Welcome to the final part in this series; Analysing the Competition. In this post we will be looking at back links and how they can aid (or destroy) rankings.

If you’ve read parts 1 and 2 of this series then you should be up to date with how to conduct content analysis and site structure analysis. Now it’s time to look at off page.

There are a number of sites and programs available for analysing back links to any website. If you are an SEO agency then you may already have invested in a system that tracks all site details including rankings, traffic stats and back link profiles. Otherwise, there are free sites such as Open Site Explorer that will allow you to check out a maximum of 3 sites a day.

SEO is generally divided into two areas; on page and off page. On page is pretty much self explanatory; it’s everything that you will find on any given site page; Meta tags, copy, internal links, etc. Off page refers to (again), just that; this comprises of any external site that is providing some kind of link back to your site; this includes directories, social media platforms or any other website.

To analyse a competitor’s back link profile you will need a list of all of their back links; Open Site Explorer or your chosen system will be able to provide this. Generally, all you need to do is type the home page URL of any site into the system and it will search that entire domain for all back links. Social Media links do not normally appear in the resulting list; however, there are other apps out there that allow you to track social media activity.

Once you’ve got this list; start working your way through. Not only will this give you an idea of the kind of sites they are targeting for links; it may also give you ideas for sites you can contact yourself and you may be able to pick up some idea of their link building techniques in the process.

If you’re conducting very similar on page work to a competitor, but just can’t get above them in the rankings then it’s likely they have a good back link profile. It’s important to remember that its quality, not quantity that matters here. Read our guide on Penguin-Friendly link building to find out how Google considers a healthy back link profile should look. If your competitor has a healthy back link profile then this could definitely be a reason why they continue to rank above you for certain terms, no matter how much on page work you do!

Since the release of Google’s Penguin algorithm in April 2012, link building has changed massively. What were once seen as legitimate link building techniques are, in some cases, now considered to be “Black Hat”. However, some techniques such as link wheels are still widely used and can often remain undetected. These are relatively easy to spot, however, during back link analysis. If a site is using a link wheel method; you will generally see a few links from the same site, but using different keywords. If you think you’ve spotted some kind of pattern then check out each of the sites; often because these sites are set up for the sole purpose of link building; they will look very similar. They may also have the same footer links on every site or links that appear to be different but all actually re-direct through to the same website. Although link wheels are not a recommended method of link building, you may still come across them in your competitor analysis; this is risky and they may eventually be penalised by Google for it.

You could delve even deeper into a competitor’s back link profile and start comparing IP addresses for signs of microsite blogging, analysis of citation flow, authority, etc but first and foremost, you want to find out what they’re doing and come up with a way to do it better. Take a look at the terms they are using for links; again this will give you an idea as to whether they are natural links or whether they have been requested. Generally, if a site is genuinely posting about a company they like or maybe even have had a bad experience with, then they’ll use the brand name as the anchor text. Requested links generally use the same or similar keywords time and again as this is often the main “money” keyword for a company. While this may help boost your competitor for that one term, eventually they may get caught out by Google and penalised so a varied back link profile with a good mix of keywords and sites is a must; this is what you’re looking for when analysing competitor sites. Even if they don’t have loads of back links; a few links from high PR, authoritative and relevant sites can often make all the difference. Conversely, if their back link profile consists of thousands of PR1 links and then one link from a PR9 site; this is highly suspicious and worth checking out.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article; back links can sometimes do more harm than good. Since Penguin was released, Google have been clamping down on particularly bad links. We’ve seen it a number of times here at Polaris; a site owner has paid someone, or maybe even an SEO agency, to build a back link profile for their site. All goes well for a short time and then all of a sudden, they get a notification through Webmaster Tools and their site drops off the face of the (Google) Earth. Unfortunately, in this case the majority of back links are unethical and, worst case scenario, are from sites associated with gambling, Viagra, porn, etc. While it is highly unlikely that you will ever come across this during competitor analysis (they probably wouldn’t be ranking at all, let alone in the top 3 results); it’s definitely something to be aware of. If this has ever happened to your site then all is not lost; read our blog on how to overcome a manual link penalty for further information.

Well, hopefully this series has given you a good insight into competitor analysis, and it may have even given you a few good ideas of how to beat your competition! If you have been penalised by Google in the past, or if you are looking to hire an ethical SEO agency for your site then we would be more than happy to help. Give us a call on 0203 865 0208 to speak to one of our dedicated SEO consultants.

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