When you are just getting started with link building, one of the first tactics you should turn to is competitive research. Competitive research will allow you to find more than just your competitor’s backlinks — it will give you insight into most of the organic online marketing strategies your competitors use to get visibility among their target audience, allowing you to find the best online marketing strategies to get in front of your target audience.
In this post, we are going to look at the four important components to a successful competitor research strategy. At the end, we’ll also give you a helpful resource to guide you through the process.
Defining Your Competitors
The first component of a successful competitor research strategy is simply defining your competitors. From an SEO standpoint, a competitor is anyone ranking above you on the first page of search results for the keywords you are targeting. Moz offers a great tool in its Pro account plan: the Keyword Difficulty tool.
Let’s say that one of the primary keyword sets you are targeting for your SEO campaign is online college. When you enter that into the Keyword Difficulty tool, you will get the following listing of the top 10 search results for that keyword, along with each competitor’s page authority, domain authority, and number of root domains linking to both the page itself and the root domain.
This analysis will tell you three things. First, it will tell you if you are targeting the right keyword. Seven out of 10 of the results for online college are actual online colleges, and the remaining three are online college directories and resources. If you are not an online college, online college directory, or online college resource, this may not be the right choice of keywords.
Second, it will tell you how difficult the competition is for the keyword set you are targeting. If you have a website that is starting from scratch, it will take a while to build up the domain authority and number of root domains linking in to make it to the first five spots on the first page.
Third, it might give you some insights into other keywords you could be targeting. You can quickly see in this list other keywords used by competitors, including online schools, online degrees, and online programs. You can go back to the Keyword Difficulty tool to run reports on each of these and determine more competitors for your research. You’ll also see a comparison of each keyword’s difficulty and search volume on Bing per month.
Alternatively, if you want to do your research without using the Keyword Difficulty tool, you can find competitors by entering the keywords you are targeting into Google search. Be sure to turn off any personalization options or log out of your Google account. If you’re doing competitor research for a local business, you will also want to make sure your Google search is set up using the location of the business’s ideal client.
Researching Competitor Backlinks and Opportunities
Once you have a good list of competitors, your next job will be to start researching the competitors themselves. Here are two ways to find the best backlinks and opportunities.
Do a Google search for the competitor’s name.
Remember to remove personalization from your search by logging out of your Google account and changing your location settings to that of your ideal customer’s.
The first couple of pages for your competitors will reveal a lot about their online marketing strategy, starting with whether they use paid search ads, their Google+ presence, and other recommended-by-Google competitors.
Next, you should see what other types of results come up for the competitor, such as other domains owned by the competitor, news articles about them, media, and Wikipedia entries.
You will want to continue looking at the next couple of pages of search results, especially if the competitor has a lot of branded domains like the one above. The next few pages will reveal the competitor’s top social profiles, business listings, and local listings.
One way to quickly save all of these results is to use Google Chrome and the SEOquake Google Chrome Extension. Upon installing this extension, go to your Tools menu and the Extensions page in Chrome, find SEOquake, and click on the Options link. In the options, click on the SERPs tab and change “Get all parameters on page load” to “Get all parameters by request.” This simple change will keep you from getting Google captchas throughout the day.
Once the extension is installed and configured, you can perform your Google search as normal. Then, look for the Show as CSV button. You can click on this and get a version of the search results that you can copy and paste into an Excel spreadsheet.
Once you’ve copied and pasted a few pages of search results into your spreadsheet:
- Delete the rows that start with URL;”Google pagerank”
- Highlight (click on) column A
- Click on Text to Columns under the Data menu in Excel
- Select Delimited and click the Next button
- Uncheck Tab, check Other, and put a semicolon in the box
- Click the Next button and then the Finish button
- Delete columns B through K
Now, your spreadsheet will list the top search results for your competitor. These will include social networks, directories, and other link-building opportunities that you can pursue — ones that you know Google will rank well.
Use a backlink research tool.
Use a backlink research tool to see the external links competitors have pointing to their websites and see those links’ authority.
There are a lot of backlink research tools out there. One popular option is Open Site Explorer for Moz Pro users. You can enter your competitor’s website and see an exportable table view of its backlinks. Be sure to change the From dropdown to external and The Pages To dropdown to pages on this root domain or subdomain. This will allow you to get the incoming external backlinks to your competitor’s entire domain or subdomain as opposed to just links to its homepage.
