Imagine you’ve opened up a new shop.
When you’re the new guy in town, you want to see what the competition is doing.
You’ll want to see how the other shop owners are making it month by month.
You’ll want to keep an eye on what events they attend, where they get their ads published and what makes the people of this town curious about their shop’s items.
Learning from others puts you in a position of knowing what might and might not work for you.
You’ll pick up on any opportunities you’ve missed.
Something might work for you just as well as it works for the shop around the corner.
That’s what you do when you analyze your competitor’s backlinks: You can see what works for them in your niche and replicate that success in your own unique way.
In other words, “spying” on competitor backlinks just means learning from the best.
The Competitor Backlink Spy Guide: How to Be Both Sneaky and Ethical
If you thought analyzing your competitors’ backlinks was an illicit—if not illegal—act, where you’re playing it dirty to outrank the “shop” nearby, well, think again.
Competitor backlink spying means you study the competition’s SEO efforts in the form of their backlink profile outcomes—a very telling factor for their going strategy, and if that’s actually working for them.
But worry not: We’ll make sure you know what you’re doing is ethical, and to show you how to use the insight you collect from competitor backlink data to improve your website and its position in Google.
1. Be a Good Spy
The ethical side of things is always something to take into consideration, because even an apparently harmless action may cause harm.
That’s not the case with backlink analysis.
Unless you were going to use backlinks to attack your poor competitor with negative SEO—and thus unethically outrank them by killing their rankings—you have nothing to worry about.
When it comes to spying on competitor backlinks, you can’t cause any harm!
Here’s what Jason Reed, CEO of real estate company The Duplex Doctors, told me:
Since my niche offers a smaller client base than a general realtor’s might, it’s important to beat the competition to win over leads that can offer a lot of value.
When I was just getting my SEO efforts started, I utilized backlink spying as a way to get ideas about where I should go to earn genuine, valuable links.
When I did this, my intentions weren’t to steal links from my competitors, but rather to find inspiration for the kinds of links that are worth pursuing.
So now that you know that’s all good and pretty, let’s see what to do in practice.
Here’s how to be a good competitor spy:
- Monitor at Least 3 Top Competitors. Depending on your resources, it might not be realistic to monitor more than a dozen competitors at once. If you really want to focus on your efforts, I’d say pick three top competitors and monitor their backlinks weekly.
- Seek Backlink Quality. You must be interested in the quality of backlinks, because not all backlinks are good to you. You’re not trying to stalk your competitor, rather, you’re learning their strategy and smart moves to see where the gold is hidden.
- Vision (and Audience) Matters. You know not every competitor backlink may be for you because the ideal backlink is one that matches your vision and, with it, the needs of your audience. A backlink from a related niche that doesn’t serve your audience and vision may do more harm than good (and it wouldn’t drive the traffic you need, even if it gives you a small organic boost).
- Backlinks from Trustworthy Outlets. Even a backlink from a small blog can be trustworthy, but if the overall information that blog gives is low quality, then this isn’t a good outlet to keep in consideration for link building goals. That means the competitor might have bought the link on a low-quality website or they earned the backlink naturally as a part of the webmaster’s editorial choices.
- Work Toward Adding Value. If your competitor was linked for a specific angle they cover in the niche, and you have the potential and expertise to add more value to that viewpoint, by all means make it a plan to create content that fills the gaps left by your competitor and seek backlinks that will naturally complement theirs. You might outrank them if your content earns Google’s (and users’) preference points in the SERPs.
2. Use Monitor Backlinks and SpyFu to Analyze Your Competitor’s Links
You can leverage Monitor Backlinks to spy on your competitors’ backlinks and make it easy to find out which linking pages and opportunities are worth adding to your link building plan.
Here’s how to use Monitor Backlinks to be a good spy:
- Log in to Monitor Backlinks and go to the “Competitors” tab
- Add competitors you want to monitor
- If already added, click “View Links” to analyze your competitor links
Now you can begin a thorough analysis of your competitor backlinks.
Monitor Backlinks provides you with competitor metrics and backlink data to consider:
- Date of when the backlink was first seen (freshness)
- Trust Flow and Citation Flow, two of Majestic’s most important metrics
- Status of the backlink (is it a nofollow link? Did it disappear from the page? Does the linking page throw a 500 server error?)
