that your competitors have and new links. To do this, you need to take a step back from the granular, one-by-one link-building methodologies and take a 10,000-foot strategic view.

A web strategist can use competitor backlink analysis to discover strategies that are working for competitors in order to duplicate these strategies in a scalable manner, acquiring links that a competitor does not yet have. As a strategist, you should be looking to understand the general types of activities or niches that are successful for competitors so that you can duplicate what works and do it on a larger scale.

Here are the five general steps:

  1. Understand who is doing well.
  2. Pick three top competitors.
  3. Grab their backlink data.
  4. Segment the backlink data.
  5. Develop a scalable plan of attack for each segment.

You should be looking to identify types of websites that link to your competitors so that you can create a link-building plan that gives all of these types of sites a reason to link to your site. In this way, you can gather not only the easy links from that segment that link to your competitors, but also links from other sites in that segment that don't.

To be clear, the end game is to create magnetic pieces of content, specifically for a potential link's verticals, so that everyone in those verticals wants to link to your website.

Here is an example from link building in the rail industry.

1. Understand who is doing well. Use www.freeseo.co.uk/marco/ for SERP saturation analysis.

It is easy to focus on the biggest brands in your industry as your main competitors and miss the smaller brands that are doing very well with SEO. SERP saturation analysis (finding the websites that appear most often in the top 10 search results for a bucket of keywords) can help you discover the sites that are quietly flourishing.

fig-1-serpsaturationanalysis
Top 10 largest competitors for the 100 top searched rail keywords by SERP saturation.

You can see how MoneySavingExpert could be missed as a competitor without this type of analysis. As a strategist, you should be finding out how they performed this well against established brands with contextually relevant content and links (and in this case, those big official sites have loads of high-quality government links to which MoneySavingExpert doesn't have access).

2. Pick three top competitor and load them into an SEOmoz campaign.

fig-2-seomozcampaign
These top competitors from the SERP saturation report will be my targets for backlink analysis.

MyTrainTicket does incredibly well to rank for lots of keywords despite having a relatively weak domain authority. As a strategist, you should be figuring out what links they have that power this.

3. Grab their backlink data - from an Open Site Explorer export.

fig-3-opensiteexplorer
Figure 3. Backlinks to MoneySavingExpert's cheap train ticket page.

By drilling down to the page on MoneySavingExpert that actually ranks for "cheap train tickets" and looking at only external, followed, or 301'd links to that page, you can see links from the BBC, Nature, and Exeter University. What tactics did they use to get these? By segmenting their backlinks, you can ascertain the types of sites that are linking to them, and why.

4. Segment the backlink data.

fig-4-segmentbacklinkdata
Extracted URL list categories by type of content containing links

You need to visit each URL and then categorise the type of link.

Once you have built your categorisation of the 100 links of each competitor, you can start aggregating that data for powerful insights into who links and why.

fig-5-segmented-data
Segmented data displayed visually

5. Develop a scalable plan of attack for each segment.

Now that you know what types of sites link and why they link, you can attempt to build "magnetic web content" - high quality content, specific to a niche, that attracts links.

In the above train example, you could run competition to give away a year's first-class rail ticket for a student. You could present it as a treasure hunt, in conjunction with the most powerful university websites that you have identified in your analysis. A tactic like this can be scaled to include any number of sites, which will all naturally give you a link for taking part.

Infographics and interactive infographics are another example of this magnetic content. Infographics tend to work best when narrowly targeted at a niche so that there is a natural synergy with targeting specific site-type verticals.

Lastly, develop reference material - for example, price comparison tables that news sites can use as reference material for the cheapest or most expensive train journeys.

With this type of knowledge and a will to pursue effective strategies over granular link building, you can replicate and build on the link-building strategies that are successful for your competitors while also establishing the type of magnetic content that will attract links by itself over time.

This article was originally published in SES magazine. Get the complete magazine here.

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