Remember the good old days of the early internet era?
I definitely do.
When I started building websites, I was a 19-year-old young adult who had just come out of high school and had been learning how to code HTML and CSS in my spare time.
Building websites was simple back then, and fun.
All the community building with fellow personal website owners (there weren’t many blogs back then)…
Exchanging links as a way to show off our newly-made friendships…
And the shameless blog update plugs on our amateur bulletin boards.
But fast forward to today, and you need to take a much more strategic approach to growing your website.
You need to know how many backlinks you’re earning over a period of time and how they’re behaving.
You need to know what your competitors are doing.
With thorough backlink research and analysis, you can understand the strategy behind the links to uncover new SEO goldmines.
What Is Backlink Research and Why Do We Do It?
Simply put, backlink research is the analysis of your and your competitors’ backlink profiles to understand trends, patterns and go-to linking opportunities.
You might be wondering why you need to analyze the backlink profile of a competitor to improve your strategy…
Isn’t the on-page quality of their sites enough to extract their secret to success?
Actually, on-page analysis can only tell you so much.
It can give you an idea of what SEO methods they’ve used on their site to date, but it doesn’t tell you what was so great about their content to deserve the backlinks they scored—and backlinks are the heart of SEO and the queen of popularity signals.
The same is true for your own site:
By analyzing the backlinks you’ve earned, you can understand what you’ve been doing well and what needs more work. Again, on-page SEO alone is not sufficient.
The goal is to plan your next strategy with SEO improvements in sight.
So when I take you through the backlink research process in this post, I’ll refer to both your backlinks and your competitors’ backlinks, as you need both to reach that goal.
Backlink research follows a simple, linear logic:
- Analyze the data: Locate quality backlinks by analyzing anchor texts used, the context of the page they were inserted into, and the quality of the linking website.
- Apply analysis to SEO planning: Use the data to improve your content so that anything that attracted those backlinks will happen again.
- Assess results: Track the results of your plan. Did it bring you your desired results in terms of ranking, traffic and conversions?
This logic translates into the four steps below.
Backlink Research Made Easy: 4 Steps to Get from Research to Results
These four steps are exactly what to do, in order, for effective backlink research that will help you develop a conversion-oriented SEO strategy.
Let’s get started!
1. Retrieve Your Backlinks and Your Competitors’ Backlinks
It might surprise you when generally the first stage of anything related to marketing is devoted to strategy planning.
Usually, you know the audience you want to target, you know which keywords they’re searching for on Google, and then off you go making plans.
But that’s not the case for backlink research.
Backlink research starts with the right toolkit. You need to be able to retrieve backlinks quickly and easily, along with information about those backlinks that will help you understand the strategy behind them.
You can’t make SEO decisions without backlinks, and you can’t see those backlinks without a tool!
I highly recommend Monitor Backlinks for this. It’ll help to make the research process seamless and fast, freeing your days of any unnecessary frustration.
You have two options with Monitor Backlinks:
1. Use the fully-featured tool (take it for a spin with a free 30-day trial to try out all the features!)
2. Use the Free Backlink Checker to retrieve up to 300 backlinks for free, once a week (no need to register an account)
I’ll be using a combination of both to kick off the backlink research process.
A. Retrieve Your Backlinks
When you log in to Monitor Backlinks, look for the Backlinks tab in the left navigation menu (after Overview). This is where you go to check all the backlinks your website has scored to date.
This is where our backlink research begins.
You’ll see that each backlink comes with a plethora of metrics to help you understand where the link came from and why the linking site decided to link to you, and assess its overall quality.
The metrics for each backlink include:
- Anchor text
- Backlink status (nofollowed/followed and indexed/not indexed—at page or domain level)
- Trust Flow
- Citation Flow
- Spam Score
- Domain Authority
- Page Authority
- Number of external links
- Google Analytics visits from the backlink
You’ll need most (if not all) of this information to run a full backlink analysis. Luckily, Monitor Backlinks makes the research process easy by putting all the data you need right in front of you.
At this point, if you can’t or don’t want to add your domain to Monitor Backlinks, you can also use the Free Backlink Checker to retrieve up to 300 backlinks for any domain you choose.
In the screenshow below, I used the tool to get the backlinks pointing to my business site.
This free tool gives you some helpful basic information:
- Backlink status (followed/nofollowed)
- URL of the linking page
- Anchor text
You can use this tool for free once a week to quickly analyze a competitor’s backlinks, too (if you don’t want to monitor them using the main tool).