Another great tool is CognitiveSEO’s Backlink Explorer. This tool quickly gives you a trending timeline view of your competitor’s link profile, a visual exploration of nofollow versus dofollow links, and an exportable table of the backlinks themselves that categorizes the backlinks from high- to no-authority.
You can also set up a campaign in CognitiveSEO and use its inBound Link Analysis tool to get even more details about competitor backlinks, including the backlink’s webpage type, link position, link context, and webpage category. This can help you quickly find specific types of link-building opportunities, including separating grouped links (meaning that they are in a blog roll or footer, or in a list) from in-content links.
Other popular SEO resources that offer backlink research tools include Ahrefs, MajesticSEO, Raven Tools, and Link Research Tools. The key is to find a tool that fits your budget while providing you with the information you want to know about your competitor’s backlinks in a way that helps you fully understand its link profile and gauge which links are the highest quality.
What is the result of in-depth backlink research? You will find a majority of the link-building opportunities that your competitor has taken advantage of to get higher rankings in search.
Qualifying Specific Types of Link Opportunities
While most of these tools will give you a page and domain authority ranking that you can use to qualify specific link opportunities, you will want to go beyond the SEO to further qualify them. Here are the types of link-building opportunities you should be on the lookout for when analyzing a competitor’s backlink profile along with additional ways to ensure they will be quality backlinks for your website.
The following applies to just about any backlink opportunity:
Does the website come up in the first couple of pages of search results for your competitor?
If the answer is yes (and it’s not RipOffReport or similar negative sites), then it’s likely to be a good link-building opportunity.
Does the website receive search engine traffic?
Getting your link on a site that doesn’t receive traffic or has potentially been penalized by Google isn’t going to help your profile. SEMrush allows you to search domains and see the traffic they receive from Google search over specific time periods. You can use it to quickly see if the trend is consistent, increasing, or decreasing. For example, here is Yelp’s traffic.
You can see that Yelp’s search traffic is going up. Now compare that to Ezine Articles, one of the article networks that was hit by the first major Google algorithm change aimed at removing low-quality content from search results.
As you can see, its traffic has been on a constant decline and has never recovered, making it a poor link opportunity. You’ll also find sites that have previously been hit by a Google algorithm change or penalty that are making a comeback, such as Self Growth.
You will want to aim for sites that are consistent or increasing when it comes to Google search traffic. The exception would the following:
Is the website reputable in your industry?
Not all sites that have been hit by a Google algorithm change are bad. Google most recently hit eBay, which resulted in an 80% loss of eBay’s best search results. That said, eBay is still a reputable site for businesses that sell products.
So in this case, you just have to use a judgment call. If a website still gets traffic from the ideal audience, and is likely to be a revenue generator, then it should still be considered a good link opportunity.
Now, let’s look at specific link-building opportunities and their qualifiers.
Guest Post Opportunities
Guest blogging for SEO has gotten a bad reputation of late due to the proliferation of low-quality, bulk content, but the fact remains it is still viable and highly effective if you follow these specific qualifiers:
Does the blog publish high-quality content that is relevant to your industry?
Getting a guest blog post on Search Engine Land for SEO companies is a valuable opportunity for authority building, link building, and traffic generation. Why? Because the site always publishes high-quality content about topics related to search engine optimization and search engine marketing.
Getting a guest post on a blog that will cover any topic under the sun using content that is subpar is, on the other hand, not a valuable opportunity for anyone.
Does the blog get a strong level of engagement (social shares, comments, etc.)?
Blogs that generate a lot of engagement — tweets, likes, +1s, and comments in particular — that is relevant to your industry are also a safe bet. Blogs with low-quality content tend to receive very low social engagement.
Does the blog get quality comments?
Sadly, you can buy comments on sites like Fiverr, which means that the number of comments is not necessarily the qualifier — the quality of the comments, however, is. If you see a blog that has great comments (and in particular, discussions among the readers and the author), then you’re likely looking at a great guest post opportunity.
Does the blog have regular contributors?
Regular contributors of high-quality content on a blog signify that it is a good opportunity — especially when it comes to guest bloggers. If someone is regularly contributing to a blog, it means that blog is likely generating great traffic and authority.
Social profile links aren’t necessarily going to help you in search results, unless you account for the fact that profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest typically come up on the first or second page of search results. That said, links on social profiles could be great traffic generators if you consider the following:
Does your target audience engage on the social network?
With a billion active monthly users, you can assume social networks like Facebook are a shoe-in for any website. When it comes to social networks outside of the main five mentioned earlier, take some time to look at the people who engage on that network. If your website pertains to the elderly, and the social network is full of nothing but teenagers, it’s probably not a good fit.
