Google still ranks sites based on the inbound links leading to them. Nothing much has changed about that in the last decade. Thus
it can be very helpful to find out who is linking to your competition to literally reproduce or even steal these links.
There are advanced tools out there that help you with that task. There are also free tools for more advanced users.
Which tools to start with for free
You have probably noticed it already: Linksspy offers a very advanced and automated way to find link opportunities. These links are also suggested based on competitive intelligence.
Let's assume you are not willing to pay for our tools or consider yourself savvy enough to find those opportunities manually on your own. You can do that by using widely available tools.
Personally I use Ahrefs for link intelligence usually, but I'm biased as I also work for them.
Other people also use Open Site Explorer from Moz, the Majestic tools or WebMeUp. Using a paid account from one of these toolsets is a good idea in case you do link building work regularly (that is like every month or more often).
In the free version Ahrefs only shows you 10 links and thus you may want to use OSE in case your budget is zero. OSE shows you all links for free, it just hides the link assessment data. You can't view page and domain level metrics then for each link.
It's in many cases sufficient to just view the incoming link and it's whereabouts.
The most important information is the actual page that links to you. Everything else can be found out with free tools like SEOquake. The point of viewing the backlink profiles of competing sites is to find out about the sites that link to the competition and to make those sites to link to you as well. You can do it by sending outreach messages for example.
Don't obsess about metrics, view the actual site, use your brain
Many people in the SEO industry obsess about domain authority and such but I don't. I usually just look at the site in question with my own eyes.
An old site that has been dead for years can have a very high authority but you won't be able to replicate the link.
A new site that has been around for below a year might not have a lot of authority yet but the site owner or blogger may be hyperactive and a talented writer so that a high authority is to be expected sooner or later while the attention of a large audience is already available. Don't get blinded by SEO metrics then but make sure to follow your gut-feeling that says "this is a cool site" as well.
I decided to use my own blog to show both the pros and cons of the metrics-oriented approach. As my blog is already several years old some of my best links are hard to copy after such a long time. For example a blog that accepted a guest post 5 years ago might not do that anymore or be completely "archived".
I'm on some blogrolls from way back several years
as well. I have even been contributing to the Hubspot blog long before they became the multimillion dollar enterprise powerhouse they are now. Thus just looking for long-standing authority sites you compete against might be a bit limiting. Also choose and inspect sites that are very similar to you, not just the ones that rank on top or represent industry veterans.
Surprise, my best links are not the ones you'd expect
According to Moz my top 5 links (not counting or displaying the "nofollow" ones) are from
This might be surprising as I have been linked to my Moz, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal in the meantime as well. Yet those curated lists and articles haven't been that impactful it seems. A link from Moz is actually at #6 but not the one where Rand Fishkin himself linked to me. Instead a far older YouMoz contributed article shows up there. In this case it's even more helpful. Why?
You don't get Rand Fishkin to link to you with ease.
In fact I have been contributing to the SEO community for ages before he linked out to me for the first time. Contributing to YouMoz is a pretty good idea though. The likelihood to get your post promoted and to get that editorial link is much higher than by begging Rand Fishkin (or any other high profile influencer) for attention.
Influencer ass kissing is pretty en vogue these days but the more popular the technique the less successful it gets as there is only a finite number of influencers while the number of site owners wanting to get links is growing steadily.
My number one link is a group interview with advice from multiple experts on a highly popular blog with more than a hundred thousands of subscribers.
It's not that easy to get into such an expert round. You could attempt to contribute to Wordtracker though. Pitch them with some awesome idea. Alltop.com is of course the place to be as a blogger. It's like the ultimate curated blog directory. You can even apply directly. Make sure your blog is established when you do apply and has some visible readership by then. Blogmetrics is a similar list but I'm not even sure you can apply there.
Obviously going after the links that are highest on the list is much more difficult in many cases that trying to reproduce a link a bit more down the list with a little less authority.
Many backlink profiles are not replicable
My example has a backlink profile full of real editorial links whereas many other sites have mostly links from their own properties or other links that have been only pointed at them due to SEO efforts. That's often the biggest challenge.
Finding the links that can be truly copied because the sites do not belong to your competition or get paid by them is hard. Especially large brands have a lot of sites and other companies linking to them where each site has the same corporate owner. That's why
I mostly look for blogs and small private sites to be able to replicate the links of the competition.
These low hanging fruit can be picked by sending outreach messages for example. The hardcore top tier links from press mentions or
- trade fairs
- trade associations
and the likes are much harder to get as you have to join the same organizations or at least to contribute at a similar level. There are sometimes easier ways to get there though than the competition took. So don't give up from the start but go after the easy wins as well to get some inbound links quickly.
Going after the easiest links – a double edged sword
There are even easier links than the ones you get by trying to get featured on blogs by your peers – that is individual bloggers covering your topic/industry without being hugely popular yet aka influencers.
On good days I might look like an influencer myself, after all I even got links from a college or two but the really easy to replicate links are rather
- the comment links
- the linklist lists
- the translation links
Comment links are pretty risky these days as there have been a lot of abuse going on for years and I don't even mean the automated spam. Yet, I still comment a lot and I don#t care whether the links are "nofollow" or not and Google wants me to shut up.
I comment for the relationship with the blogger mostly and to get the word out about whatever is important to say and add to a post.
Just contribute by commenting in a friendly and useful manner and you can get a few legit links by that way as well. Don't rely heavily on blog commenting for incoming links though. That's a surefire recipe to get penalized by Google by now. They count the comment links and the higher your comment link ratio the bigger the danger of getting slapped.
Linklists may be compromised by now but many are still perfectly fine. By linklist I mean a list of links that has been manually published, not a blogroll. There are still webmasters taking care of such lists who are really glad to get a hat tip by mail as long as it's relevant. I just recently got some links like that for a client.
Adding a site to a highly relevant linklist was a clear win to win situation for both the linklist owner and my client.
Google considers linklists and directories to be suspicious per se though. So only go after the ones that really look legit and not like solely made for SEO purposes years ago. Ideally these lists of links are strictly topical not dealing with anything and everything.
Translation is one of the easiest ways to get high quality links. You can translate blog content, software interfaces, manuals, even whole sites. There will always be someone thankful for your help and eager to point to the translated version or simply giving you a "thank you" link.
Sadly Google considers links from abroad and especially those in languages other than your own to be "unnatural" in many cases.
Thus you have to make sure not to appear strange to Google. How to do that? In case of translation I'm not even sure myself. By adding a "nofollow" you can cripple your own SEO efforts to play safe. Why translating at all then? There might be not enough traffic or other benefits from a "nofollow" link.
* Creative Commons image by Luís Vieira