When studying backlinks to competitor sites, most people do so in order to identify potential link targets for their own site. While this is a very useful thing to do, there are many other strategically useful bits of competitive intelligence that can be deduced by studying links. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the collective strategic insights into your competitors you can gain are of equal or greater value than just finding link targets to help your search rank.
As always, I like to illustrate points with examples, so let’s dig in. I’m looking at about 20,000 URLs that are linking to one or more of nine competitor sites, but are not linking to my client’s site. My tool of choice to compile and analyze those 20,000 links is, of course, Link Insight, but there several different tools you can use.
Below is a list of eight things I learned about those competitors just by studying their backlinks, along with a brief explanation of why and what it means.
- Who is heavy into couponing.
When you see a competitor’s site continually showing up with backlinks from sites like couponmonster or couponheaven or couponzilla (all fake names but many coupon sites exist), it’s not an accident, and this tells you that competitor is using couponing as part of their online marketing strategy. So follow those links and see if this makes sense for you as well.
- Who is a sponsor at a trade show, past, present, and future.
When looking at backlinks, I often come across an old trade show website that hasn’t been taken down. The site is linking to a competitor because that competitor was a sponsor of that trade show. Looking further, it’s fairly easy to see if that same trade show is still in existence, and if it is, you can often use that info to determine if it’s a show you should be a part of.
- Who is recruiting on a college campus.
When I notice a few competitor backlink URLs based at university career services departments, experience has shown me that ten out of ten times that link is there because that company is recruiting on those campuses. Studying those recruiting pages deeper can tell you what they are looking for, and maybe even why. You might want to do a little recruiting yourself, and the link that comes along for the ride is just icing on that .edu cake.
- Who is sponsoring an Engineering Dept. entry in a solar powered car contest.
I kid you not. I was able to show one client how a competitor was sponsoring multiple university engineering department contests, and it became clear fairly quickly that this was a strategy they needed to respond to in kind. All discovered through those golden backlinks buried in my list of 20,000.
- Who is using paid blog posts.
When you discover 12 different blogs all “reviewing” the same product or web site, the odds are you just found a competitor paying for product reviews.
- Who is bulk spamming social media.
When you look at the backlinks of competing sites and one of those sites has links from 57 different stumbleupon URLs while none of the other competitors has more than one or two, guess what? You just found a social media spammer. There’s no way this happens naturally.
- Who is Blogrolling.
Whenever I see multiple links from the same domain, especially from within a subdirectory, odds are it’s a blogroll. A handful of these is not uncommon, and my now retired blog at EricWard.com/bestpractices/ is still on a several blogrolls. But, if one specific competitor is showing up in twenty or thirty different blogs’ blogrolls and no other competitors are, then I smell a rat, as this likely was negotiated or manipulated.
- Who has never hired an SEO firm.
This is my favorite thing to discover. How can you know when a site has never hired an SEO firm? Easy. There are no backlinks from any of the hundreds of no-name directories, there aren’t 211 press release based backlink URLs containing five deep links each, and there aren’t any links from any article databases. Sadly, nowadays finding a site like this is like finding a four leaf clover, and like the clover, they are special and often highly ranked, or if not, easier to become so.
The above are just scratching the surface. I’ll put together a much longer list soon, but in the meantime, you tell me – what useful competitive intelligence have you learned when studying backlinks?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.