Does your competitor have an active profile with lots of engagement?
If you have competitors on a social network that are posting regular updates, and those updates are getting engagement (comments, shares, likes), then there’s a strong chance you will also be able to connect with your target audience. Thus, having a profile with a link back to your website is a must.
Local, Business, and Review Networks
There are hundreds of websites businesses can create profiles on based on their industry and location. Here are some qualifiers on which ones to tackle as soon as possible:
Does your competitor have an active profile with lots of reviews?
If so, then the network is not just a link opportunity, but an opportunity to generate business as well.
Does your audience use the site to find specific types of businesses?
Lots of brides choose networks like The Knot to find wedding vendors. Therefore, if your website pertained to a wedding business, it should be listed there. The same goes for other popular industry-specific websites such as HealthGrades for doctors, Avvo for lawyers, and so forth.
Is the network reputable?
Yelp, Yellow Pages, and BBB, for example, are all well-known names for local businesses. Local businesses can also look at citations by city and citations by category to find other reputable local business networks that are important for their business.
In general, mentions from established media outlets both online and off are great for any website. If you’re not sure where to start, sign up as a source on Help a Reporter Out. You will receive daily emails with media opportunities.
Resource pages are tricky, as there are some legitimate resource pages and others that were built for SEO purposes. Here’s how to qualify them:
Is the resource page based on reciprocal linking?
On the “built for SEO purposes” side are resource pages that were created for link exchanges. This is where one website links to another one in exchange for a link. Both links are generally placed on resource pages, partner pages, and links of interest pages. For the most part, resource pages that you can get a link on simply by adding their link to your website first are ones to avoid.
Was the resource page created by a trusted person or organization?
This is where .gov and .edu sites typically come into play. Both are strongly moderated, which will make them difficult to get on. But because of that difficulty, you know that it is going to be a trusted source for people, and therefore trusted by Google.
Are other links on the resource page reputable?
An easy way to tell A) the difficulty level of getting on a resource page and B) if it’s worth it is to check out the other links on the page. If the rest of the links on the page are very relevant and high-quality, then it’s worth making the attempt to get listed.
In most cases, you can’t go wrong with sponsorships that lead to links. You’ll want to aim for relevancy in two areas:
Is the sponsorship in my region?
If you have a business in Phoenix and there is a charity or sponsorship opportunity, it’s relevant because you are supporting your local community. Assuming your business isn’t a poor fit with the sponsorship (such as a tobacco company sponsoring a lung cancer charity race), then it’s a good opportunity.
Is the sponsorship in my industry?
For non-local sponsorship opportunities, you have to ask if the opportunity is relevant to your industry. For example, if you are going to be a conference sponsor, will the conference be relevant to your customer base or peers? If the answer for either group is yes, then it is a good opportunity for both your business and your link profile.
Spamming in the form of blog comments and forum posts goes against Google’s webmaster guidelines. That said, if you are commenting on blogs and posting on forums as part of a discussion — without keyword-optimized anchor text links — then you have the ability to establish authority while getting a few links. Here are some ways to qualify community-engagement link opportunities:
Is the blog or forum relevant to your industry?
If the blog or forum is visited by your customers or peers, the answer is yes. But you still need to be able to answer the following.
Does the blog or forum have real discussions?
It’s easy to distinguish real discussions from other spam comments and posts. If you will be engaging with others in real conversations, and not just adding commentary for a link, then you’ve found a good opportunity to contribute meaningful conversation and get some link benefits.
In addition to blogs and forums, be sure to look at Q&A sites like Quora and Yahoo Answers. Depending on your industry, there are lots of great questions you can answer — potentially with links from your own website.
Monitoring Future Opportunities
The quest for links does not end once you have capitalized on all of the opportunities that your competitors have acquired so far. There’s a good chance that your competitors are finding new opportunities on a regular basis — ones that you will also want to take advantage of.
This is why you will want to regularly monitor your competitor’s backlink profile. You can do this using some of the aforementioned backlink research tools, as many will allow you to refresh your competitor’s backlink report — some will even allow you to filter links by when they were added. You can also use tools like Monitor Backlinks, which will email you new links in your competitor’s link profile on a regular basis, and Google Alerts, which will email you whenever your competitor receives a new mention on the Web.
As a bonus tip, use Google Alerts (or Talkwalker Alerts if you prefer a non-Google alternative) for monitoring your own website. You might discover new mentions that don’t link to you — ones that happily would link to you if you contacted them.