Researching your competitors’ organic rankings is a great way to build your own link-building strategy or figure out what they’re doing.
Ranking signals aren’t the only thing that matters, but links are still one of the biggest (if not the biggest).
If you want to find out what works for your competitors, you’ll probably pick those that rank particularly well for your target queries.
One thing to keep in mind: Pick your peers (sites in your vertical or niche). Stay away from big websites (big box stores, Wikipedia, etc.) that play in lots of verticals but rank above you.
The only thing you can learn from Amazon’s backlink profile is that they’re doing well being a web giant.
Starting early (and earning all those age and trust signals over time) is certainly a good idea from your oldest competitors.
You should instead look for sites that have seen recent rankings growth to see what’s working for them. That’s what will make your competitive research actionable, i.e. help you build and implement your own strategy.
After you’ve got 2-4 competitors to analyze, make sure you rule out all the red flags. Starting with what you don’t want to do is the best way to get started. To find the best links within your industry, filter out those lower-quality, often risky links.
The first step is to filter out the red flags
In link building, too much of any tactic can be detrimental, but let’s get specific. Here are some red flags to look out for:
Anchor text that matches exactly
Do you see a lot of backlinks with the same (or almost the same) anchor text? You’re probably getting (or have already gotten) into trouble for poor and outdated link building.
Look for dips in organic visibility that may have happened over the years using Semrush or your favorite SEO tool, when you see a backlink profile full of obvious SEO links.
They won’t let you access their disavow file, so chances are they’ve gradually regained rankings by urging Google to discount those low-quality links. The chances are they’ll lose rankings eventually if those links haven’t yet.
However, it doesn’t have to be a manual penalty: Google may already be discounting those links, so they don’t impact their organic visibility.
You don’t want these links in either case.
Link building tactics that are outdated
Many backlink profiles still use outdated link-building patterns. These include:
Blog network links
Article directory links
Content syndication (Press releases or other)
Low-quality guest posting links
Don’t click on links from sites that ask you to submit an article or sponsor content. Don’t link to thin content that’s just there to link to your competitor. Look for obvious patterns behind those backlinks: The same link-building tactic appears over and over again.
There’s no point in investing in these types of links; they’re probably also discounted by Google.
The second step is to learn from their success
Having learned what to avoid, let’s take a look at what your competitor’s backlink profile has to offer.
You’ll learn more about your competitors if you pick them wisely based on organic visibility. It’s obvious that Google likes those backlinks, or at least they’re doing something right if those sites rank well.
What can you learn from your competitors’ backlink profiles?
1. What your competitors are doing with content marketing
What kind of content generates links for your competitors? Which of their posts gets the most links? Do they have any viral content assets or get picked up by notable web publications? Do you think yours can do better?
There’s no way to know what goes on behind the scenes, but it’s usually obvious when a particular content asset generates solid links.
The content that went viral and got hundreds of links or a resource page that got cited by highly trusted websites like universities and government agencies is usually easy to spot.
Do you think you can recreate those types of assets for your website and make them better?
It’s also a good idea to identify high-ranking content from your competitors. Blogs and journalists use Google to find sources, so content that ranks on top of Google gets links naturally. Ranking your articles is also a link acquisition tactic, giving you organic link equity on a continuous basis without having to do anything active.
Find out what your competitors’ articles are ranking for.
Check the backlinks of those articles to see if they work.
Make your content better so you can claim those rankings.
Be on the lookout for high-level tactics that bring your competitors rankings and links. Topical links come from what kind of content? They’re usually:
Glossaries and knowledge bases;
In-depth how-to content;
Statistical studies and survey results (these tend to be the most powerful), etc.
2. How your competitors reach out
Can you tell me who your competitors are reaching out to?
You can usually tell by the links they get:
Journalism outreach gets you links from news outlets
To get trusted links from educators (college professors, teachers, etc.), you need trust-bait content
Blogger outreach (and often creating viral assets, like free tools and infographics) is key to getting links from blogs.
What links seem to dominate your competitors’ backlink profiles? You’ll make better decisions if you know the answer to this question.
3. Influencer marketing tactics your competitors use
What are your competitors’ content amplifiers? Other words, who’s getting those links from your competitors (authors, niche experts, etc.)?
There are a lot of reasons why influencer marketing works:
You can link from a lot of niche influencers’ sites and blogs
When you choose your influencers wisely, they can drive organic links just by sharing your content.
Interviews, podcasts, Q&As, etc., can help you engage with influencers within your niche.
Your competitors’ backlink profiles can be hard to track when they use influencer-based tactics. A sudden spike in backlinks to your competitor’s site is hard to correlate without knowing what’s causing it.
You can get a better understanding of competitive backlinks with social media research and listening. Find out who’s talking about your competitors’ brands on Twitter and Instagram and what kind of audience is listening to those messages. Tools like Keyhole (a social media analytics platform) and Milled (a newsletter archive) can help you distinguish those sources of influence and match them with your competitor’s backlink profile.
The bottom line
Knowing what to look for in competitive backlinks can be enlightening.
Trying to get every good link from them is pointless. How can I do the same but better? Take a higher-level approach: What are they doing to generate links?
Google won’t rank your site higher if you’re just as good as your competitor. Keep improving: Better content, better outreach, better promotion tools. Many companies choose to hire a better link-building company to do this right, since it takes a lot of “heavy lifting” internally. You’ll have a better chance of earning and maintaining top rankings over time if you stay on top of your competitor’s backlinks (and your own!).
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