In the comments section of my last column, someone asked me about link audits, and after looking around to see if I could find a good resource to point her to, I didn’t find anything that was exactly what I was looking for. I found loads of great pieces on SEO audits but not that much specific to links. (Maybe that particular SERP was affected by the latest Google update.)
One reason that I’ve not written much about link audits is that it’s a process that’s very fluid for me. I love trying out new tools and there are always algorithm updates that favor something more than something else.
One month I’ll be digging into money anchors for a client, the next month I might be looking for bad link neighborhoods.
I let a few things influence how I start the process:
- Has the site been penalized, deindexed, or seen a decrease in rankings and/or traffic?
- Has a previously unknown competitor emerged and we want to see where they stand compared to us?
- Are we trying to determine which area we’re the weakest in?
- Are we trying to figure out which links to cleanup?
- Do we just want a general overview so that we can create a link plan for moving forward?
Where Do You Start?
Sometimes, a client has information about what’s going on and can help me figure out what to look for. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of having access to an analytics package or Webmaster Tools so my only real gauge for a site is its rankings at times, although I’m not a fan of using rankings to determine how well a site is performing online.
If I know that traffic dropped off steadily on a certain date that corresponds with a major update, it’s much easier for me to adapt my methods to analyzing specific areas affected by that update. Sometimes, however, there’s no clue for what to look for.
For example, when the first round of Google Webmaster Tools unnatural links warnings came out, there wasn’t enough information, and we were all just panicking. People were speculating on the causes and we tried to find certain similarities amongst sites that received these warnings in online forums.
During that time, I did my quickest audits ever after those days, even on sites that had not yet received a warning, simply because I wanted to know what was going on and where all our clients stood. Since I had no real idea what to look for, I’ll go through the process I used in this instance.
We just want to get a list of the current back links, so if you’re already using something else, just grab a list that contains the following minimum bits of information:
- URL linking to you
- Page linked to on your site
- Anchor text used
- Whether the link is followed or nofollowed
With Link Research Tools you get some great metrics that are very useful as well, as they give you an idea of the power of a link. Other tools give you similar metrics so whatever your choice of tool, make sure you understand what those numbers mean. Depending upon what you’re looking for, those can be extremely helpful and can save you loads of time.
Let’s look at a few ways of doing this.
Are There Any Unnatural Links?
Site has received an unnatural links warnings or client simply wants to clean up his link profile. Here, we’ll be looking to identify any potentially poor links. While currently it’s up in the air whether or not bad links can actually harm your site, let’s just assume that for whatever reason, the client wants to find poor links and pursue removal.
Now that we have a list of our links, let’s sort them by Trust ascending.
Warning: many of the links you see listed as low Trust are not harmful or low quality links.
Some are really good links, in my opinion, but from what I’ve found, using this metric is the quickest way to identify the links that may be low quality. You just have to remember that this tool, like all others, needs to be used with some thought in mind, so don’t assume that just because a link is listed as having no trust, it’s a bad link.
Many legitimate comment links, for example, can show up with low quality metrics but that doesn’t mean they’re bad links. I used to rely more on the Power*Trust ascending. This metric values the quality of domain based on its strength and trustworthiness, and while I like it a lot, I also make it a habit to manually check links and see whether or not they’re good ones.
Many of the links that show very low numbers for this metric are actually links that I like, links that send traffic to my site. If you don’t feel comfortable eyeballing a link and determining whether it’s a good one or not, I wouldn’t use this metric.
They just introduced a new link detox tool, and I must say that I love it, as the links it identifies as “toxic” correspond (for the most part) to the ones I would have found using a manual analysis.
However, you have to keep in mind that these are identified using certain metrics that do not always give you the true picture, so again, I absolutely think that you have to manually examine your links.
You’ll get a report that looks like this:
You can click on the “Show me these links” bit and see what links are listed. Now, some people believe that you should remove potentially harmful links and some don’t. I personally think it needs to be examined on a case by case basis, as the time it takes to remove bad links is time better spent building better links.
However, if you are overrun with crap links and your rankings/traffic have crashed, you may not have much choice, so this is a good way to get started on fixing your problem. Just please, please, please remember that you cannot use metrics alone to determine the worth of a link.
Utilize Competitive Analysis
First of all, there are various reasons why you may see a new competitor emerge, and they don’t always involve either your links or theirs. Perhaps they have better content that’s doing amazingly well socially and you haven’t updated your site in a year.
