A rough guide to competitor link research

Replicating a competitor’s link profile is rarely a smart SEO strategy but digging around in their links can give you an incredible amount of useful and actionable data to work with.

Note: OpenSiteExplorer.org from the smart folks at SEOmoz, and MajesticSEO are my weapons of choice for competitive link research.

See the TYPES of links being built

A fundamental reason we do competitive link research is because it helps us to build a picture of the link landscape. Digging around in competing site’s link profiles helps you to see the types of links that are working in your market. This gives you fresh perspective (and ideas to shape your linkbuilding strategy) because you can see what your competitors are focusing on and A) Tread a new path utilising the link gaps that your competitors have missed B) Start building links of a similar type based on the logic that the method seems to be working for them and C) A mixture of A and B.

We pull data for the main competitors of the site we are working on or the top 5 competitors for 5-10 of the keywords that the client is looking to target – we add 100 links from each of the competitors so you’d be talking 500 links minimum (in total). We then comb this sample and categorise according to the type of link it is e.g. directory submission, social media, forum post, blog post, blogroll and so on. It’s probably easier to start working your way through the list and add categories as you come across them. Make a note of the number of links that fall under each category, a simple tally style system seems to work the best.

A pie chart can then created and you can see at a glance the percentage of links that fall into different categories. Here’s one we did recently…

In the market we were researching – 80% of the sample links were directory submissions. I think that in itself gives you some idea that directory submissions are perhaps still a useful and justified linkbuilding method but that’s for another day…

By the way – at present, we do this categorisation process manually so if anyone knows a quicker way to do this then we are all ears because it is quite time consuming.

Analyse anchor text

Open Site Explorer has a very handy feature which helps you assess anchor text distribution for links to your competitor’s websites. This again can help you build a picture of the link landscape and help to shape your strategy.

Some markets are more sensitive than others to heavy linkbuilding around only one or two anchor text phrases. Recognising this in advance is far better than being subjected to a penalty for over-optimising.

Quick Tangent – Vary your anchor text between keyword terms, brand terms and general terms like “click here” and “visit site” – simply because that’s what a natural link profile would look like.

We use a similar process to our analysis of link type in the sense that we pool data from across 5 or more competitor link profiles – specifically looking at anchor text distribution

I personally categorise as Brand and Keyword terms (because you’ll be throwing those general terms in randomly for good measure so no need to take these into account.)

Here’s one we made earlier…

That was an analysis of 1,000 links (obviously they can’t all be classified as brand or keyword). This market is heavily brand based hence more brand terms in the anchor text.

Depending on the level of risk you (or your client) finds acceptable this helps to shape your linkbuilding methods. To use the example above, if you’re a risk averse SEO (or the client is) you’re probably going to want to focus on brand but dip your toe into the keyword pool – to some, particularly those of an “anchor text rules” persuasion, the above example is an opportunity to dominate the keyword searches but this judgement call is obviously going to be relative and individual to each market.

We have also analysed anchor text distribution on a keyword by keyword basis across competitor link profiles but I won’t publish any graphics on that for obvious reasons!

Look at link velocity

Assessing the link velocity of a market is useful for two reasons:

  • Google’s Query Deserves Freshness (QDF) quirk means that very often a fresh page with more recent links, will rank higher for a topical search query, than perhaps a page with more links but a stagnant acquisition rate¬† – therefore it makes sense to get your head around the general speed at which your marketplace moves and what would be classed as ‘more links’ in the short term.
  • It also helps you to mitigate some linkbuilding risks because you can assess what is a generally acceptable level of linkbuilding in any given market without drawing unwanted attention from Mountain View. The pace in your market is a good indicator of a natural/normal number of links in any given month, now I’m not saying you need to stick to the status quo when it comes to link volumes, I am saying though that you’d better have a valid reason if you go from zero to hundreds or even thousands of links in a short space of time.

So for this we use MajesticSEO – a very handy tool for anyone serious about SEO and linkbuilding. It has a number of great features and for this we use the backlink discovery tool. This cleverly discovers links for a site on any given month and it draws on historic data to paint a picture of link acquisition rate over time.

Here’s a quick sample of one for the car insurance market that shows a cumulative view over the past 30 days for the top 5 search results for the phrase “car insurance”

You can quickly and easily visualise the link velocity in any market by comparing the top five competitors – hundreds of links in the car insurance market might go unnoticed but hundreds of links (specifically low quality ones) in a less popular market and without a valid reason and Google might just smell a rat. Remember they want you to EARN links not game their algorithm.

In the above example, Moneysupermarket.com’s link acquisition rate is pretty phenomenol (even by car insurance standards) and this kind of data would help you to understand the size of the challenge in terms of linkbuilding for even QDF to kick in.

Moneysupermarket.com have quite a few links and they gather more and more each month so they’ve got high volume and high velocity (which probably explains their position at #1 in the results). If you were¬† elephant.com and planning an SEO campaign, armed with this kind of intelligence you can see that attempting to outrank on the basis of volume alone is going to be a challenge but in the short term you may well be able to outrank them if you can create a steep enough link acquisition curve.

I’d like to thank Kelvin Newman for introducing me to the concept of link velocity. It was either his book Clockwork Pirate or his Internet Marketing Podcast that brought it to my attention. I can’t remember which but you should A) Download his book and B) Listen to his podcast. It’s something I’d thought about before but couldn’t quite nail it down or give it a name so thanks Kelvin.

Swipe some low hanging fruit

The instinctive reaction when you see links that your competitors have is to fire up excel, create yourself a hitlist then plug away for the rest of the afternoon building all the links that your competitors have. Don’t. Individual links (particularly those sketchy looking ones) that are working for their site may well be pointless or even harmful to yours.

Do bag the low hanging fruit “that’s not gone off” though. I can almost guarantee there will be some juicy links in there that you should certainly grab – a listing in a useful, relevant directory or a blog that might give some coverage to your business too.

Get informed

Competitor link research can help influence other areas of your SEO or wider inbound marketing efforts. Manually examining a competitor’s link profile can help you to do things like ascertain the types of content they’ve produced that have garnered plenty of links and help you to identify the Achilles heel in their link profile. These kinds of things give you an edge and make your life that little bit easier and your work smarter and much more effective.

The bottom line is that you should be using competitor link profiles to help shape your linkbuilding strategy rather than a botched job involving some copying and pasting.

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