Competitive Link Analysis: How to Audit Your Competitors’ Links

Competitive Link Analysis: How to Audit Your Competitors' Links

Backlink strategies can provide you with visible SERP ranking advantages. The answer to many link building stumbling blocks is competitive link analysis. That’s because by analyzing what your top competitors are doing to earn vital backlinks, you can discover new backlinking opportunities and the content types that other businesses in your niche use. When backlinks remain one of the most important factors that search engines use to rank you on their results pages, it’s a vital goal to aim for. While earning your own backlinks through organic methods or more advanced link-building techniques, competitive link analysis gives you the chance to earn some backlink wins.

First Steps: The Right Tools

A wide range of competitor analysis tools and resources can streamline the entire process. Before you get started with competitive link analysis, make sure that you have access to at least two of the following because you want to have a more holistic analysis that you can only do by using multiple resources:

  • Majestic Site Explorer
  • Ahrefs
  • Moz Open Site Explorer
  • SEMrush
  • Link Research Tools (LRT)

SEO professionals will tend to have their own preferences and will argue over which of the listed link analysis tools is best. Ideally, you should look through each one and determine which one is within your budget and has the required features. In most cases, LRT is the tool that gives you the most data, while Ahrefs is more well-known and has a more accessible user interface. However, all of the competitive link analysis tools available come with how-to guides to show you how to get the most from each platform.

Knowing Your Keywords

If you’re investigating how to carry out competitive link analysis, you’re probably already some way into your SEO process. That means that you should already have an awareness of your brand’s keywords. If competitive link analysis is your first step towards improving your SEO, make use of keyword analysis. Thousands of online guides will walk you through learning your industry and local keywords, and you will need to build that list before you can take another step towards competitive link analysis. You need to:

  • Understand what your niche is.
  • Have clearly defined industry goals.
  • Know the topics that are relevant to your industry and niche.
  • Understand what your seed keywords are.
  • Know that you have to use robust keyword research tools.
  • Have an awareness of search intent.
  • Learn about the value of long-tail keywords.

Listing Your Competitors

Once you know your keywords, it’s time to find out who your competitors are. Head to Google and input a search query for your business’s service, using the keywords you have identified. This will give you a SERP of your competitors. Ideally, you want to appear as high as possible on that SERP, and you may even be at the top of the page. Remember that when doing any kind of Google SERP test for your business, it’s best to conduct your searches using incognito mode. Otherwise, Google will know your search history and, considering that you probably spend a lot of time on your own brand’s website, will alter your results, not giving you a true reflection of the market.

After getting your SERP results, start with a list of five competitors. Trying to carry out link analysis on more than five sites can give you too much information to look through and benefit from, so stick to five for now and grow that list as you become faster and more up-to-date. These websites will all be visible on page one of an industry keyword-related SERP, meaning they are doing something right with their SEO and backlink strategy. Learning what they do and implementing it yourself can help your business rank among or even above them.

Top Tip: It’s also a good idea to Google your business. Type the following into the search bar:

This will give you a list of businesses and websites that Google believes are similar to yours, and this can be a great way to identify competitors that you may not be aware of. Ahrefs has a similar feature, which you can find on the ‘Competing Domains’ tab, and you’ll be able to find something similar on LRT. It’s likely that you already have a list of your real-world competitors, especially if you’re a smaller and more localized business. SEMrush has a great reporting function to help you identify exactly who your biggest competitors are. Use their Organic Research Competitors report, which will generate a complete inventory for you.

See all of the competitor names that you probably already know and find some new ones. Use the SEMrush competition level function to show you how closely your domain competes with any other one. The rating system has two factors:

  • The number of ranked keywords that your competitor has
  • The percentage of those keywords that you use

Checking Competitors

Before you create your list of the top five competitors, check all of their websites manually. You want to ensure that they are direct competitors and operating on a similar scale to you. You don’t want to compete with the biggest brands in the world if you’re a small, local business. Trying to do this is similar to running in a marathon as an amateur against sporting professionals. Try as you might, getting to the race won’t be as easy for you as it is for them.

Creating the List

You should now have a list of your competitors. Export that list into a spreadsheet, and sort them by:

  • Domain Authority
  • Referring Domain Count
  • Number of backlinks they have

If you’re using a tool like Ahrefs, you should, at this point, set up a competitor backlink alert.

