Sometimes it’s not clear which links you should go after and that process is made much easier by simply looking at what your competition is doing. Once you find competitor backlinks it’s just a matter of copying them to have a chance at ranking in the top spot.
A competitor backlink analysis is a huge time-saving strategy that can put a laser focus on your link building campaign.
This guide will help you find competitor backlinks, assess their value, and develop a plan for outreach.
It is also a plan to help you accomplish a more important goal faster…outranking your competition in search.
When you boil it down, the strategy is pretty simple. Here it is in a nutshell.
- Find the competitors that are outranking you in search.
- Analyze their backlink profile (all of the sites pointing at their site).
- Develop a plan to earn the exact same links.
For a competitor backlink analysis tool we’re using Ahrefs however you can use whatever link analysis tool you like (Google will also show you links that are pointing at your site1 for free).
Keep in mind that to do the type of in-depth analysis that follows you’ll need something that can accurately report on keyword data, inbound links, and traffic volumes.
Ahrefs does all those things really well and they have an extensive link database. We use the software professionally for our client work and it’s extremely trustworthy.
Phase 1: Find Your Competitors
In order to see who is eating your lunch in search, you have to find who is ranking on the first page of Google for the keyword phrases you want to rank for.
We work predominately with law firms2 so we’re using a legal vertical keyword phrase in our examples.
Identify Top Competitors for Core Keyword Phrases Using the Keyword Explorer
Your core keyword phrases are those that you need to be ranking for in search based on the products and services you offer. For instance an attorney will use terms related to their practice area.
Core phrases should also have purchase intent meaning the searcher is motivated to buy. Location-based phrases for service-based businesses like law firms are good examples.
In our example we use ‘personal injury lawyer Houston’.
Identifying Your Core Keywords
A good first step in keyword research is to start with seed keywords. These are phrases related to your business you think people might be using to find you online.
The Keyword Explorer in Ahrefs is a great tool to use for this process.
Don’t worry about finding all the right phrases at this stage. Just plug some phrases you think are relevant into Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer and the tool will show you related terms that are actually being used.
We have one keyword phrase in our example but you will want to start with at least 4 or 5 to get a good list of related terms.
Not only can the Keyword Explorer show you other related phrases you may not have thought of, it can also give you data like search volume and keyword difficulty among other metrics.
While you are researching, keep a few things in mind:
- You should be looking for purchase-intent keywords that have volume.
- Avoid very broad terms; they are hard to rank for and make it difficult to ascertain user intent.
- Find a balance among phrases with high search volume, purchase-intent, and relevance.
The amount of core keyword phrases you have will depend on your business and for the purposes of this guide, choose one phrase that is most important for you to go after.
Here is what Ahrefs gave us for the keyword phrase personal injury lawyer houston:
“You can use the filters in the navigation menu on the left to show more focused lists of keyword match types like phrase match, synonyms, and suggested terms. You can also export these lists to a spreadsheet for easier manipulation and to save them for later use.”
From the Keyword Explorer report, select one parent keyword phrase that has good search volume, purchase intent, and that is relevant to your product or service.
This is the phrase you will use to find competitor backlinks.
Finding Your Top Competitors
Re-run the keyword explorer report using the single phrase you selected.
About halfway down the report page you’ll see the top competing domains and their respective pages ranking for the phrase in Google search.
These are your competitors and the URLs you’ll be using in the next part of the process.
Phase 2: Use the Link Intersect Tool to find competitor backlinks
You could plug your competitor’s URLs into Ahrefs one at a time and try to organize all the data but there is a much faster method.
The Link Intersect tool allows you to see all of the domains that are linking to your competition but not linking to you.
You can compare up to three domains at a time to your own site but in our experience things just get too cluttered when you analyze that many sites at once.
It’s far easier to do one at a time and then compile a list of all the domains you’ll need to target.
To start, visit the Link Intersect Tool.
Type your first competing domain into the first domain field (you can leave the drop down menu set on *.domain/*)
Next type in your own sites URL in the field next to the last drop down labeled ‘But doesn’t link to (optional)’.
Then click the orange ‘Show link opportunities’ button.
The resulting report will help you find competitor backlinks that are not linking to your site.
The domains in this report are the ones you will target for your own link building campaign.
In the next phase we will sort the URLs by Domain Rating3 and traffic values so we can get a decent list of high-quality sites to go after for our link building campaign.