- Backlink (URL from)
- Target URL (your competitor page being linked)
- The anchor text used for the links
- How many external links the linking page counts
- Domain TLD and IP
There are several points to extract from this data:
- Freshness: Is this backlink recent enough to be worth considering for my own link building strategy?
- Majestic metrics: If these are relevant to my plan, how is this backlink trustworthy and cited enough for me?
- Does the current status of this backlink make it worthy of further analysis for me? For example, if you are only seeking dofollow link opportunities, a nofollow link might not be your best choice, as you might end up getting a nofollow backlink as well.
- What can the anchor text tell you about the linking outlet’s backlinking policies? Are only branded keywords or even niche terms allowed?
- What can the number of external links tell you about this outlet’s linking patterns? Would it be fine for your plans to get a backlink from a page with 10+ other backlinks to other sites, or are you seeking more exclusivity?
You can also use the Monitor Backlinks Free Backlink Checker to individually analyze up to 300 top backlinks (or up to 10 if you’re logged out) for your competitor website.
- Go to Monitor Backlinks → SEO Tools
- Choose Free Backlink Checker
- Enter your competitor’s URL and hit the “Check Now!” button
The Free Backlink Checker is a simpler tool than Monitor Backlinks’ full backlink analysis tool, but you still get the website’s Citation Flow and Trust Flow, a “best backlink” evaluation (ACRANK), backlink status, URL from and to, and the anchor text.
As a second option to complement Monitor Backlinks, you can use SpyFu Backlink Builder‘s tool to add some more competitor data to your link building plan.
SpyFu’s tool integrates your Monitor Backlinks analysis with a couple of interesting data points:
1. Social shares (Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and LinkedIn)
2. Organic clicks (on linking domain and the page where the backlink is located)
The former gives you a glimpse of how much the backlink became popular on social media, an indicator of content quality and promotion that drives engagement. So the higher the shares, the more interesting this backlink is for your plan.
The latter tells you how well-optimized and appealing for search users that piece of content is, making the backlink all the more appealing for its traffic and conversion potential.
3. Ask “Why”
Ask why the competitor was linked or chose to be linked on this outlet.
Was it for PageRank juice? Authority? Traffic? Conversions? A combination of those?
If the backlink was naturally placed, do you think the outlet owner (or the writer) thought your competitor’s content to be the highest quality source available?
Backlinks are part of the marketing strategy of your competition, so when you ask why and you find answers—maybe not all, but at least some—you will know what to do next. This can include:
- Which links are worth replicating
- Which areas of content marketing and link building you should improve
- Where to get a guest post opportunity (that outlet your competitor wrote for is spot on, isn’t it?)
- Who to contact for an email outreach campaign
- How to “upgrade” your competitor’s existing content with your unique angle that fills the gaps
You can “upgrade” your competitor’s content with the help of the Skyscraper Technique, a method that some condemn as unethical but in reality, it’s just doing what is generally done in scientific papers: building upon each other’s work.
As you provide users with content that answers their questions better than your competition, you boost your organic rankings, attract backlinks and serve the community with effective problem-solving.
4. Create a Competitor Backlink Spreadsheet
Part of my own competitor backlink spy strategy is to keep a spreadsheet of the hand-picked top backlinks, with an analysis of how the backlink worked for my competitor and how it can work out for me.
Here’s an overview of my spreadsheet (a recent example):
- Competitor backlink — This is the full URL of your competitor’s backlink. Ideally, this is a top backlink you carefully selected from the dozens of backlinks you analyzed. You want to make sure the links in the spreadsheet are all links worthy of your time and effort.
- Outlet Name & Topic — Here you place the website name where this backlink was placed, and its topic (e.g. MarketingLand.com, a marketing news site). I didn’t add a topic in the example above because I incorporated this information into the next column, Outlet Reputation.
- Outlet Reputation — Is this a go-to resource for the niche or industry? Does it work with big names? The higher the reputation, the more valuable a backlink from this source in the eyes of Google and end users.