This will let you know when one of your listed competitors has earned themselves a new link. This is an extremely useful feature and will mean that you get a weekly email that lets you know all of the backlinks that your competition has earned over the last seven days. Using this alert system means that you will always be up to date with your competitive link analysis, meaning that you can react faster to steal their links.

Next, input those competitors’ URLs into your competitive link analysis tool of choice. Whichever one you have opted for, access a report that lists all of the backlinks and the referring domains that your direct competition has. If you’re using Majestic, Ahrefs, or Moz Open Site Explorer, you can export that list of URLs to your spreadsheet.

It’s likely at this point that you have a list of your primary keywords. Do your research for a combination of these to determine and fine-tune your overall list of competitors. Once you have your list of links that your competitors have earned and ranked, remove any duplicate listings. You will now have a list of the unique URLs that are linking to your competitors.

Reducing Your Competitor Link List

Not every link that your competitors have earned is going to be of value to you. Your next step is to work your way through those URLs and get rid of any low-quality links. Put each URL into a tool like Moz and check for the authority score of those sites. Get rid of any of the links on your list that fall below your standards and identify what each of the links is. Consider whether they are one of the following:

  • Editorially embedded links (high value)
  • Guest posts (medium value)
  • Links on a resource page (can be high value if on an .edu or .gov domain)
  • Comments with a link added on a blog or a forum (low value)
  • Directories (medium value)
  • A profile page on a social media site or free blog site (very low value)

Go through that list of links and sort them in order of value and how easy those links are to get. The harder a backlink is to earn, the more value it has. When it comes to competitive link analysis, the more you know about what makes for a high-value link, the easier it will be to know which of your competitors’ links are worth investigating further. What you’re looking for are:

  • Opportunities for linking from a branded text URL
  • Any domains that have linked multiple times to your competitors’ domain
  • Shared links that your competitors have that you don’t
  • Dead or broken links

You’re looking for opportunities that will allow you to earn yourself a backlink. For example, if you see any branded anchor text placed by an editor, you need to check that site as it may be something that you can appear on, such as:

  • An industry-relevant resource page that you can ask the site owner to add you on
  • An industry directory that you should already be on
  • Citations that you can deliver as well
  • Guest posting opportunities on relevant sites
  • Testimonials that you can deliver
  • Case studies where the writer can mention you.

Even if you’re working on your backlinks to promote a specific page of content, the fact is that the goal when starting with competitive link analysis should be to try and earn as many links to your homepage as possible. Homepage links are extremely high-value and general increase brand reputation. However, understand that not all of the links that you discover using competitive link analysis will be worth anything to you. You may get spam links, paid-for links, or backlinks from domains with very little authority. In some cases, those links will harm your SEO. Paying for backlinks goes against Google’s Webmaster guidelines and can result in the search engine de-indexing your page.

That will lead to the nightmare of trying to get a link penalty removed, which can take a long time and is incredibly laborious.

Identifying Competitors’ Strengths

Next, analyze the strength of your competitors’ keywords. Most link analysis tools have the available sections to help you with this. On SEMrush, you’ll need to use the Position Changes report.

Using this resource means that you will see any sudden changes in how your competitors are ranking. If you see that a competitor has a sudden performance spike, click on that spike and then sort/filter to identify the keywords they are using. This is a quick and easy way to find a new content niche or a shift in direction by your competitors. Also, it’s worth using the available tools to identify any lost or declined keywords, which is an excellent way to find out where your competitors have either been penalized or have lost their SERP positions. This can be a good opportunity to emulate the keyword use they tried and do it right instead.

Keyword Gap Report

Both Moz and SEMrush will let you easily find out what your competitors are doing exceptionally well. The Keyword Gap Report on SEMrush will allow you to compare five websites, highlighting the unique keywords that only one of your competitors ranks for. The Keyword Gap Report indicates the strong and the weak spots for any website, which is extremely high-value when looking at your competition. This means that you can:

  • Audit your competitors’ content to see that they have more indexed pages or more use of ranking keywords.
  • Spot where your competitors have a higher domain authority than you, highlighting the need to work harder on your backlinking strategy and adopt more advanced link building techniques.
  • Monitor GMB performance, which will indicate that you don’t have enough information or reviews on Google My Business.

