The Competitive Linking Analysis Trap

Several years ago, the search engines began to slowly turn off the fire-hose of linking data they freely gave anyone familiar with the link: operator. That operator became just about useless as a method for detecting competitor links, potential link targets or competitive intelligence, etc.

I have a vivid memory of speaking at one of Danny’s conferences ages ago and telling the audience that the search engines had no mandate to freely give us marketers whatever linking data we wanted. That the link: operator was not a birthright, and that someday it would all go away. And, away it has gone (from Google, but FYI the little known engine DuckDuckGo.com supports link:). Have a look.

My Alma Mater Has 100X The Links Google’s link: Operator Shows

In the years since, a new industry niche grew, an industry of third-party data providers that aimed to provide that which the search engines no longer would: Extensive backlink data and metrics. Please let me state for the record that this column is not an indictment of these third-party services.

Whether it’s Majestic, OSE, ahrefs, or Blekko (which was a free secret link data weapon for many of us for a long time), the companies that take on the monumental task of creating a private crawl of the Web for the sake of providing competitive linking intelligence do a fantastic job. I use many of them, including my own private backlink data tools.

The trap is not the data itself.

The trap is in how you interpret the data and what strategic moves you make as a result.

Most linking data providers have a tiered fee structure for access to linking data, and rightfully so. There are significant costs involved in crawling the Web, extracting and storing key data (follow, PageRank, anchors, etc.), and maintaining historical data for clients that want to track such things over time. And, somewhere along the way, the various bits and pieces of collected backlink data turned into KPIs for link building related activities.

And, it’s in those KPIs where the traps can be found. What many of us forget is that no matter how good the linking data is from any third-party provider, it’s all still a proxy for Google. We use this proxy data because the search engines will not give us the exact thing we most want, which is the accurate linking data the search engines have.

So, in the absence of that, we are all dependent upon third party providers for data. Again, let’s be clear. These services provide an awesome service and I’m glad for the data they provide me.  But, here’s where that data can trap you.

Anchors Aweigh?

A year ago, if you were examining your backlink profile, and were comparing your site to your competitors using any of the third-party data providers, you might have looked at a signal such as anchor text; and, based upon seeing how a competitor had a larger number of exact match keyword anchor text links than you did, you may have decided to alter your strategy so as to close that gap.

Does This Mean I Win?

 

You built exact match keyword anchor text links to catch up to a competitor because according to the data you were looking at, that was a metric that stood out to you as a likely reason that competitor was outranking you. This all seems perfectly logical.

But, let’s look at what was going on behind the scenes during that same year. The search engines were busy devaluing anchor text links as a ranking signal. \

In other words, the very thing the proxy linking data was telling you you needed turned out to be completely wrong, but you couldn’t know that because the search engines don’t broadcast what they are devaluing beforehand, at least not in an overly obvious manner. We find out after the fact, usually in a panic because a site’s rankings have tanked.

Backlink Data

An example of SearchEngineLand.com’s backlink profile

I use anchor text as one example, but you could just as easily use any of the many well-known metrics and still fall into the same trap. Follow/nofollow, TLD distribution, deep link ratio, the number of signals that can be measured borders on the absurd; yet, many people make strategic decisions based on the very signals Google may, in fact, be devaluing at the exact time you are pursuing them.

I’d love to tell you there is a perfect link profile that can be replicated across all sites, but there is no such thing, and no metrics, no matter how accurate, are going to answer for you the most important questions of all: what is it that Google is truly looking for, and how can you get it?

The answer to those questions may well indeed be found inside the mountain of data we can all access if we’re are willing to pay for it, and many of us are willing.

But, having the data and knowing what to do with it, especially in today’s world of continually changing signals, is where the real expertise is going to surface, and where we, as the linking strategists, are going to earn (or not) our keep.

