Competitive analysis is one of those facets of link building that I've often been ambivalent about. Some link builders swear by it as the way to go, citing reasons (and good ones) such as the following:
- If it works for your competitor to rank, it will work for you.
- By getting a link to your site on a site that links to competitors you will lessen the link juice flowing out to your competitors' sites.
- It's a time saver when you're starting a new link building campaign.
While I agree with all of these reasons, I also think that at times, mining your competitors' backlinks is taking the easy way out. What I do like about competitive analysis, however, is the knowledge that you get from performing it. It can answer questions such as how your industry links, what types of links you can expect to get, how many links seem to be the ticket for successful high rankings, what percentages of differing types of anchor text/domains/PR seems to be the sweet spot, etc. As long as you do realize that this information is not the only piece of the puzzle, I can't see that it does any harm whatsoever to spend a bit of time on it.
In my original opening post where I discussed beginning link building on a broader level, I used Yahoo as my main method of doing this. However, since then, Yahoo has begun to show Bing results and no longer show results for advanced link queries. For now, the basic link query is still working for me so I'll simply include my original text.
"Simply type in the command "link:www.competitorURL.com" and you'll see a section that says "Show InLinks" which I'd change to the "Except from this domain" option. You'll also see a section that says ""To" and I'd change that to "Entire Site." This gives you a nice list of inbound links to check, and a nice starting point for sites to contact."
Now, there are free tools and paid tools that can also do this for you but some of them pull from Yahoo, which means you may want to look into finding one that uses its own database. Major ones include Majestic SEO, SEOMoz's Linkscape, and Raven SEO. My favorite is Raven SEO, which is a paid option. Since all of these tools have slightly different ways of going about a backlink grab, I'll trust that it's intuitive enough for all of you to figure out.
What To Look For
So what should you be looking for when you check a competitor's backlinks? First of all, while it may sound silly, do you even know who your competitors really are? Once you're armed with this information, you're ready to roll. Please do keep in mind that, many times, analysis like this is best considered as a trend, rather than an absolute. Just because competitor A has 15 more backlinks than you, that doesn't mean that getting 16 backlinks is going to push you ahead.
Number of backlinks:
This is a good way of knowing where you stand, on a very basic level. If all of your competitors have 10 times the number of backlinks that you do, that's pretty significant, and a sign that you do need to be building more links. However, as I mention above, it's no guarantee that having the same number of backlinks is going to push you ahead of your competitors. If you find that you have roughly the same amount of backlinks as your competitors, that's a signal that you have other issues to worry about. Perhaps your content is not properly optimized, or you have crawl problems. Maybe your site is only a few months old and your competitors' sites are 4 years old.
For this, I use Majestic's Backlink History tool. This tool gives you a graph of your backlink history and can be used to compare domains. For a site that is continually building good links, you'd expect to see that represented in a nice, gradually increasing line. If you can see link spikes, that may or may not be a bad thing. Link spikes can occur naturally (with linkbait, trending topics, etc) but they can sometimes be a sign that something fishy is going on. Notice the types of graphs that you see for your competitors. Do all of them have major link spikes? If so, maybe this is the norm for your industry. If not, and YOU do, you might want to consider trying to link build on a more gradual basis, without periods where you're not getting any new links.
Distribution of anchor text:
I like this one especially because it gives me a great idea of what distribution is typical for the niche. Check to see how many (and/or what percentage of) links use basic keywords, URLs, site names, company names, Click Here text, long-tailed phrases, etc. You may realize that your competitors are all doing something (like maybe using more non-keywordized links) that you aren't yet doing.
No follow links:
While most people do not actively seek out a no-follow link, they can be fantastic for traffic, if they're on a nice visible section of a great site. However, it's simply no longer natural to have a link profile that contains NO no-followed links, no matter what types of site they're on.
As is the case with no-followed links, it's no longer very natural to have a profile without any image links. Image links are sometimes better than text links for various reasons.
Distribution of domains linking into site:
If you check backlinks and find 1000 links, you may initially think that's good if your competitors only have 50 links. However, if you dig down into the domains linking in and find that your 1000 backlinks are actually coming from 2 sites, that isn't good, as it indicates sitewide links. While I'm not completely against the use of sitewide links, I do think that many of them are very unnatural and spammy. If your competitors are all getting one link per domain from a variety of sites, that's much better than your 1000 sitewides all coming from just a couple of sites.
Please keep in mind that competitive analysis is sometimes more art than science. While it's good to get the numbers and see what you're doing vs. what they're doing, it definitely does not mean that copying their footprints is a guarantee of your success. However, it's definitely a useful exercise in finding out your weak spots and correcting them.