Ahrefs.com has a Competition Analysis tool that’s pretty handy, but it pulls competitors based on current rankings for a keyword that you enter, so you can’t (yet) use it to compare your own site with a new competitor.
Considering how SERPs fluctuate, this is still very useful for getting an idea of the social signals for top listings. Open Site Explorer also gives you some great social data as you can see below:
To be honest, I could write paragraphs of how I’d use various tools to do competitive analysis but that’s a waste of time, as I’ve never done two batches where I employed the exact same methods.
Bottom line: grab every bit of data you can for your competitors and identify where you’re being beaten, but don’t let that alone dictate your future strategy.
If you find that you have 25 percent of the links that a competitor does and none of the social love, that’s a pretty good indication that you do need to spend some time building more links and producing content that will generate good social signals.
However, if you find that a competitor has 75 percent money keywords as anchors and they’re beating you, considering recent Google updates said to move away from such anchor manipulation, you’d obviously not formulate a plan of attack that involved cranking out only money anchors for the foreseeable future, I hope.
Find Out Where Your Site Stands
Next, you just want an overview of where you stand with your own site. This is pretty straightforward I think. Grab a list of your links from your tool of choice and dig for the following minimum information:
- Anchor text distribution
- (brand, URL, money, noise, long-tailed, and anything else you want to look for…these are my go-to breakdowns though)
- Home page links
- Deep page links
- Nofollowed links
- Image links
Knowing what you have currently is critical to figuring out where to go from here. It’s shortsighted to formulate a strategy without taking into account where you’re lacking or where you’ve been overdoing it.
For example, if you analyze your anchors and find that you have 90 percent money keywords and 1 percent brand keywords, you wouldn’t want to continue to plow forward with building tons more money anchors.
If you only have links to your homepage, you need to start building links to your subpages. Also, once you’re comfortable analyzing your own site, doing competitive analysis is much easier, and I do recommend doing that as some industries have different norms than others.
Now, you can (and probably should) dig into things on a more granular level, in my opinion. You can look into how many sitewides you have, do a Class C block analysis, look at your breakdown of TLDs, look at the hosting location of the sites linking to you, etc. Most tools will give you their own version of quality score metrics as well. You can get into page-specifc data if you need to.
Basically, you can get as much information as you can handle but make sure that you do understand all of it before you use it to craft a strategy that may end up hurting you.
A Few More Bits, Bobs & Caveats
I have found that Majestic SEO’s Backlink History is an invaluable tool for checking link growth over time. You have to register to be able to view more than one domain, but it’s definitely worth it. It’s great for identifying link spikes, which can be problematic because they can indicate link networks or spam; but to be fair, they can also indicate a press release going out or some other legitimate marketing effort.
This is one of the first things I look at when a client asks me what the heck a site is doing when it’s surpassed them. Whether or not it “should” happen, sites can still build a lot of links very quickly and rise in the rankings. They may not stay there long, but it does still happen.
If you find that a site which has risen above you quickly has recently built a ton of links, don’t immediately think you need to do the same, as you might see them drop off again next week.
If you don’t get the results you’re expecting in one tool, try another one, as these tools have different databases. For example, for one site I looked at, here’s the following data:
- 1643 links with 142 linking domains in Open Site Explorer
- 2369 links with 176 linking domains in Ahrefs
Each tool that I’ve tried also presents the data in a different way from the rest of the guys, so if you’re more interested in seeing something very basic like the actual list of links with a few metrics but you don’t really want to see a bunch of pie charts, you may prefer Open Site Explorer.
If you love those pie charts, both Ahrefs and Link Research Tools uses them. Actually, Ahrefs may win the prize for using the best graphical representations, and this kind of data can save you a lot of time.
Another major thing I look for in an audit is proper (or improper) use of 301 redirects. If one version of the site (like the non-www) doesn’t 301 to the other version (the www in this case), that needs to be addressed.
If you’ve never audited your own site, try it and get familiar with the data. I do think that if you’re a novice, you should consult with someone better trained in order to analyze your data and formulate a safe strategy. Almost anyone can access data, but not everyone is equipped to interpret it.
In closing, if you remember nothing else, remember that metrics alone should not be used to make decisions. You’re going to have to do some hard work and manual labor and really dig into your links if you want to truly get an accurate picture.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.