Phase 3: Organize URLs by Domain Rating (Referring Domains)
The Link Intersect report has 4 columns:
- Referring domain: The domain linking to the site being analyzed.
- DR: Domain Rating of the referring domain
- Ahrefs rank4: This is Ahrefs ranking of the domain compared with all other sites in the world based on the size and quality of their backlink profile.
- Column 4 labeled with root-level domain: The pages where links are found for the domain being analyzed.
Like we mentioned earlier, if there are a ton of referring domains in the report then we need to narrow our choices down to the best links.
To do that, we are going to look at the Domain Rating of the referring domains in combination with the traffic volumes they are generating.
“When doing any kind of analysis (whether it’s metrics pulled from Google Analytics or the analysis we’re doing here with Ahrefs) avoid using metrics in isolation to make decisions. Using single pieces of data without comparing them to other data points for context can be misleading. For instance a site with a high Domain Rating may not drive a lot of traffic to the site it is linking to. What good is it to have a high DR referring domain if real people are not coming to your site?”
Sort the referring domains by Domain Rating by clicking on the DR header at the top of the column.
Now all of the domains are sorted with the highest DR first.
As a general rule (and depending on the spectrum of DR values on the domains you’re analyzing), you should go after links with a DR greater than 20.
“You will notice that we are looking at the top level referring domains and not all the pages which can be seen by clicking on the numbered box underneath the domain column. That’s because in link building, it is better to have links from multiple different domains rather than multiple links from the same domain. Each link to a site is a vote for that site in search and having many votes from many different sites is better than having many votes from the same site.”
Export all or a portion of the domains into a spreadsheet so that you can go through and remove the ones with low DR.
Phase 4: Further qualifying links — using the Batch Analysis Tool
We already have one good metric (DR) to identify good domains however using multiple metrics to make decisions is a better practice.
Sort your domains by Domain Rating and then delete anything that is less than a DR20.
Copy all of the top level domains and paste them into Ahrefs batch analysis tool.
This will give us a lot of data and we’re specifically looking for traffic volumes for these domains.
For the purposes of this tutorial we are only using 10 domains from the spreadsheet.
Identifying High-quality Link Targets
With this further analysis, we can now see which sites are going to potentially move the needle on your SEO and your traffic volumes.
Notice how some domains in the report have a high DR but their traffic volumes are pretty low. This indicates that the site has a lot of links but it doesn’t get visited as much as others.
Conversely, some sites have a decent DR and they’re getting hundreds of thousands of visitors.
For example thefiringline.com in the example below has a lower DR than some of the other domains on the list but it has huge traffic potential.
You can export this list as well so you can prioritize your link opportunities.
Find Do-follow Links
By default links are do-follow which means they pass PageRank5 to the site they are linking to. In other words they ‘count’ in terms of a vote for the site they are linking to.
Links can be configured as no-follow which means they do not pass PageRank and will not help a site rank better in search.
While no-follow links are still good to get, you want to go after the do-follow links to move the needle on your SEO legal campaign.
In the report that is generated from the batch analysis tool, sort by do-follow links (click on the column header) to find those domains that will provide the most value for your time.
Phase 5: Look for obtainable URLs
With your list narrowed down to high-quality do-follow URLs, you have to judge which sites you will be able to get links from.
There isn’t a metric in Ahrefs that will tell you which URLs are good targets in terms of actually being able to obtain a link and you sort of have to judge for yourself.
Sometimes this is obvious and other times it is not.
Extreme examples might be if you find competitor backlinks from whitehouse.gov or maybe and article on CNN.com.
Getting a link from those sources would be great but how much time, effort and money is required? Is it even possible to obtain those kinds of links?
Conversely, a link from a local chamber of commerce website is a far more realistic goal to pursue because it may have a decent DR and membership in those organizations is not hard to get.
With all this in mind, we’re going to take the competing domain that we analyzed in the Link Intersect tool and plug it into the site explorer.
We want to see what pages on the referring domains are linking to our competitor so we have more context on how they got the link.
With the report generated, click on ‘Referring Domains’ in the left column.
In the Referring Domains report, find the domains you wanted to target for your link building campaign (or use the search box at the top of the page) and click on the numbered box in the ‘Links to target’ column.
This will show you the pages where your competitor has links on the domain you want to target.
You can click on the link under ‘Referring page’ to see where the actual link is.
From the example above, here is the link to findlaw.com on Reddit.
