Competitive Link Analysis – Outsmarting Your Opponents

This guide is designed to help anyone who is responsible for link building, be that for a client or for their employer, but is currently feeling overwhelmed as to how and what they can move forward with. The point is that this is here to be a process that is repeatable, teachable and to a certain degree scalable.

So whether you are working on one internal property or handling 20 client accounts that all need your attention, this guide is for you.

1379534471_crestWhy this guide?

Based on the results of our Link Building Survey 2013 (published in July), we found that 11% of respondents admitted to not being sure which links would hurt or harm them – to the point where some even said that they aren’t doing any kind of link building whatsoever for fear of a penalty. I hope you enjoy page 2 then I’m afraid, it is as simple as that.

Granted there are other ranking factors you should be considering (links aren’t the entire pie). However, you try ranking with nothing more than Facebook likes and an optimised title tag, unless it is an obscure keyword, competing properties with links are going to hand you your ass. Partly in jest, I created my own version of an SEOmoz Whiteboard Friday not so long ago but there was a serious point in there – links make the algorithm go round. Google’s algorithm remains dependent on SEOs like us feeding the right kinds of links into the system to get the desired effect. Read more on this in our verdict on the 10 most common types of links.

Increasingly we at Skyrocket get enquiries from individuals expressing a concern that they are not sure how much budget they need, what they should be doing or indeed if they could be confident in the link building they were recommending to their clients and managers. It is safe to say that Google’s recent string of updates and PR offensive has certainly thrown spanners in more than a few works.

The aim of this guide is to clear up some of the confusion, put some tangible processes behind the hot air and hopefully help a lot of people build out the campaigns that they need to thrive in today’s SERPs.

Contents

This guide focuses a great deal on competitor analysis and benchmarking simply because SEO is a zero-sum game, when you win someone else loses and vice versa. This means understanding what your competitors are doing and how you can outsmart them is vital to ongoing success. Not to mention, it is a great way of gaining a better understanding of what Google is looking for.

Here are the quick-jump buttons if you don’t need the whole guide:

Analyze your site Analyze competitors Evaluate Feasibility Plan attack Execute


Phase 1 – Analyse your performance

1379534469_pie-chart Conducting a link profile audit of the website you are working on is vital if you are going to truly develop an effective link building plan. You can identify weaknesses and opportunities in competitor profiles but without understanding what is going on back at home, you will be acting only on half of a picture.

Gather all of your links together

No single source of links is perfect so collate all of the data that is available to you to give the most complete picture possible. Some common link search engines that can help with this task (you’ll be familiar with likely most of these):

Understand your strengths & Weaknesses

Look objectively at the link profile overall thinking about things like:

  • Diversity – referring domains, number of unique Class C IPs. Possible red flags such as a large number of links coming from a small number of sources.
  • Volume – with links it is frequently signal rather than noise which is important but volume should definitely be a consideration.
  • Velocity – what kind of growth is being seen on a monthly basis?
  • Distribution – how are the links spread across the site? Homepage only, just money pages, lots of deep links as well?
  • Quality – quickly drop your links into a bulk checker such as Ahrefs or Link Babel to determine the spread of quality and get an idea of average metrics across your profile. You can do this in Excel as well if you prefer, Ahrefs has a limit on the number of links for example.
  • Nofollow ratio – established, ‘normal’ websites attract nofollow links naturally, a 100% follow profile is probably somewhat suspect.
  • Natural pickup – to what extent does this site naturally generate inbound links?
  • Anchor text distribution – what does your anchor text portfolio look like? Too hard? Too soft? Just right? It’s hard to give definite ratios that work (in my opinion) but looking across the board at competitors later on in this process will help you better gauge where the site sits on the risk spectrum.

Determine the real strengths and weaknesses that this site currently has. Some link profiles we look at have a lot of good (but just good) links but their strength lies in the diversity, size of profile etc. Other profiles we look at perhaps don’t have volume on their side but they have a smaller number of really solid links

Identify the types of links that competitors probably can’t easily replicate – determine ways you can further capitalise on this (2nd tier link building perhaps) or look at ways you might be able to further augment this lead (i.e. you’ve had some success developing partnerships with schools in the past, consider adopting this strategy again).

Crucially, you need to look for patterns of risk within your profile which are either causing performance problems now or are likely to cause problems in the near future. As is the case with competitor link analysis, you don’t really know the extent to which certain links are carrying weight with Google or being completely disregarded but everyone is in the same boat so we have to learn to work with what we have access to.


1379534533_searchPhase 2 – Analyse your competitor’s performance

Assess real SERP competitors and why they rank where they do

Competitor identification is the very first step when it comes to competitive backlink analysis because before you can even begin to look at the performance and tactics of individual websites you need to understand which sites you really need to be looking at.

