There are many strategies that can be used to improve SEO. One of the most tried-and-true methods is building a catalog of high-quality backlinks, also known as external links, to your website. However, once SEOs build this catalog, they often believe their work is done. It isn’t!
In the fiercely competitive world of SEO, link-building needs to be a continuous process. More than simply building backlinks, your link-building strategy should evolve with your competition so that you're always one step ahead.
Competitor backlink analysis is the best way to go about this. At Embarque, we’re an SEO agency that are expert in building robust backlinks for online startups, including SaaS, freelancers, agencies, job boards, and marketplaces. We’ll be walking you through a step-by-step guide for finding your competitor's best backlinks and using them to your advantage!
What should you listen to us?
We've helped online startups, scale their growth through competitor linkbuilding outreach. Here are some of our case studies:
- We've helped MentorCruise increase their YoY revenue by 1,600% over the past three years.
- We've helped Flick gain 9.6M in yearly traffic through competitor linkbuilding and content.
- We've helped technical SaaS tool 60x their traffic exclusively through competitor linkbuilding.
This article will highlight some of the things we do to find and analyze competitor backlinks.
What are competitor backlinks?
Competitor backlinks are external links that lead to your competitor's website. These links are essentially referrals from other websites and can significantly impact a website's search engine rankings. Through analyzing these backlinks, you can gain insights into your competitor's link-building strategy and use this information to improve your own.
Why are backlinks important?
When you ask this question, you're really asking: how does Google assess backlinks?
The answer to that question is a bit complicated. Google has been cagey about the exact details of how their algorithm takes backlinks into account.... and the reason is fairly obvious.
If people know exactly how backlinks impact ranking, they can easily figure out how to manipulate the system to their advantage. This is something that Google's webmasters are constantly pushing back against.
With that being said, there are a few things we know for certain:
- High-ranking websites have high-quality backlinks. For competitive keywords, this might not always be the case. However, it usually is. While correlation doesn't equal causation, it's safe to say that backlinks play a role.
- High-ranking websites have more backlinks. On average, the top results for a keyword have 3.8X more backlinks than the results below them.
- Pages with no backlinks get no traffic. Over 91% of all pages indexed by Google get no organic traffic. Of those sites, 55% do not have a single backlink.
- Backlinks are a "vote of confidence". When a reputable website links back to your website, Google sees it as an implicit indication of trust and quality.
- Backlinks increase organic traffic. Putting aside any potential boost to rankings for a moment, backlinks increase your organic traffic by increasing the likelihood that someone will stumble across a link to your website.
So, while we can’t say for certain how Google views backlinks within its algorithms, we can assume that they play a significant role in ranking and traffic generation.
Are all backlinks “good” backlinks?
No! Not all backlinks are created equal.
Earlier, we mentioned that Google tries to de-incentivize questionable SEO practices (a.k.a., black hat SEO) aimed at manipulating the ranking system. As part of this de-incentivization process, Google has been cracking down on "bad" backlinks and if your website relies on them it's only a matter of time before you're discovered.
There are a few things you need to watch out for:
- Low-Quality Links: Any links from untrustworthy websites or websites with a history of TOS violations are considered "bad" links that can affect your ranking negatively.
- Buying Links: If you're paying for links from low-quality websites, Google views this as spam and it can result in a ranking penalty. While we don’t condone purchasing backlinks, they can still be a useful part of your backlinking strategy, through niche edits and link swaps (but you need to know what you’re doing).
What Is Competitor Backlink Analysis?
Every website has a backlink profile that's one-of-a-kind. Sure, one site might have some backlinks in common with another site. It might even have a lot of backlinks in common. However, the odds of them being identical are slim to none.
Competitor backlink analysis is a method for benefiting from the unique backlink profiles of your competitors. The thought process is pretty simple: why let the competition point you in the direction of high-quality backlink opportunities?
Competitor backlink research is the process of finding out which websites are linking to your competitors' websites (but not yours). Ultimately, the purpose of this exercise is to replicate their backlinks and add them to your existing backlink profile. When performed well, this strategy can increase your backlinks by more than 20%... that’s quite a boost!
How we find competitor backlinks
Finally, it’s time for the fun part: finding your competitor’s best backlinks and using them to your advantage.
Choose your tools. We use Ahrefs
Manual backlink audits are time-consuming and error-prone. Your best bet is to find an SEO tool suite that has backlink auditing features built-in.
A quick Google search will reveal a wide variety of tools at a wide variety of price ranges. For now, here are a few of the best options on the market:
- Semrush (starting at $120/month)
- Moz (starting at $99/month)
- Ahrefs (starting at $99/month)
While all of these tools come with slightly different features and limits (hence the different prices), any of them will work for conducting a competitor backlink analysis.
Throughout this article, we'll be providing a tutorial on competitor backlinks analysis using Ahrefs, which is our preferred tool for the task and an industry standard, as well.
Though the UI will look different if you’re using a different suite of tools, they should be fairly similar in practice. You might need to sift through the branded terminology to find the tool we’re referring to, but we can assure you it will be there!
We choose a few competitors to analyze.