Creating Value

The goal of competitive link analysis isn’t to mimic what your competitors are doing. Instead, you should use it as a way to spot gaps in their SEO strategies and use what you have learned to create more focused and unique content on your website. At the heart of all SEO is the need to provide value, which means making content that both humans and algorithms love. A basic copying strategy will not incentivize Google or any other search engine to rank your website higher on their SERPs. Instead, create value that your competitors lack; competitive link analysis is often the start of much longer content creation and outreach processes. The more work you put into it, the more relevant and important your website and brand name become, which will take you further up search engine results pages for your identified keyword queries.

A Word On Shared Competitor Links

While filtering out duplicate links on your competitors’ link spreadsheet, you may notice that some of your competitors appear on the same domain URL. Check the anchor text of those links for industry relevance and to know more about what kind of content that domain is creating. In many cases, you’ll find that this is an industry-relevant website that writes about your business niche. That makes it ideal for a little bit of outreach work. Check the website comprehensively and send them your own stellar content if you spot the opportunity to do so. Resource pages and industry directories can cause shared links.

Competitor Objectives

Develop a deeper awareness of what your competitors are hoping for when creating their backlink strategy. It could be that they want to promote content. Others may seek higher domain authority, while a different competitor may want better keyword ranking performance on the SERP. In many cases, the answer will be a combination of all these objectives.

Trust Flow

Also, you need to know where you stand amongst your competitors in terms of trust flow and citation flow. This will let you know more about the quantity and the quality of your existing backlinks.

  • Trust flow: This evaluates how high-quality your existing backlinks are.
  • Citation flow: This focuses more on the number of your backlinks; citation flow estimates how popular your website is.

This data will give you something of a baseline for your website, but that’s not all. By conducting these tests on your competitors’ websites, you can glean insights into where you need to improve. Majestic is the best tool for this job, and it will highlight for you exactly what your best-performing pages are, as well as the most popular pages of your competitors.

Content Audits and Competitor Content Analysis

After, you need to carry out a content audit of your biggest competitors. Again, Ahrefs has the most easy-to-use features to help you with this, but there are alternatives that you can choose to suit your budget. Enter your competitors’ URLs into your link checker and (if you’re using the Ahrefs URL Profiler or the same tool on Buzzsumo) sort the content they have on the pages into high to low total shares and backlinks. Do this regularly with your own website because it will let you see a detailed breakdown of what kind of content your audience is engaging with and what you’re doing right (and wrong). Rather than making guesses blindly, start making changes that make a difference.

You should now have a list of the highest performing content your competitors have created and what kinds of content are backlinked to the most.

Top Tip: Do this kind of content analysis for domains that aren’t your direct competitors. Type your keywords into Google and then copy and paste the top 10 results into the Batch Analysis field on Ahrefs. This will give you a list of potential backlink sources related to your niche but aren’t competitors.

Now that you have a list of the most highly trusted and linked to pages on your competitor sites, make sure that you place the ‘one link per domain’ to eliminate any potential spam links. This will leave you with the highest authority backlinks. Reach out to those domains and submit your own great content for guest publication. Ensure that you manually review each domain before you contact them and that if you spot an opportunity to send them content, what you send to them will benefit their target audience.

Also, find guest posting possibilities by researching authors and industry thought leaders, even if they are significantly bigger than your own business. Type in:

‘Author name’ inurl:author

This will give you a complete list of any posts or articles they have written, meaning those publishing sites could be a possible source of guest posting opportunities.

Broken Competitor Links

It’s important to understand the importance of broken competitor links. If a competitor has a broken link that appears on another website, you have a golden opportunity to replace their broken link with one of yours. All of the backlink research tools will help you do this, and it can be one of your most high-value opportunities.

To replace a broken link, offer content that the website owner can link to as a replacement. To ensure that you have a good chance of the website owner accepting your offer, you need to create relevant content to the website’s niche that provides value. Also, you must learn how to write persuasive pitching emails to improve the probability of the website using your new link. Many email marketing software has templates that you can follow to help you write a good pitching email. Many have the functionality to batch send that email to multiple recipients. This allows you to target numerous broken backlinks at once.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself, even with the help of the tools, reach out to professionals who do this all the time. They can complete the task quickly and easily for you, giving you the best chance to secure guest posting opportunities. It may cost you money upfront, but getting it done right the first time ensures you don’t waste time with bloggers ignoring your email.