- Outlet Metrics — Domain Authority, Alexa Rank, Google indexed pages and so on. I only added the Alexa Rank in the example above because I was mainly interested in the outlet’s traffic potential.
- Perceived Competitor Goal — What do you think your competitor tried to achieve with this backlink? In the example screenshot, I specified that this backlink was naturally earned, a guest post backlink or a brand mention. I also added information about the anchor text, and whether it matched or was closely related to the competitor’s post slug (generally a keyword or keyphrase).
- Competitor Outcome — What did your competitor effectively achieve with this backlink? A dofollow brand mention? Comments? Social engagement? Newsletter signups? Rankings? For the rankings, look up the backlink content topic in the SERPs and see what comes up. This is not a certainty, but the backlink could have played a part in the position improvement.
- My Goal — What goal can you set up for this backlink? For example, Sujan Patel’s Skubana backlink comes from a guest post he placed on their blog, and Skubana would be an interesting outlet for me to guest post on, being that its niche is closely related to mine. That means I would boost my authority, traffic and rankings if I were to guest post on Skubana.
This kind of spreadsheet makes it easy to create a database of good and natural-looking competitor backlinks to use for your SEO strategy.
No low-quality backlinks have their place here! Choose very wisely, because these are the backlinks you’re going to work with.
In this example, I selected only six backlinks out of the dozens I analyzed so far from Sujan Patel’s website. That is, only backlinks that carried value for my purposes (finding guest post outlets that drive in targeted traffic).
You can add more data to this spreadsheet from the analysis performed with the help of Monitor Backlinks and SpyFu (see section #2 in this guide).
5. Is This Backlink for You, Too?
Before you proceed to reach out to that webmaster to ask if your page can be linked as a resource on that same page as your competitor, or to place a nice guest post, consider the nature of the backlink, its context and the niche or industry it belongs to.
Think about how it could work for you.
- Is a backlink from this website and a similar context (or this very page, if outreach is a feasible option) worth your time and effort?
- Can it stand the passing of time? (Long-lived good backlinks make for a stronger profile)
- Can it help boost your site traffic, visibility and rankings?
- Can it drive leads and sales?
The secret lies in not replicating your competitors’ backlinks exactly, but always to add value that only you can add.
In other words, be memorable to those who link back to and read you.
As Jason Reed says:
I knew right away that if I wanted to beat my competitors I would have to get better links than theirs, not the same exact ones. Because of this mentality, I’m seeing my pages surge above theirs in the SERPs.
Go and Get Yourself a Backlink, Courtesy of Your Competitors
After all the spying, analyzing and planning, it comes the time to act.
Now is the time to go and get yourself a good backlink, and then mentally thank your competitor for providing that much information with their backlink profile.
Here’s a short roundup of helpful posts from Monitor Backlinks to put your plan into action:
- “Best Email Outreach Strategies For Guest Blogging” — It’s an important step to get to know the outlet you want to guest write for. With webmasters (especially bloggers) wary of unknown writers pitching topics, it’s vital to develop a relationship first, lay the foundations of trust and let the strength of your topic do the rest of the job.
- “Guest Blogging Strategies To Drive Traffic And Build Backlinks” — Once you have your list of outlets and fabulous ideas that will help their readers and not only your SEO, you’ve got a guest post to write… and make sure it works!
- “Link Building Best Practices And Strategies – How To Get High-Quality Backlinks” — Here you find advice on how to replicate some of your competitor’s backlinks (blog comments are the easiest), including the Broken Linking Method.
Concluding Thoughts on Competitor Backlinks
The SERPs can be like a war camp.
Competition is crazy, but at the end of the day, both you and your competitor have to serve your audience and both of you will do it in the way that’s most unique to your brand.
It’s really not a bad kind of war!
Like shops, it would be a poorer world without a bit of healthy competition, and sometimes while trying to get more customers and “outrank” the other, partnerships and collaborations are born (so no, you’re neither a thief nor a cheater when you spy on your competitor’s backlinks).
There’s plenty to learn from other businesses in your niche or industry, and you can get as popular (and linked to) as them.
And well, yes—you might even outrank them in the SERPs, after all, if Google and users like what you have to offer more than what they do!