The first step in any competitor backlink analysis is identifying a few promising websites to analyze. Most business owners will already have a pretty good sense of who their main competitors are. These will likely be ideal websites to start with.
On the off chance that you aren't familiar with your main competitors, start by entering your primary and secondary keywords into Google. From there, choose 5-10 websites that:
- Occupy the same niche as you.
- Rank above you in SERPs for your keywords.
Don't know who your competitors are? There are many ways to find out who your competitors are. Here are some examples:
- Google Search: Simply inputting your product or service into Google’s search bar will reveal a great deal about your direct competitors. The businesses that appear on the first page of the search results are the ones you should pay attention to. For instance, say you're a podcast editing tool. In that case, you can Google "best tools for podcasting" and make a list of the top podcasting tools you want to analyze.
- Review Sites: Websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and TrustPilot can provide insights into your competition. Look for businesses in your niche with high ratings and reviews.
- SEO tools. For instance, on Ahrefs, you can check out the top competitors that are ranking for the same queries as you are. In the left navigation bar, go to Organic Search > Organic Competitors.
- Social Media: Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are rich sources of information about your competition. Look for accounts that offer similar products or services as yours and have high follower counts.
- Industry Reports: These often list leading firms in your field, giving you a good idea of who's dominating the market.
- Trade Shows & Networking Events: These are excellent places to meet your competitors face-to-face. Observe which businesses are attracting the most attention, and make a point to learn what they're doing right.
We begin with an overview.
Once you've purchased and opened your SEO tool suite it's time to begin the analysis. At this stage, you're trying to get a bird's-eye view of how you stack up with your competitors from the standpoint of backlinks.
Here are the things you should be taking note of:
- Backlink Quantity: The number of backlinks that point back to you and your competitor's websites. While more isn't always better, it's sometimes better. Seeing how you compare will give you some insight into the best way forward.
- Referring Domain Quantity: The number of websites that point back to you and your competitor's websites. Again, it's good to see how you stack up. However, at this stage, you might also take note of the authority of the referring domains to get a sense of their relative importance.
Ahrefs allows you to see competitor backlinks you don't have, and there are many ways to go about this. For instance, in the left navigation bar, link intersect shows the competitor backlinks your competitors have but you don't: Backlinks profile > Link intersect
If you type in
We look for differences.
With that overview out of the way, it's time to find out what your competitors are doing that you aren't. To do that, you need to fire up a detailed comparison tool in whatever SEO suite you've chosen to use.
Once you've navigated to the correct tool, you should be looking at a list of domains. Right off the bat, you'll want to sort these by their authority (note: different tools have different names for the concept of authority).
Again, your goal is to identify what your competitors are doing that you aren't. On Ahrefs, you can look at competitor backlinks in nitty-gritty detail. Under Site Explorer, enter the URL of the competitor.
In the left navbar, go to Backlink profile > Backlinks.
We evaluate competitor backlinks.
If you're using a tool that evaluates the competition's backlinks as part of the comparison process, feel free to skip to the next section. On the off chance you aren't, here's how you go about finding your competitors' best backlinks manually:
- Check Backlink Quality: Good backlinks are found on sites with high domain and page authority scores, lots of organic traffic, and good backlink profiles themselves.
- Check Backlink Placement: Good backlinks are prominent features of the article or page where they're located. They get prime real estate in areas where users are invested. They aren't relegated to the bottom of the page or lost in a sea of other links.
- Check Backlink Relevance: Good backlinks are ones that mesh well with the content around them. When a backlink demonstrates value to users on the referring domain they're more likely to click.
Go through your competitor's backlinks one by one and assess them based on the three metrics outlined above. Create a list of 5-10 promising prospects to start out with.
Finally, we've reached the part of the process that yields SEO results. What you're going to do now is start replicating the backlinks from your list using the same strategy you've determined that your competitor used. If they asked to write a guest post, you ask to write a guest post. If they wrote a forum response, you write a forum response. If they... you get the picture!
The odds of perfectly replicating every backlink are slim. Regardless, any success you do have will positively impact your website's SEO and organic traffic.
Don't know how? We'll provide some ideas in the next section to help you start.
How we strategize to acquire competitor backlinks
We use a competitor backlinks criteria
We use the following filters on Ahrefs to narrow down the backlinks we want to acquire. After all, not all backlinks are equal, and you can make the process of finding high-quality ones a lot easier by setting some criteria. Here's ours:
- Only Dofollow.
- Domain Rating: 40 or above
We analyze the domain and backlink type
There are different types of domains: blogs, forums, news portals and etc. Knowing the type of a domain can give you an idea on where to focus on acquiring backlinks from that specific domain.
Why do we analyze this? A few things:
- Effort to get links. Some page types are easier to get links from than others. For instance, you just need to set shop on directory listings like Capterra and G2 to get a link from them. This is far easier than writing a guest post.
- Link diversity. If you're only getting backlinks from the same type of pages, like blogs, then you may want to diversify your link profile.
What are some page types?
