April 24th, 2012, was a black day for many webmasters. After over a decade of link building without consequences, Google pulled the trigger by rolling out the Penguin Update. The anti-spam filter punishes sites for aggressive link building in its meanwhile 7th iteration. It hit the SEO scene like a meteor.
Fast forward 5 years, the hottest stuff is content, user experience, and technical SEO. Even as ranking factors, user behavior signals have passed backlinks.
But link building is not dead; it is just different - Skyscraper technique, Infographics, white papers, viral videos, broken link building, reports, and more. The best practice is to strategically create something outstanding and share it in the hopes of getting backlinks.
"Outstanding content + good outreach = backlinks".
Links have to be earned. The downside is that link building has become much less controllable. The by-product is more brand awareness and good content.
But there is another benefit that nobody speaks about; when everybody uses content (marketing) to build links, it is easier to reverse engineer how they did it.
SEMrush has some neat features we can use to reverse engineer how competitors got backlinks.
In this article, you will learn about:
- Finding Your Competitors' Content Marketing Campaigns
- Identifying Your Competitors' Best-Linked Content
- Figuring Out Your Competitor's Weak Spots
- Spotting the Links That Set the Industry Leader Apart
- Building the Links Your Competitors Want
- Wrapping Up: The Shift to Content Marketing Makes Reverse Engineering Easier
Finding Your Competitors' Content Marketing Campaigns
Content marketing campaigns are the most often used way to build backlinks. When you know the ones your competitors created, you can find out what works well and create something better. Instead of browsing through their site for hours, SEMrush has a handy function we can use for reverse engineering.
(For this example, I used wordstream.com, quicksprout.com, searchenginejournal.com, and contentmarketinginstitute.com.)
In SEMrush's backlink gap tool ("Gap Analysis" > "Backlink Gap" or click here) you can find domains that link at least once to each.
What you are looking for is a competitor standing out by having a lot of referring domains. It is often an indicator of something that was actively done to get so many backlinks.
In the screenshot below, you can see that contentmarketinginstitue.com gets a lot of backlinks from LinkedIn. Click on the number to see all of them.
In the next view, open a couple (click on the "source" link) to see what pages they get the backlink from.
You will quickly find that CMI is simply cited as a source in LinkedIn articles with a B2B report ("B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends—North America")! They surveyed over 5,000 marketers to create a report full of statistics, graphics, and strong statements that are easy to share - perfect food for backlinks.
Another example of a content marketing campaign I found with this method, is an infographic from Wordstream about projects that Google stopped pursuing. It got shared by many sites, like Mashable.com:
To zoom in on a single competitor use the "Referring Domains" feature ("Domain Analytics" > "Backlinks" > "Referring Domains" or click here) and sort the list after "Domain Score". Again, look for a number of backlinks from a domain that sticks out. Then, click on the number in the "Backlinks" column and check the pages that are listed.
This is how I found out that Quicksprout got 15 backlinks just from addthis.com to an article about "15 Types of Content That Will Drive You More Traffic". It got over 150 links total!
One important tip:
Always write down the contact details of the authors who cited your competitor's content: social profiles, e-mail address - anything you can find. Because once you created (better) content, you can reach out to them. You already know they publish content and are willing to link out.
Use this free backlink author database template to track author details.
Identifying Your Competitors' Best-Linked Content
Another perspective on your competitor's best backlinks comes from the "Indexed Pages" section ("Domain Analytics" > "Backlinks" > "Indexed Pages" or click here). It shows you how many backlinks each page of a site gets. That makes it easy to identify assets like tools, white papers, infographics, and articles that attracted a lot of backlinks.
To get started, sort the list after "Domains".
Look for patterns in the pages' topics, style, length, and format. What does your competitor write about, "how to" questions or controversial subjects? What is the format, long-form or short? Does he use a lot of pictures, videos, graphics, and memes or just plain text? Is his style casual or formal?
In this example, we can see that an article on Wordstream.com about conversion rate got a ton of backlinks.
The headline is very provocative: "Everything You Know About Conversion Rate Optimization Is Wrong". The article has almost 6,000 words. And it has a "content upgrade", a free template/spreadsheet/guide, at the end of the article!
These are all important things to notice because they should guide your content strategy. We now know that this topic and format worked well in the space. We want to either replicate that better or in a similar way.
To see which other sites that piece of content resonated with the most, click on the number in the "Backlinks". Export all linking URLs so you can extract the author details and reach out to them later.
Let's look at an example from Wordstream. Going back to our "Indexed Pages" overview, you see that it has a page called "/keywords".
It is a free keyword tool!
The landing page collected almost 1,500 backlinks, but it also ranks for over 1,000 keywords, for example, #3 for "keyword tool".
So, if I were a competitor to Wordstream I would now know that tools seem to work well in the space. I could then go on and look at the pages that link to Wordstream's tool, build something similar and reach out to them.