Having a discussion with your client can often herald some interesting versions of who the competitors are and whilst these might be the business competitors, they are not always the true SERP competitor. That’s not to say there isn’t value in having this discussion with your client but you will need to source more data that just relying on the handful they deem to be the ones they have the closest rivalry to.

Gather your data by pulling together a list of industry keywords that gives you a spread across the marketplace. Then you need to understand who ranks where and which sites keep cropping up. Then select as many competitors as make sense for you to be digging into, frequently it is a case of the all the ones that show up on multiple keywords you are considering targeting – but there is definitely such a thing as too much data.

Our internal preference for most projects is to manually perform Google searches and then use SEOquake for Firefox to scrape and download the first page of results (with number of results in Google set to at least 20). There are more automated ways to do this but most have their limitations in our experience due to scraping SERPs not being up there atop Google’s list of favourite things :-).

Analyse competitor link profiles

There are quite a few tools out there that allow you to run quick competitor analysis, our preference internally is to utilize tools that make the task easier but aren’t exactly “push-button”. There is no substituting an expert eye digging through a link profile to assess competitor strengths and weaknesses. Julie Joyce said it bestBottom line: grab every bit of data you can for your competitors and identify where you’re being beaten, but don’t let that alone dictate your future strategy.” Reviewing by hand will often surface a wide range of smart stuff as well as competitor indiscretions – you can learn from both.

Just the same as when analysing your own profile, you should be looking at the following factors…

  • Diversity – referring domains, number of unique Class C IPs. Possible red flag for a large number of links coming from a small number of sources.
  • Volume – with links it is frequently signal rather than noise which is important but volume should definitely be a consideration.
  • Velocity – what kind of growth is being seen on a monthly basis?
  • Distribution – how are their links spread across the site?
  • Quality – quickly drop their links into a bulk checker such as Ahrefs or Link Babel to determine the spread of quality and get an idea of average metrics across your profile. Once again, use Excel if you wish.
  • Nofollow ratio – established, ‘normal’ websites attract nofollow links naturally, a 100% follow profile is always somewhat suspect.
  • Natural pickup – to what extent does this site naturally generate inbound links?
  • Anchor text distribution – what does your anchor text portfolio look like? Too hard? Too soft? Just right? It’s hard to give definite ratios that work (in my opinion) but looking across the board at competitors later on in this process will help you better gauge where the site sits on the risk spectrum.

A tool like LinkDetective allows you to slice up your competitor’s link profiles to get a quick and dirty idea of the different categories of links that they have. Also, if you use Open Site Explorer – there is a good guide to quickly and easily visualising a profile in Excel here.

Remember that as is the case with your own profile, always bear in mind you are probably only seeing a part of the picture and it may in some cases be more of a picture than is actually accurate post-penguin and post-disavow tool (see this post for more).

You are not aiming to replicate a link profile. Jane Copland describes competitive backlink analysis as a way to get “…inspiration, new ideas and a better understanding of what Google values.” – We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

So just what should we be looking for?

In reality there really isn’t likely to be a golden ratio or set of rules that you can precisely follow for your link types, link volume, anchor text distribution etc. Given the complexity of the beast we are dealing with here (Google’s algorithm) different parameters will be considered average in different niches which is what makes competitor analysis – true SERP competitor analysis – such a valid and important part of building out your link building plan.

Look across the board at what is typical in the niche you are working in. Not just what is working for the top 3 results necessarily as Google could be in the midst of a flux or an affiliate has managed to break onto page 1 for the first time in several weeks and that just happens to be on the day you are gathering data.

Be sure to exclude domains that are going to skew your results in a direction which based on gut instinct and common sense aren’t helpful to your analysis. Examples like this might be newspaper sites with a recent article perhaps.

Identify (& monitor) top competitor pages

Competitor link analysis is also really useful for influencing and reverse engineering highly-successful content creation campaigns. You can use any link search engine of your choice, see the top pages for a domain and get an idea of your competitors top performing pages in terms of external linking root domains. This can:

  • Help you to understand which formats of content tend to perform best in a given market (blog posts, eBooks, infographics etc).
  • Give you ideas for big content projects – do something above and beyond (or with a different angle) to a competitor that has previously done something similar successfully. You are mitigating some of the risk that is typically associated with investing in a big content project.
  • Get prospect lists for when you do something similar but better – a swipe file of sites that may be interested in the type of content you plan on putting together.


1379534464_calculatorPhase 3 – Evaluate feasibility

Look at the potential gap in your profiles and the difference between where you are currently and where you think you will likely need to be in order to compete if you want complete market coverage or bases on the subset of keywords you are intending to target.

