Competitor Link Patterns: Unlocking Their Dirty Little Secrets

One of the oldest, yet most effective ways to identify new link partners is sifting through a competitor’s backlink profile. However, depending on the size of the profile, this can prove to be an arduous and time consuming process. So before getting too granular in our efforts of identifying individual link partners, I like to take a top-level approach in recognizing patterns.

This ultimately gives me an idea of a competitor’s link building strategies, what’s successful, and how I can exploit it for my own benefit. More often than not, this will also help synthesize content strategies (to complement link building efforts) and is a great precursor to identifying the keywords we will use alongside search operators (like intitle:, inurl:, allinanchor, etc.).

Queue the almighty spreadsheet! Yes – an Achilles heel to creativity but a marketer’s best friend to data analysis. First –export a competitor’s backlink data using a “Pro” account from Open Site Explorer (there is a free trial available). Another free “link exporter” can be found at (install the Firefox extension for more robust reporting). Tip: be sure to export links from all pages on the root domain as this will give us backlink data for internal pages as well as the homepage.

Format the data to a table. This will make it easier to sort the data and apply formulas en masse.

Excel format data

Sort by Anchor Text.  This is a great way to quickly identify where link building efforts around target keywords are taking place.  Make note of the groups of anchor text that are keyword focused.  In other words, look for groups of anchor text that exclude the company name.

sort anchor text

Sort by Landing Page URL.  I usually find this to be the most efficient way for spotting trends.  After all, it is a dead giveaway on which internal pages are getting links.  An important level of distinction however, lies in whether those links are a result of great content or through general outreach.  The former will better tip you on a link building strategy and the underlying content that is link-worthy.

sort landing page

Sort by .EDU / .Gov / .Org.  This can be done by selecting the entire column of backlinks and then utilizing the “Conditional Formatting” feature in Excel.  Create a new formatting rule for each domain extension.  For example, format the cells that contain specific text containing “.edu.”

cells that contain

Then format the text to a specific color and sort the column by the desired color.  This will give you an idea of any .edu link citations and patterns that coincide.

sort by color

Sort by File Path (Text-To-Columns).  In order to sort by file path, we’ll need to convert all the backlinks to columns within Excel.  For this I recommend copying the backlinks into a separate column and removing all instances of “http://www.” and “http://”. The “Text to Columns” feature can be found under the ‘Data’ tab.  Use the backslash (“/”) as a delimiter.

file path sort

Segmenting and then sorting the file paths will give us a bird’s eye view of any link patterns. Using this method, I’m often able to quickly spot and organize links from blogs, articles, forums, feeds, link pages, magazines, news sources, etc.

Overall, these four approaches will help uncork dozens of link building strategies in a short amount of time. For instance, in recent months I was able to quickly spot some of the following strategies:

  • EDU links obtained through donating to and/or sponsoring university clubs or their peripheral sport teams (i.e. fraternities, chess club, ski teams).
  • Allowing bloggers and other relevant publishers to utilize your unique images in return for a link.
  • Participating in discussion forums hosted by universities.
  • Making it easier for EDU’s to associate with your website by offering an educational grant or college scholarship.
  • Creating useful online tools that are free to use (ie. calculators, drop boxes, image editors).

Most of these strategies are widely known but taking this macro approach to analyzing backlink profiles is a great way to ensure your own long-term strategy isn’t lacking. It is also important to note that you can (and should) take this approach beyond direct competitors. Some of the strongest strategies may live in spaces outside your specific niche – so analyzing a non-competitor in a highly competitive industry (like travel or finance) is a great way to gain an edge on additional link building strategies.

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