It is basically the Skyscraper Technique* but without starting at the keyword. Instead, you start with a pre-qualified topic by scanning your competitors. [*]
Figuring Out Your Competitor's Weak Spots
SEMrush can help find your competitor's pages that lost the most links with a little Excel magic. The idea: find out what content of you competitor lost backlinks, create something better and use the vulnerability to rank higher. Do that often enough and you have a chance of passing your competitor. Whether the content lost links because it is outdated or something else doesn't matter in the end.
So how do you do it?
First, go to the backlinks section ("Domain Analytics" > "Backlinks" or click here) and punch in a competitor's site.
Then, click on "lost" to sort the list for lost backlinks and export it. SEMrush's database includes only lost links from the last three months.
Open the CSV in Excel or Google Sheets. Select all (CMD + A on Mac) and create a Pivot Table (under "Insert" in Excel; under "Data" in Google Sheets).
Add "Target URL" to the rows and "Lost Link" in the values.
Sort that table after "Count of lost links" - and voila, you know the pages of your competitor that lost the most links.
The final step is to find out what links to the URL so you can reach out and get the link. To do that, copy + paste the URLs with the most lost links one by one back into the SEMrush "backlinks" section and filter after lost links.
Now you can go to the page, find the author data, create awesome content and share it.
Spotting the Links That Set the Industry Leader Apart
Every site operates in an industry and every industry has a leader. From an SEO point of view, industry leaders often have the best backlink profile, aside from doing other things better. So, for us, it makes sense to find the links that only the leaders have. Because then you can mimic their tactics and catch up.
Let's look at some SEO blogs. For this example, I chose Moz, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Watch, and Marketing Land.
If you want to know what competitors you should look at, SEMrush gives you suggestions in the "Backlink Gap" section, once you entered the first domain.
Our five domains for this example have many overlapping keywords (chart from the "Keyword Gap" tool):
Search Engine Land is slightly ahead of Moz in the number of ranking keywords (319K vs. 309K). But when it comes to backlinks, Search Engine Land clearly leads the pack.
If you were one of the other four players, the question would be "what backlinks does Search Engine Land have that I don't and how did they get them?"
You can find that out by sorting the backlink comparison table in the "Backlink Gap" section after domain score ("DS"). The gems you're looking for are domains that only link to Search Engine Land (indicated by "1/5" in the "Matches" column).
All you have to do is click on the backlinks and see where they are coming from. Search Engine Land got a link from Google (UK), for example, which is very powerful.
And from Bloomberg:
Those are links that the other four competitors don't have and that gives Searchengineland.com an edge.
Building the Links Your Competitors Want
In SEO, it is not just about catching up to your competitors but also getting ahead of them. The best way to do that is to chase the backlinks they chase.
The idea is that you want to rank for the same keywords as your competitors (and others) but higher. To find out which ones those are, you start with the Keyword Gap tool and punch in your competitors. (Let's hypothetically say we are searchengineland.com and compete with moz.com and searchenginejournal.com.)
Use the advanced filters to show only keywords that rank better than position #10 and sort after search volume. This way you can see which keywords bring your competitors traffic but not you (yet). Ignore keywords that your competitors are ranking on #1 for.
For this example, I chose the keyword "h1 tag", for which Moz ranks #7 and Search Engine Journal #5.
Clicking on the keyword brings you to the "Keyword Analytics" section so you can check out the top 10 organic rankings.
Copy + paste the URLs of the top 10 into the Quick Batch backlink tool ("Domain Analytics" > "Backlinks" > "Quick Batch")*.
*UPD (editorial): The new name of the described tool is Bulk Backlink Analysis.
Now you can see how many backlinks each of the top 10 URLs has (from different domains). Since your competitors aren't ranking #1, they probably chase the backlinks from the URLs that rank higher than them*. Those are the links your competitors want to build - unless you are faster.
*Granted, backlinks are not the only factor for rankings.
Click on the number (in the "Backlinks" column), and you get a list of all backlinks to that URL.
For example, Vertical Measures created a video on top of an article about h-tags that got them to rank on #2.
The page gets links from sites like Tech.co or blogs like nathanbransford.com (total # of links: 34).
Once you identified the links you competitors want to build, follow the standard procedure of creating (better) content and reaching out to the link-givers.
Wrapping Up: The Shift to Content Marketing Makes Reverse Engineering Easier
Reverse engineering your competitor's backlinks might seem a little shady. You feel like you are gaming the system or taking something away from someone. Keep in mind that it is not about harming others - it is about creating something of value for your audience.
In this article, I gave you five solid ways to reverse engineer your competitors' backlinks. But when you really think about it, it always comes down to creating great content.
Backlinks are ultimately votes. The tactics are nothing but ways to find out what content of your competitors was most often voted for. Those votes mean even more now than 5 or 10 years ago. It has become harder to get backlinks because everyone knows about their value. That means when content got a backlink, it is a strong signal for high value.
The Penguin Update changed link building forever but it is not completely out of control. We can still actively push our link profile in the right direction.
To do that, find your competitors':
- Content marketing campaigns
- Best linked content
- Lost links
- Unique links
- Desired links