Find out what's worth your attention and what you should be ignoring in your SEO efforts.
There are few bigger time-sucks with search engine optimization (SEO) than link analysis. There's so much data to look at, details to measure, and pretty (useless) graphs to plot that you could spend many days doing it all. And then, of course, you may be tasked with repeating the effort over and over again every month to track changes with competitors. The problem with all of this analysis is that the conclusions don't change - i.e., no matter what you see you'll still want more high-quality links. I'm willing to bet that no one has ever concluded that there's no need to get any more links.
What Is Worth My Attention
Not all of the analysis is a waste of time though. I do think it's worth peeking into recent efforts to determine if a competitor is actively or passively acquiring links (Ahrefs is helpful in this area as it date stamps links it has found). An active effort can be used to secure additional funding or resources to bolster your efforts. Over the years I've found that there's little that is as effective for obtaining support for an idea as showing what a competitor is doing. Sometimes when I have an idea that has been rejected I'll go out and find a competitor doing something similar. And guess what? More often than not the request that was previously rejected is suddenly approved!
I also like to look at what particular tactics competitors are using. Yes, Google may have a problem identifying sponsored posts, but I can usually spot them without difficulty and I like to know when they're being used. What's even more interesting is when a competitor has found a source that I hadn't thought of. For example, I recently discovered that a company I track has managed to secure a spot on Zillow as a guest writer. That's quite a win considering the industry that the company plays in. I was also able to determine that another competitor was effectively using their startup status to capture some attention on popular sites that cover such things. So with a few minutes of research I can tell if a competitor is 1) active, 2) going beyond the basics, and 3) establishing themselves as a leader in the space. No need for a lot of drawn-out analysis though - this is stuff you can eyeball once you've done it a few times.
Finding hubs can also be useful. A hub in this case is a site that is linking to two or more competitors, but not linking to my client. This, to me, indicates that my client is missing out on a link from an industry-friendly site. And since there are tools that make finding hubs quick and easy, I'll take a look at these now and again (Link Research Tools is a good one to check out for finding hubs). Note that directories often show up in searches for hubs, but I will typically ignore these.
What I Typically Ignore
You'll notice that in the above I didn't mention anything about PageRank or any of the other measures that are par for the course with link analysis. It doesn't matter to me if a competitor's link distribution is a bell curve centered over PageRank three sites or if two-thirds of their links are from .coms and one-third of their links are from .nets. That's all noise. In the end, like I wrote before, the result of looking at all of those metrics is that you want more high-quality links. Are you not going to go after a link because it's too high quality or on a site with the wrong top-level domain (TLD)?
There May Be No Escaping Link Reports
I know how things are in the real world of SEO though. I don't just write about SEO, I have to do it day in and day out. So I know that clients will sometimes ask for a link analysis and there isn't much you can do about such requests except deliver on them. The good news is that tools abound that can produce many of the graphs and charts you need (check out Cognitive SEO for a look at some potentially time-saving graphs); or at the very least you can get raw data that you can pop into Excel for graph creation. And because any good link acquisition strategy will improve a site's profile, you can take your strategy and overlay it on top of the graphs no matter what the graphs are.
Yes, it's true that not everyone runs a site with content that attracts links with little effort, but over-analyzing competitors isn't going to change that. Instead, come up with ideas and execute on them. Much of what you do will fail, but the extra time you saved from not performing useless analysis you can put into zeroing in on what does work.
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.
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