 

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column

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About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://twitter.com/enzenhofer franz enzenhofer

    i would even go further: competitive linkbuilding is the root of all (SEO) evil. just because your competition has that many link (or you presume that they have that many links thx to the very poor tools out there) you think you need the same amount that they have.

    and as soon, as two or more competiters think this of each other, it’s a stupid arms race, the linkbuilding escalates, both companies waste an unbelievable amount of money and ressources in idiotic linkbuilding, first only via linkbait, then paid links then link-netoworks.

    competitive linkbuilding is the root of all SEO evil, and competitive link research tools are the propaganda.

    please prove me wrong.

    my name is franz enzenhofer, i’m the most successful SEO of europe (culminated totale visits wise (of webpropertis i substantially optimized)).

  • http://twitter.com/BritneyMuller Britney Muller

    Such a great point Franz! Backlink Analysis can send SEOs in all sorts of different directions based on erroneous assumptions. Good SEOs benefit their target audience in one way or another, provide some sort of value. Links will coincide great content.

    Great Article Eric! Happy Linking!

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi all-

    Franz, I have never focused so much on the quantity of links. I have always placed emphasis on the quality of the link.

    I, personally, have seen 25 high-quality links outperform over 50,000 low-quality links. And that is only one example from one website I worked on years ago. The same principle seems to hold true most of the time: quality trumps quantity.

    As my colleague Garrett French once said to me during a phone conversation, what we (as SEO professionals) should strive for is a “quantity of quality.” I like the way Garrett phrased that.

    Data without proper context is what leads us down the “wrong” paths. That is the reason why I continue to practice, implement, and continue to study website (and HCI) usability because usability professionals’ methodology seems to provide better context for certain data than context from a technical person or even an SEO. A technical person’s mental model is generally not the same as the users’ mental models. And even an SEO’s mental model often differs from searcher mental models.

    I don’t believe link building will “die.” It’s a form of validation. Search engines are trying to validate the aboutness of our web documents. There is the author’s aboutness. And then there are interpretations of the author’s aboutness.

    Now, whether Google (or any search engine) gets the author’s aboutness and validation correctly? Well, we all see search results. Are they good/bad? One person’s “good” search results might be another person’s “bad” search results.

    My 2 cents.

  • Guest

    Franz – valid points. The crucial skill a linking strategist must have is being able to determine the proper course of action to take based on the competitive linking data they are able to obtain/possess. Sometimes a competitor’s links don’t tell you what to do, but rather what NOT to do. I don’t advocate chasing links multiple competitors already have. That’s the low hanging fruit approach and of little value to the engines. The way to glean strategic insight is to understand that the data is telling you a story, you just have to know how to read that story before writing your own. I don’t mean to be coy or evasive. I know what I know and I would say I’ve studied more link profiles than any other person on the planet. Thousands over 19 years and millions of URLs. Millions. And yes, competitive link data can be a trap. That’s why I wrote this article. But it can also tell you so much more, if you understand what you are looking at.

  • http://twitter.com/ericward Eric Ward

    Franz – The crucial skill a linking strategist must have is being able to determine the proper course of action to take based on the competitive linking data they are able to obtain/possess. Sometimes a competitor’s links don’t tell you what to do, but rather what NOT to do. I don’t advocate chasing links multiple competitors already have. That’s the low hanging fruit approach and of little value to the engines. The way to glean strategic insight is to understand that the data is telling you a story, you just have to know how to read that story before writing your own. I don’t mean to be coy or evasive. I know what I know and I would say I’ve studied more link profiles than any other person on the planet. Thousands over 19 years and millions of URLs. Millions. And yes, competitive link data can be a trap. That’s why I wrote this article. But it can also tell you so much more, if you understand what you are looking at.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I think you make a great point Franz. I’ve had to tell many of my clients that such and such a link wasn’t going after, even if the competition did have a dozen more like it. There is nothing wrong with using a competitive link analysis to get a few ideas, find some opportunities you may have missed and so forth, but just because they are doing it that doesn’t mean you have to!

 

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