In this article we’ll cover a foundational skill for SEO professionals, which is to analyse competitor backlinks. Combining a number of core skills, tools and methods, good backlink analysis is something you’ll use every single day as you drive traffic to your website and try to achieve those elusive number one positions.
What is Competitor Backlink Analysis?
A competitor backlink analysis is a method of discovering which websites are linking to your competitors, so you can replicate their efforts and beat them in the search engines. It’s a reverse engineering SEO technique, and one of the primary skills of organic link prospecting. Who is linking to your competitors? Which links are helping them achieve their positions? Most importantly, how can you replicate their success with the least possible effort and integrate it into your link building activity? We’ll go through each step in detail, explaining the tools we use, and how we compile worksheets to stay organised.
Before you Get Started
You’ll need access to a SEO tool to carry out your backlink analysis. There are lots of popular options, but for this guide we’re using Ahrefs. A spreadsheet program is also essential to collate, organise and sort your data, we’re using Google Sheets here, but any similar program such as Microsoft Excel will work just as well.
- Step 1: Find competitors
- Step 2: Analyse Competitor Link Metrics
- Step 3: Choose Which Backlinks To Replicate
- Step 4: Create an Actionable Plan for Building Links
Step 1: Find Competitors
- Click on Keyword Explorer
- Type in the main keyword you’re interested in e.g weight loss supplements
- Click Enter
- Scroll down to see the competitors Ahrefs sees as relevant based on intersecting keywords.
- Deselect any you feel are not relevant, then save the remaining URLS.
Example: In the example below we would discount the NHS URL. This is the UK’s national health service and will have massive domain authority that helps it rank. But we can’t and don’t want to replicate its link profile.
Using Ahrefs Site Explorer
Here’s another method
- Go to Ahrefs Site Explorer;
- Paste in any URL or domain (e.g., https://www.hollandandbarrett.com/shop/weight-management// or https://www.hollandandbarrett.com)
- Select the “exact URL” (for web pages) or “*.domain/*” (for websites) from the drop-down;
- Go to the Backlinks report (on the left-hand side)
Using Google Search
Often it’s just as easy to use Google Search to find competitors manually.
- Open Google Search, go to ‘Settings’ and set the country to your chosen geographical locale.
- Once you’re done setting up, enter the target “keyword”.
- Save the top 10 competitor links with a handy Chrome extension like Link Klipper.
- Copy/Paste them on the sheet you’re working on, or straight into Ahrefs Batch Analysis.
Domain Vs. Page Level Backlink Competitors
There’s really no tool better than the human brain when it comes to understanding a chosen niche and mapping out the competitors.
On the one hand, there will be major players that rank across multiple intersecting keywords and have achieved significant authority. These are domain level competitors.
As you dig deeper into individual keywords, you will likely find lesser known competitors. Some brands may specialise in a particular product that supersedes well known brands for these particular pages. These are page level competitors and finding them is generally good news because it demonstrates that David can outperform Goliath with the right content and links.
You’ll likely only find these smaller page-level competitors through getting to know your particular niche, and checking multiple keywords by hand.
When you do find them, you’ll want to spend time checking out how they structure their pages, as well as which links have helped them outperform bigger brands.
Step 2: Analyse Competitor Link Metrics
To assess link metrics we’re continuing to use Ahrefs, but Sistrix and SEMrush are other good options. Ahrefs has a useful tool called Batch Analysis that allows you to enter multiple URLS at once.
- Click into Ahrefs Batch Analysis
- Enter up to 200 URLS into the box
- The results will be displayed below. Note the backlinks column for each, which you can click into individually
- In this example we’ve typed in three likely competitors in the weight loss niche. By clicking on the backlinks number (see red arrow above) Ahrefs will show us a full link list for this domain
- You can now click export and put the results in a Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet.
The type of links you seek will depend upon the particular position and needs of the brand you’re working with. If it has no authority, it will need a wide variety of opportunities from free blogs to high authority magazines. If the site’s already ranking, just one or two prime links will help.
Filtering Data on Ahrefs
Tools like Ahrefs excel in their ability to quickly filter data based on the metrics of your choice. This is particularly useful when trying to narrow down vast amounts of data into workable lists.
How you filter down these lists is going to differ vastly based on how competitive your niche is, and how many links Ahrefs is displaying.
As per our example, we researched hollandandbarrett.com which is a large chain of UK health food stores with a boatload of links.
The following filters may be useful:
- DA of at least 20 – Specifying linking domains with Ahrefs Domain Authority of 20 means we’re only seeing good sites, worth having a link from
- Referring Page Keywords in Top 100 – We set this to just ‘1’,. Checking this means that Google perceives the page to have value as it’s ranking it in some form. Ticking this can reduce a huge list very quickly, but it will mean you’re keeping stronger contenders.
- Domain Level – if we have a co.uk focus, we can exclude .com domains
Now you can export and add to your master sheet. We generally structure these via tabs, with a tab for each competitor.