At this stage you might want to try and put some financial numbers behind plan, even if it is just “back of a napkin” type calculations at this point to get a sense of which battle options are worth exploring in more detail. If you have no idea of internal or outsourcing costs of X, Y or Z at this point, it is worth moving to phase 4 of this guide and then circling back once you have your various options costed out.

Think why they rank there

Think beyond links for just a moment, we’ve already said that the ‘ranking factors pie’ is made up of more than just links. For this reason it is worth considering why certain properties rank where they do.

It is often argued that Google chooses to rank Wikipedia highly across certain terms because it is a “safe bet” for them, there is an absence of otherwise good options from a user’s perspective so they just default to Wikipedia and give them visibility across thousands of keywords. Some would argue this gives an opportunity where competition is weak and you (with your credible site) can stroll right in, others would say it acts a flag for a filter which you aren’t going to bypass by throwing links at the situation.

To give an obvious example, if you are an affiliate for a major brand, chances are you’re never going to rank number 1 for the brand term (broad generalisation) because the brand is what a user would expect to see when they search for that brand name. Clearly not every instance is as obvious as this, but think carefully about the subtleties within the SERP of the keyword that you are intending to target.

Think about budgets (& ROI)

You will know the budget that can be realistically applied and it is important to have an understanding of what is achievable. Organic traffic is a ‘free’ source of traffic but we are all acutely aware that getting and maintaining those positions doesn’t happen with just fresh air and optimism.

This keyword opportunity model was devised by Nick Eubanks as a way to determine feasible targets at the keyword research stage but it can be used as a part of your link building plan because you can enter in your prospective targets and put some figures in there in terms of costs for content and link building, if you have numbers for the client in terms of conversion, average order value (maybe even for that specific keyword from a PPC campiagn) you can begin to build a picture as to whether this is worth targeting with the kind of link building campaign you feel is going to be necessary.

In some cases, if a budget is small it may make more sense to target a slight variation and work your way upwards because you may not have the budget for that big head term or you may not have the conversion rate yet to justify. There is nothing wrong with planning to target a keyword in 6-12 months time once you’ve built the war-chest, got some CRO help and feel ready to put some real money behind a link building campaign for that monster keyword.


Phase 4 – Plan your attack

1379534458_fileOnce you know which areas you are going to target you can begin to develop your battle plan. This is likely to include:

  • Types of links – it is always best to be thinking in a broader sense when it comes to types of links so as to avoid matching competitors on some of their less savoury links. Consider things like location of link (i.e. how can we get more editorial mentions?) or authority of link (i.e. how we can get more links on big, trusted sites in our industry?).
  • Volume of links – strip away all the rubbish links competitors have. Based on the ones that are remaining, how many links do you need to match them? It almost never works like-for-like in our experience but it is certainly a good barometer in terms of ballpark numbers. There is plenty of reading material out there to suggest that you can outrank with just a handful of links (and we have experienced the same on a number of occasions) however it isn’t always the case.
  • Anchor text distribution – if you were linking to a page what would make sense and what are competitors doing? Once you have an idea of both of these you are ready to devise an anchor text strategy. Frankly we’re not a fan of the “unnatural natural” anchor text variants such as click here but the golden rule is not to overdo any category of anchor.
  • Speed of acquisition – roughly look to match what is the rule of thumb across your niche. Common sense will tell you that 500 new links in a niche where the typical site gets 5 new links a month may well be a red flag but in an ultra-competitive space, that number might not touch the sides. It boils down to your client’s attitude to risk as well.
  • Campaign timeframes – look at the numbers you are planning to acquire and the general rate of acquisition in the niche and you can calculate an approximate timeframe. Then give yourself a few extra months as a safety net to ensure client expectations are met.
  • Apply common sense to ALL of the above

Pull together all of your notes and information from the previous stages of this exercise to help you better determine ratios, types of links to go after, types to avoid and how to feed Google the same signals that your higher ranking competitors are.

sweet spotThe aim will be to look at ways you can not just outrank but actually outsmart your competitors. The copycat SEO might throw like-for-like links at a situation but even with just a modicum of thought, you can plan a campaign that feeds Google the signals it is expecting to see whilst staying firmly within the realms of common sense and allowing the client to sleep easy at night. See our scientific diagram of this theory in practice to your right :-)

Determine the cost

Every element of a link building campaign will have a cost whether that be internal resource or a clear-cut $/£ amount, you can start assigning this to your plan in a more structured way now that you have a number of definite keyword targets and a more concrete link building plan.