B. Retrieve Your Competitors’ Backlinks
This step is super-easy if you’re using the main Monitor Backlinks tool.
From the Competitors tab in the left navigation menu, you can track the backlinks of your biggest competitors without lifting a finger.
I’ve added three competitors to my account: NeilPatel.com, CarolTice.com and InnovativeInk.ca.
You can also add more competitors for tracking by clicking on the plus sign in the top-right corner.
To see the backlinks those competitors have earned, you just need to click on the competitor’s domain to get the full list.
Like with your own backlinks, you’ll get a series of important metrics for your competitor backlinks:
- Anchor text
- Backlink status (followed/nofollowed)
- Trust Flow
- Citation Flow
- Number of external links
These are all good indicators of what’s pushing your competitors up in the ranks.
The next step is to use these indicators to assess the quality of your and your competitors’ backlinks.
2. Analyze Those Backlinks
Now that you’ve retrieved your backlink profile and your competitors’ backlink profiles, it’s time for a thorough analysis of all the backlinks you’ve collected.
The process is similar for your own site and your competitor sites, with only one main difference:
- When you analyze your backlink profile, you’ll want to focus on editorial backlinks. This is because you should already know where you’ve built backlinks from, so you’ll want to identify the ones that you’ve naturally earned.
- When you analyze your competitors’ backlink profiles, you should focus on all the good backlinks you can find. This is because you won’t be able to tell which backlinks they built and which ones they editorially earned (unless it’s a guest post or a sponsored article).
Below is the process laid out in detail.
A. Analyze Your Backlink Profile
Give prominence to naturally earned, editorial backlinks and ask yourself these questions as you go through your backlinks list:
- How often do you get cited?
- Where do you get cited?
- What niche of websites link to you more often?
For example, if you run a software company and write about all the great stuff that people can do with your software, you might get cited on blogs of software enthusiasts, personal sites or marketing sites. Which ones link back to you the most?
- Do you get linked with branded or niche keywords in the anchor text?
- Do these keywords describe one or more themes in your content?
This is important because it gives a clear picture of how your content is perceived and consumed, and how helpful it is in the eyes of those who link back to it.
Now is also the right time to make use of those metrics that Monitor Backlinks has to offer.
- Anchor text: How does your content gets linked (with branded or niche keywords)? How does this text impact clicks (e.g. does it use power words)?
- Status of the backlink: Are most of your backlinks indexed and followed?
You can use the filters in Monitor Backlinks to view only your followed backlinks for easier analysis. A green “G” under a green “F” in the “Status” column means that the backlink is both indexed by Google and followed.
- Trust Flow and Citation Flow: How reputable and well-cited are the websites that link to you?
- Spam Score: Is the linking website showing any suspicious link activity? Spam Score is not an absolute metric (and isn’t always 100% accurate), but it’s helpful for a preliminary analysis.
- MozRank: How “powerful” is the linking domain in terms of their backlink profile (link popularity)?
- Domain Authority and Page Authority: How well does this domain or page rank in the SERPs?
- TLD/IP: Where is the domain extension and IP of the site hosted? This gives an indication of its geolocation and worldwide accessibility.
- Number of external links: How many other backlinks are sharing “link juice” with your backlink on this webpage?
- Google Analytics visits from the backlink: In other words, are you getting any clicks from this backlink?
B. Analyze Your Competitors’ Backlink Profiles
Now, there’s a lot you can analyze here!
Most of what you just read for your own backlinks applies to competitor backlinks as well. The goal is to get insight into their SEO and link building strategy, and use that insight for your own purpose.
In particular, pay attention to the anchor text, target URL and overall context of each competitor backlink.
The anchor text allows you to understand two things:
1. Which anchor texts are editorial and naturally placed within the body of the linking content, and
2. Which anchor texts are clearly the fruit of keyword optimization from guest posting, advertorials and paid links.
Being able to distinguish between the two will help you identify which backlinks to replicate. Remember, you should only pursue links from trusted outlets.
And when it comes to backlinks to replicate, you don’t want to just copy what your competitor has done—you want to do better.
That means you have to analyze their content first to understand what they did to earn the backlink, and why it’s been placed the way that it has.
As you go through your competitor analysis, Monitor Backlinks will help you organize, filter and keep track of your findings.
Parker Joseph, founder of SEM Squid and long-time Monitor Backlinks user, told me how he uses the tool at this stage of the backlink research process. The filtering, tagging and sorting features prove especially useful.