You can follow this same process for all the domains you want to target. If you already know the domain is good and how to get a link on it, you don’t need to do this.
Phase 6 : Outrank Your Competition in Search
Remember that the point of all this is to obtain the same links as your competition so you can outrank them in search.
Another important thing to point out here is that not all links require outreach. Some portion of your competitor’s links will invariably be directories, profiles, social accounts, or sites of that nature which will not require outreach.
More than likely you will have to simply fill out profiles on those sites or pay for inclusion in some way.
At this point in the process you should have:
- Referring domains from your top 3-5 competitors in search
- Those domains should have a DR greater than 20
- Those domains (ideally) should have some traffic volume
- Your domains should all be do-follow
- Lastly, your domains should be obtainable
As long as the domains in your spreadsheet meet all of the above criteria, you’re ready to start outreach.
Outreach is where a lot of people fall short and do not end up getting links. It requires patience and persistence.
Link building has become largely about people and you will have to find contact information for site owners or administrators in order to get the links your competitors already have.
There are several ways of doing this and you may have to try all of them:
- Whois services: I like ICANN’s Who Is service6 but there are lots of them out there.
- Specialized software for finding a domain’s emails.
- Contact pages of the target site.
- Social media profiles of the target site.
- Your own sphere of influence (maybe you already know the site owner/admin).
In all of these methods you’re looking for an email or a channel to contact the people who own or edit the target sites on your list.
I can tell you that it’s best if you have an email. Contact form submissions often go unanswered and social media pages are rarely monitored for communications like these.
The Whois Scan
This is one of the better methods for finding emails. Not all site owners will leave information public though. Plug in the domain name and ICANN will return information about the domain and its administrator.
Here is a typical scan:
If a Whois service doesn’t yield results, you can try a paid service.
“Using the ICANN or other whois lookup is really only good for looking up emails for sole-proprietor type sites like blogs or small businesses. If you’re looking for contact information on a larger organization, the whois won’t be a good solution for you.”
Specialized Software for Email Marketing
Hunter.io7 is a pretty good tool for finding the email address pattern for an organization. You can sign up for a free account which gives you 100 requests before you have to pay. Another tool worth checking out is Voila Norbert’s email finder tool.
Type in the domain you’re looking for emails on and it will spit out whatever is publicly available.
Keep in mind that the tool is not going to find email addresses that are not published on publicly accessible sites.
It will however save you the hassle of scouring websites looking for obscure contact or about us pages with emails on them.
Another perk is that you can export the list of emails into a spreadsheet which you’ll have to compile anyway for the next step.
Link Acquisition Strategy
Once you have your contact list built out, you have to come up with a strategy for getting your links. Depending on your type of business, this could vary.
Your approach will almost always be an email to the link target but your pitch to get the link will vary based on your industry and the type of link you’re asking for.
Based on your business and how your competitor got the link, some common pitches might be:
- Guest posting on the domain
- Donating to a charity
- Asking to be included on some sort of resource list
- Providing a testimonial
- Offering a resource to fix a broken link
Try to get inspiration from how your competitors may have acquired these links. If the site you are reaching out to is a blog, you might offer to do a guest post.
“For links obtained by contacting site owners or administrators, outreach can be a tedious and time consuming process. It’s also a bit of a numbers game so avoid sending out small amounts of emails and thinking everyone will respond because they won’t. Develop a list containing hundreds of emails and send out messaging to all of them. You may only get a fraction of your list responding to you and it may take 3-4 emails before you get a response.”
The Email Template
Your outreach email is an important aspect of your campaign. Aside from the willingness of site owners to place your link, the copy of your email is the only thing you have to ‘sell’ your request.
It’s ok to template some parts of your email but for the most part, each message you send should be custom.Avoid using email marketing programs to broadcast your message.
It’s a tedious process but you will thank yourself in the end by making each email personal and customized.
Here are some basic tips for your emails:
- Get to the point, don’t make a long drawn out message.
- If you’re doing outreach for guest posts, offer some sample pieces of content.
- Personalize your emails and make them casual.
- Avoiding using automated programs to send mass emails.
- Be clear about what you’re asking for and how the person can help you.
Part of the goal for ranking well in search is to outrank your competitors. You can do that faster if you reverse engineer what they did in search and then duplicate it.
The sites that are outranking you in search for your keyword phrase are doing so partly because they have higher-quality and a higher quantity of referring domains than you do. You can level the playing field by obtaining the links that your competitors have by emulating their strategy.