If you decide to tackle it on your own, do the following:

To pitch to website owners, you’ll first need to acquire their contact details. Although some websites might have a ‘contact us’ form, it could take days for the website or blog to reply to your query. Instead, you can gain more direct access to the website owner by using one of many pieces of software that can find contact details instantly. Some of the best software include the following, but do bear in mind that most of these require a paid subscription to use:

  • Voila Norbert
  • Hunter
  • Find That Email

The 6 Steps of Advanced Competitive Link Analysis

The goal of any competitive link analysis is to find the high-quality backlinks that your competition has earned. Finding spammy links will rarely be of benefit and may even result in a Google penalty. Competitive link analysis is about identifying insights into the work you need to do to stand out on SERPs and appear on them higher than your competitors. Here are the six steps that you need to take.

1: Comparing Backlink Profiles

This will always be your first step and the basis of the rest of your competitive link analysis. Using your backlink analysis tool of preference, you need to know exactly how many backlinks and referring domains have a link to your competitors’ websites. Also, you need to monitor how many backlinks you have continuously; otherwise, you will have no real insights into how you compare with the competition. Pay attention to the total number of referring domains if you want a clear picture of how you and your competitors are doing in terms of backlinks.

2: Analyze Backlink Acquisition Rate

Looking at the total backlinks does have value, but the context matters. A business that has spent years gathering organic backlinks is very different from a business that has been around for a bit but has only just started to rank on SERPs. In those cases, the business has likely made a sudden change to an SEO focus. That means that they are actively seeking out SEO opportunities, including backlink building. These are the businesses to monitor actively, while the more long-term and organic brands are the ones to look at their keyword ranking and their relationships with other websites more closely. Using Ahrefs as an example, you can find this information using the ‘referring domains’ graph. This graph gets updated regularly, so it’s a vital resource when implementing competitive link analysis.

3: Spotting Negative SEO Attacks

The ‘referring domains’ graph on Ahrefs is very useful for recognizing potential negative SEO attacks. Your competitors may resort to this black hat technique if you start to dominate SERPs and replace their existing backlinks. If one of your competitors is trying to get you to rank lower on SERPs, they may begin to post spammy links on every website that they can find. You need to know where those links are and either request their removal or add a NoFollow tag to them. If you spot that a competitor has been affected by negative backlinks, these are the backlinking opportunities that you know to avoid.

4: Spotting ccTLDs

Unless you have a target audience in China or Equatorial Guinea, you should avoid emulating any of your competitors’ backlinks that have a URL that ends with .gq or .cn. These are usually going to be spam. Most backlink tools will have a ccTLD graph that will show you the international distribution of your and your competitors’ accumulated backlinks. Check these often. In some cases, it may indicate that a competitor is starting to target a new geographical audience. In those cases, you’ll need to monitor their growth strategy overall rather than carrying out competitive link analysis.

5: Anchor Text Spam

When one website includes an editorial backlink, it will usually include relevant and natural anchor text. Branded anchor text is the best kind of link, and these are the competitor backlinks that you need to target as much as possible. When carrying out your competitive link analysis, you may find a lot of non-branded or crude language in the anchor text of the backlinks. All of the available backlink tools have a reporting tool for analyzing anchor text, so keep an eye out for unbranded keywords. The most common ones are:

  • Short term loans
  • Viagra
  • Casino sites

If your anchor link analysis shows that your site has some of these kinds of links, then they need to be dealt with. If you see that one or more of your competitors has these kinds of spammy backlinks, then ignore them.

6: Building Relationships

When you conduct your competitive link analysis, you will identify and target those websites with the highest domain authority relevant to your industry. While the end goal is to try and convince those domains to start linking to your homepage or specific content pages, the process shouldn’t necessarily be automatic. If you contact the website owner, make sure that you offer real value that their existing link isn’t. Try to build relationships with those website owners so that linking to your site becomes the norm and not something you have to fight for.

In Summary

It sometimes feels like competitive link analysis is cheating when it comes to SEO. It’s not, even though what it relies on is letting your competitors do a lot of hard work on your behalf. SEO and digital marketing require a lot to do, so saving time by looking at what others are doing frees up many resources. Competitive Link Analysis is a vital SEO strategy and needs to become part of your overall business growth strategy. When link building is so essential, no business owner can ignore competitive link analysis. It’s the white hat technique for link building that every business owner needs to take a closer look at as it can illuminate different solutions and opportunities to improve.

Using this guide, conduct your own competitive analysis, which can drastically boost your SEO and your brand, making you a more substantial business in the future. You save time and get great results – it doesn’t get any better than that!