“The filtering system allows me to easily tag links and categorize them into individual campaigns. This enables me to more easily track ROI for outreach efforts.”
And thanks to the ability to sort backlinks by quality indicators like Trust Flow, Citation Flow, Domain Authority, Page Authority and Spam Score, Parker is able to “quickly associate increased visitors from Google Analytics and ranking increases to our SEO efforts.”
C. Create a Spreadsheet to Keep Track
It’s a good idea to keep track of the best backlinks you find in your competitors’ backlink profile (and in yours) in a spreadsheet, so that you have a starting point for strategy planning.
This is what mine looks like:
All you have to do is create five columns: URL, Anchor Text, Linking Outlet, Metrics and Notes.
Then, copy the good backlinks you collected (from your backlink profile and your competitors’) into the spreadsheet. Add the anchor texts, name of the linking outlets, and metrics into the proper fields.
You can make this step even easier by using the “Export” button in Monitor Backlinks. Just select all the backlinks you want to focus on, and then click “Export” to get a csv file with all the fields already filled out. You just have to add Notes.
In your backlink profile, “Export” is among the top menu options.
From your competitor backlinks, you can find the option in the top-right corner.
Then, add detailed notes to the spreadsheet for each backlink about how you want to use it to create new backlinks and improve your SEO.
Here’s an example of how you can use the Notes field:
Note that you may not necessarily want to replicate your own backlinks—witnessing their existence and monitoring their health will be enough!
However, when you scored some of these links from a great opportunity (a genuine contribution, a conversation, a review, etc.), you might want to watch out for more opportunities from the same outlet.
3. Develop a Backlink SEO Plan
After performing backlink research for your SEO goals, the time comes for creating a fully-fledged plan and putting it into action.
A. Develop a Plan from Your Backlinks
When it comes to your backlinks, you want to see what content you can produce to get more readers and feedback.
On the basis of the previous analysis (step #1 and #2), you can then create more content in your area and get in touch with the quality websites you selected (or similar outlets) for more backlink opportunities.
You should now know what to focus on, what areas to improve and if you need to refocus your content plan.
(Sites grow over time as they interact with their audience and backlinks, so you can’t expect the same plan or strategy to always work.)
At this point you should create a new document or spreadsheet where you note down all your new priorities and goals. This is the first part of your plan.
Joe Podesta from Zety shared their SEO planning story with me:
“As our SEO strategy involves the technique of using outreach, we often have our links added to a variety of online content without being informed. We are then alerted that a new link is pointing towards us and begin investigation.
Our data from Monitor Backlinks shows us where we are gaining exposure on the web and helps us determine the value of these links. This helps us rank these by certain variables such as domain authority and the traffic on a given page.
When beginning a new content campaign, we must first analyze our competitors to better understand what is being linked behind a certain piece of content. This can uncover many touch points for new contacts as we often identify hidden channels for promotion simply by having visibility on what our competitors are using and who they are in contact with.
This is a never-ending process of checking, researching and being alerted to new pathways that emerge through backlinking—which some might argue is the backbone for any reputable content on the internet. Tools such as Monitor Backlinks help us to achieve this.”
B. Develop a Plan from Your Competitors’ Backlinks
Now, turn your attention to your competitors’ backlinks again.
From your analysis, note down:
- What anchor text you should use for your backlinks. Keywords are a good thing to include, if they sound natural.
- Which outlets you want to get links from. You should base this decision on several factors, including Trust and Citation Flow, Domain Authority and Page Authority, number of external links and Spam Score.
- How many competitor-based link building efforts to include in your monthly plan, to keep the backlink growth natural and to avoid suspicious spikes.
Then, put together the two plans and you have your new strategy!
4. Assess, Rinse and Repeat
Apply your backlink plan for about six months (give or take depending on your specific goals), then assess what results it brought to the table.
- Did your rankings go up?
- Did your website get more visitors?
- What about conversions, or sales?
Whether you managed to accomplish all your SEO goals or there’s still some work to do, everything you did to date from backlink research to results analysis will be your starting point for your next SEO strategy.
(That’s where “rinse and repeat” comes in.)
You may also find our SEO ROI guide helpful at this stage.
Backlink Research Wrap-up
Like everything in SEO, backlink research is a process.
You get the data, analyze it, extrapolate a strategy and apply it.
Then you evaluate the results you obtained, and based on that information, decide on the next steps.
Make good use of the time you spend on backlink research. It’s not time wasted—it’ll be the springboard to SEO improvements.
To your success!