Backlink auditing has been a vital tool in any good online marketer's arsenal for a good number of years now. It’s a diverse practice that can be utilized throughout a campaign for various reasons, whether that be proactive clean up, penalty recovery, or competitor analysis.
Auditing your own, a client’s or a competitor’s, backlink profile is all well and good. But without a complete dataset, you could be wasting your time and effort and not getting the results you really desire.
Penguin, Manual Penalties and Reconsideration Requests
Ever since Google made things interesting with the introduction of the Penguin filter and the formalization of the manual penalty procedure, we have been working with clients, big and small, to remove and recover their rankings and visibility. In many cases we are the last resort; marketing managers and agencies have nowhere else to turn. Often unsure why they have had three, four or sometimes even five reconsideration requests denied.
In many cases there are two clear reasons.
The first is they are too protective of the the links in their backlink profile, and secondly, they simply haven’t collected all the data available to them (either due to budget or knowledge constraints).
An Overview of Data Sources
"So, where should we be looking for data?" I hear you ask. Well, there are many sources of data, many claiming to be the most comprehensive and many failing to deliver on that promise. In my opinion there are four major players when it comes to data sourcing, all of which have proved their worth when it comes to my day to day job of link auditing.
Majestic is probably the biggest and most comprehensive link source around, which makes it a great starting point for any audit. There are two options when it comes to Majestic’s link data: fresh and historic. The fresh index contains links crawled by Majestic in the last 90 days (perfect for monthly competitor analysis). The historic index is a more complete data set, containing links found from the past five years.
Ahrefs is a great supporting data source, usually giving the highest percentage of active links. All the data is easily accessible and the interface is very user friendly.
Moz have been at the forefront of SEO advice for many years, and their tools again are a good source of additional links. Data exports from Moz tend to contain links from higher quality domains, which again could be helpful in competitor analysis. The downside to Moz is the limit on the number of links analyzed. If you have a large backlink profile, Moz will only analyze 10,000 links, another reason why gathering as much data from as many sources is crucial.
Webmaster Tools should probably be your first port of call when gathering data. Downloading and de-duping links from Webmaster tools on a weekly basis will help build up a clear picture of the links Google is seeing in your backlink profile. Best of all it’s completely free, and doesn’t discriminate, meaning you’ll see you’re really good links, alongside your not so good links.
Evaluating Your Link Data
Once you have gathered all data sources, it’s now time to put it into some sort of order, ready to be evaluated and analyzed. There are tools out there that do this automatically; LinkRisk being one of them. LinkRisk is great in that it takes all your data, does some magic behind the scenes and gives each link a score from one (fantastic) to 1000 (not so fantastic). Not only that it gives you information such as the link location (which is great for weeding out directory and article links) and anchor text distribution, along with some vital key metrics, social stats and webmaster contact details.
The best thing about LinkRisk is the fact it will import new links from Majestic, Ahrefs and WMT on a daily basis, automatically, leaving you with more time to actually focus on auditing links.
For those on a budget, Excel is a great tool for consolidating data. Using the pivot and filter tool makes manipulating the data fairly straight forward. Although it doesn’t highlight the location of the link, you can use common spam “buzz” words to highlight and earmark and lower quality links in your profile.
The Data is in a Readable Format. What Now?
This really does depend on what you want to achieve from your backlink audit project.
Analyzing a competitor's backlink profile is a great way to gain insight into their organic strategy. Knowing what the competitor is doing will allow you to take the good parts of their campaign and integrate them into your own.
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, and this applies to the health of your backlink profile. Even if you haven’t been the victim of a manual or algorithmic penalty, it’s always good to be prepared, as you are not immune; Google is still handing them out. Be proactive with cleaning up your backlink profile. Remove any older style links, and focus on any links that look unnatural.
There is only one real way to remove a manual penalty from your Webmaster Tools account: audit, remove, disavow and repeat. The repeat part of the process only really comes into play when you have incomplete data, or you are too protective of your links.
It’s vital to really concentrate on getting rid of those older style directory, article and comment spam links. Over-optimized anchor text has also had its day and is no longer a sustainable strategy. I’m a fan of the phrase, “If it’s made for SEO, it’s got to go,” which I really do believe sums up link removal and cleanup.
Negative SEO Check
As much as it pains me to say, negative SEO does happen; not often, but some organizations do believe the best strategy is to spam the hell out of the competition. If you’re in a competitive niche, regularly auditing and disavowing incoming spammy domains is a must.
So there it is! Do you think I’ve stressed the importance of data enough? (I suppose I have to, it’s in my job title.)