There is plenty of discussion around what you should pay for SEO services in general and that warrants a guide all of its own however in most cases if you are working with a client that already has eCommerce/lead-gen data they can share with you, there is a chance that you can reverse engineer your realistic budget and therefore a viable cost per link that can be afforded (by factoring in the different elements of your plan).

It would then be prudent to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each target one final time before you jump straight into execution. Bear in mind that cost of execution varies greatly; very often money can be saved by outsourcing certain elements or the entire campaign and more often than not, there is a huge difference in cost between 2 vendors so it is worth discussing your options before writing off a particular keyword target.


1379534671_video-playPhase 5 – You’ve got a plan, now what?

Execute

Determine in-house, outsourced or a hybrid of the two for your link building.

We understand that budgets are stretched pretty thin because we are only just realistically emerging from an era where a $100 “outsourced SEO package” was actually probably delivering some results (there, we said it!). Transitioning from this situation is never going to be an easy challenge to overcome if you are within an agency and even working within a department where managers may have unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved for what budget.

Can you handle it in-house?

If you run an agency or a department, you have people you work with who need to be organized, managed and motivated in such a way that enables you to meet the overall objectives of the company or the function of that department.

Digital landscapes shift, but that does not mean your existing teams aren’t up for the job any longer, it may be that the resources you have need to be put to use in a smarter way.

One tactic that is worth considering is the division of labor. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, I believe it was originally devised by Plato and applied to an economy as a whole but the widely held definition as popularized by the economist Adam Smith is, “The separation of a work process into a number of tasks, with each task performed by a separate person or group of persons.

Most link building processes can be systemized (to a degree) and streamlined. In this case you will be looking at how you can best leverage the people and assets you have.

Strategic outsourcing

Very often in the process of reorganizing and planning your existing resources to better cope with the current search landscape, you’ll identify a few key gaps either in your base of skills or more likely in man-hours.

A number of the agency owners we’ve spoken with admit that there is now a gap between the number of hours they’re used to billing (made possible by the cheaper outsourcing of the past) and the number of hours they physically have to service those accounts. That’s an issue that needs to be resolved ASAP – otherwise clients probably aren’t getting what they paid for.

This is where you can utilize an outsourcing partner to plug these gaps – giving you back that capacity and allowing your team to concentrate on what they are best at.

Strive for quality

As an industry we were somewhat accustomed to low-quality forms of link building in the past – we weren’t particularly happy that it worked, but we all accepted it.

Now, understandably so many are hyper-sensitive to the notion of quality whether it be link building, content or anything to do with the optimization of a site. Achieving quality is of course, an admirable goal. That being said, understanding it, for many, is proving to be a complex challenge.

Standard setting internally

The first step toward a solution is of course to understand how you are going to be defining “quality”.  There are many opinions as to what constitutes good quality content or a good quality link but ultimately you are going to need to set standards within your business. We’ve published a number of guides on what to look for in a link opportunity and what to look for in a guest post (accompanying video) for example, both go some way to helping you evaluate the “quality” of a particular link.

Issue sets of rules, develop guidelines and publish material internally, helping everyone involved understand what is expected and what everyone is working toward.

Proactive management of any vendors

Many large organizations argue that in order to keep standards high, they want to keep everything internal. This is sometimes a valid argument; however, developing strong working relationships, with an outsourcing partner that specializes in an area where you as a business lack, is a surefire way to achieve quality.

Some say “You can’t outsource actually caring about something.”  We agree, and why it is important to work closely and often collaboratively with any partner that you go into business with. Outsourcing elements of a project doesn’t have to mean compromising on quality.

And finally…Try your best to ignore the noise

You’ve done your research and analysis, you have your plan now is time to execute not get held back by the latest flash in the pan.

It’s been said many times before but Google frequently denounces precisely things that are working, and subsequently a lot of noise is made across the blogosphere effectively helping Google carry its message to every corner of the market with just one little remark at a conference, in a video etc. I’m not advocating ignoring what Google says, far from it, there is a lot to be learned from the way they behave and the things that they say but just don’t blindly follow what is at best hearsay rather than real “best practices”.

We’d love to hear your feedback on this guide, if you have any questions or need help with anything at all please feel free to add a comment below.

4 Comments

  1. avatar
    Jamie Press September 19, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    Absolutely cracking read, James. Great piece. Some terrific tips at every stage of the process!

  2. avatar
    Joe September 20, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    This is excellent as always James. I’ve updated my guide including all the links you mention in the post…now it’s time to stop reading and start doing!

  3. avatar
    phil September 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    very useful information, i have just started such a plan with our new website http://www.lullaby-babies.co.uk and can put much of this into maction

  4. avatar
    Alan Soma September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    Excellent piece James! Some great pointers in there to help us with our client ranking.

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