How to Organise Your Competitor Backlinks on a Google Sheet or Excel
Like chefs, all SEO’s will have their own methods when it comes to something like this. Yours will evolve over time but you can start with something like this.
Useful Column titles include
- Domain Rating
- Site Category – what type of website is this
- Free / Paid – was there a cost? List how much, if so.
- Date Contacted
Step 3: Choose Which Backlinks To Replicate
Now you have your mastersheet, with all the backlinks of multiple competitors arranged neatly into tabs and ordered via domain authority. Nice!
Now comes the painstaking process of figuring out which of these might be possible to get for your client.
This is a task which gets easier with experience, especially when you’ve been building links in the same niche for a while. You start to get familiar with the brands that pop up regularly, and you also learn to spot the ones which don’t really belong in the results.
Here are some tips quickly filtering out irrelevant listings.
- Ignore homepages, these are evidently unobtainable
- Ignore what appears to be a private blog network – Sometimes people will use personally owned domains to build links on. So if you’re seeing a juicy weight loss link on a high authority web design site, don’t waste your time trying to get it.
- Ignore sites that look spammy even where the metrics are decent
- Ignore authority sites like Wikipedia or newspapers – Unless you have a specific approach for these, you’re bound to fail.
- Ignore results tied to real world locations (unless you have your own)
- Don’t try to Hustle Links for Time Bound SERPS – There’s no point trying to persuade the editor of ‘Best Vegan Easter Eggs of 2020’ to insert a link. Rather, propose a piece on this topic for next year!
You want to build out lists that will end up being useful assets over time. If you’re link building for a health client, this very list may be perfect for a client you haven’t even got yet. Hopefully, you’ll have relationships in place with editors and bloggers by that stage, making it easy and profitable for the next client.
With that in mind, it’s worth categorising the results now as part of the process. Here are some of the ones we use:
- Coupon Sites
- Social Media
- Web 2.0
- Image Links
- Press Releases
- Case Studies
You can decide on any you feel are appropriate, and then add this categorisation to a tab in the spreadsheet for easy filtering later.
Step 4: Create an Actionable Plan for Building Link
Now you understand the basic mechanics of finding links. But what about actually building the damn things. Well, if you’re a professional SEO this is going to take up much of your headspace for the remainder of your career so pay attention.
1. Start with some Quick Wins
If your competitor has themselves a web 2.0 or something like medium.com which is open to anyone, then that’s where to start. These types of freely available resources are golden for SEOs. But remember to keep it looking professional. Write some great content, use high quality free images from a resource like https://unsplash.com/ and get it live. Then:
- Share it on your client’s social (to encourage indexing)
- Build Links to It – we call this powering up and will cover this is another SOP
- Make sure you cross link to your social media listings, or other key web assets
- Embed a location Google map if you’re boosting a local listing
2. Build an Evergreen List of Guest Blogs (Free and Paid)
Much as a concierge at a top New York hotel lives or dies by the quality of his blackbook, SEOs depend on relationships with webmasters. As you outreach to bloggers, you’ll likely receive replies like:
- No thanks, please never email me again
- Would love to work with you, thanks for reaching out
- I’m open to this and charge X amount of dollars
Much as you’re categorising your client lists, do the same with blogs. Add a free/paid column for easy filtering, and put any terms and conditions in your notes.
These are going to be super useful for the client you’re working on right now. In the future, you can have a master list for every possible niche which will save you a tonne of time.
3. Always approach editors with well crafted content ideas
Let’s say we’ve spotted a serious looking online magazine that’s written a piece about the Best Health Food Stores in Birmingham. Small magazines like this rarely have the budget to pay freelancers so the chances are the editor has published it on the basis of its quality and value.
Now’s your chance to offer something similar. Investigate the brands editorial guidelines, craft an email showing you have enjoyed existing content and would like to contribute something of genuine value. List any blogs you’ve written for before.
Now this may take you a morning to write, but you’re gaining a resource that is closer to natural PR than blackhat link building. And when you have that monthly client meeting their eyes will light up when they see their brand represented in the context of a real piece of journalism.
Keep your Documents Client Facing
Building links is a huge job. For the research you start now, there’ll be weeks before you see a live link.
If you’re doing this work for clients it’s worth keeping your documents neat and tidy, and appropriately branded with their logo. This will mean that when you’re asked what you’ve been doing to justify your monthly fee, you’ll be able to click into the appropriate file and show scores of opportunities that are in various stages of delivery.
Competitor Backlink Analysis: Summary
We’ve shown you how to audit your competitors’ links, assess their quality, categorise them, and begin the process of outreach.
We haven’t gone too heavily into the process of contacting webmasters yet because that’s the basis of another lesson. But the essential skill of measuring quality, and using your own judgement to find opportunities lies at the heart of organic SEO.
Building links blends left-brain skills such as data analysis with the more creative skill of online PR. To be a good SEO you’ll need to have a foot in both camps.
If you’d like to discuss link building and backlink analysis further, or are even looking for white label SEO services to add to your existing marketing skills, we’d love to talk to you!
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