- News portals
- Product reviews
- Social media profiles
- Video sharing sites
- Podcast directories
- Press releases
- Article directories
- Web 2.0 sites
- Infographic directories
- Profile creation websites
It's time to get a little more acquainted with the list of prospects you created. As you're probably well aware, there are tons of backlink varieties. Here are a few of the more common ones:
- Editorial Backlinks: Backlinks that arise when content on your website is cited on some other website.
- Guest Post Backlinks: Backlinks you include in content you've agreed to write for some other website.
- Profile Backlinks: Backlinks that you include in profiles on social media and review websites.
- Comment Backlinks: Backlinks included in a response to another piece of content.
- Image backlinks: Backlinks acquired from an image (e.g., infographic) being shared. For example, Shutterstock used an infographic to gain hundreds of backlinks.
Obviously, there are too many kinds to list here. The reason we mention a few examples is to get you thinking about how your competitors got backlinks on the referring domains in the first place, and to find ways to acquire them yourself. To find out, simply check out the referring domain and make an educated guess.
If a referring domain leads to a guest post, it's likely that your competitor reached out and asked to write it. Fairly obvious!
If a referring domain leads to a forum thread, it's likely your competitor commented. Even more obvious! Run through your list and take note of the strategy you think your competitor used to acquire each backlink.
We answer these key questions
Once you've created a list of your competitor backlinks, it's time to analyze how they've acquired the backlinks. This is where a little bit of common sense goes a long way. For instance, you can ask yourself the following questions:
- Did they reach out to the referring domain and ask for a backlink?
- What was the anchor text?
- Did they participate in discussions on forums or social media and include a link to their website?
- Did they utilize directory listings or business profiles to acquire backlinks?
By answering these questions, you can start to understand the specific tactics your competitor used to acquire their backlinks. This will help you create a plan for replicating those strategies.
We analyze our competitors' pages that get the most links. And we create similar pages.
This helps us to identify what type of content is most attractive and likely to receive backlinks. By creating similar pages, we can increase our chances of acquiring backlinks in the same way as our competitors.
In addition, by analyzing our competitors' high-performing pages, we can also gain insight into their SEO strategy and use that knowledge to improve our own website's ranking and visibility.
Of course, there's more nuance involved in this process. For instance, we most likely won't target competitive topics, but this process can help you figure out which pages 'naturally' garner backlinks. From our experience, some of these pages include:
- Statistics about various niches
- Case studies
- Infographics or visual content
- Research studies and data-driven content
- Resource lists or directories
By identifying these patterns, we can create highly valuable and link-worthy content that attracts backlinks naturally.
We brainstorm similar tactics to acquire the links
Once you have identified the strategies your competitors used to acquire their backlinks, it's time to put them into action. Here are some ways you can acquire the links:
- Guest posting: Reach out to websites in your industry and offer to write a guest post for them. This allows you to include a backlink to your website and reach their audience.
- Participate in forums or social media discussions: Join communities relevant to your business and participate in discussions. Make sure to add value to the conversation and include a link back to your website when relevant.
- Niche editing: Find broken or outdated links on other websites and offer to replace them with your own relevant content. This not only helps the website owner, but also allows you to acquire a valuable backlink.
- Utilize directory listings and business profiles: Make sure your website is listed in relevant directories and create business profiles on platforms like Google My Business, Yelp, and LinkedIn. These can
- Doing a PR campaign: Creating a buzz around your brand can attract attention from other websites and lead to backlinks. This could include hosting events, partnering with influencers or charities, or launching a viral marketing campaign.
- ABC link swapping: Reach out to websites that have similar content or target audience and offer to exchange backlinks. This can help both parties gain exposure to a new audience.
Tools we use for outreach
Of course, reaching out to websites and asking for backlinks can be a time-consuming and daunting task. That's why there are many tools available that can help streamline the process and make it more efficient:
- Email outreach tools: These tools allow you to create personalized email templates, track responses, and schedule follow-ups. Some examples include Pitchbox, BuzzStream, and Ninja Outreach. We use Hunter.
- Email prospecting tools: These tools help you find email addresses for website owners or influencers. Some popular options include Appollo, Hunter, Voila Norbert, and FindThatLead. We use Appollo.
- SEO tools: Many SEO tools like Ahrefs and Moz offer features that can help with finding potential backlink opportunities. They allow you to analyze your competitors' backlinks, find broken links on other websites, and track your own backlinks. We use Ahrefs.
When To Call For Agency Backup
If all that sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is! Reaching out to blogs for guest posts, crafting thoughtful forum responses, creating content that people want to cite - all of this takes time and effort. This can quickly get overwhelming, if you do not know what you’re doing.
In addition, successfully establishing backlinks often requires skills (e.g., SEO, content writing, web design, etc.) and tools that business owners don't possess. That's why many business owners turn to agencies and freelancers for help with their link-building strategies.
If you're looking for a reliable way to improve your website's SEO, competitor backlink research should be one of your go-to tactics. By taking a closer look at your competitors' best backlinks, you can gain valuable insights into their SEO strategies and replicate their successes yourself.
Of course, manually researching every backlink can be a time-consuming process. An experienced SEO agency can help you research your competitors' backlinks, replicate them, and track the progress of your campaign. So, if you're feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of conducting your own competitor backlink research, don't hesitate to call for backup!