Earlier this week, I came across an article by Michael Martinez about why competitive link analysis wastes your time, which could have been inspired by two posts about the same subject that had been published earlier this week. Although I enjoy reading most of the long posts Michael writes, and I agree with some of the points he makes in the article, I absolutely disagree with his headline and conclusion.
In my opinion, starting an online marketing campaign without a competitive link analysis is like starting a company with only half of a marketing plan. You want to be well aware of your surroundings, before you enter a market or start a new project. Sure, there are plenty examples of companies that succeeded without one, but I think that there are over twice that amount of companies that would still exist today, if they had made a thorough plan when they started. “A well prepared man is worth two others”, as a French saying goes.
Michael already mentioned one very valid reason to perform a competitive link analysis, which is securing links from sites that already link to competing websites. The sole fact that these sites already link to your competitors is not a bad thing, as that has absolutely no influence at all on whether these sites may pass traffic, link juice or conversions to yours. Agreed, you can never be 100% sure if a link passes value or not, but if you think that it may provide relevant traffic, any additional link juices comes as a bonus.
Most link builders don’t need any other reason to start a link analysis, but there are much more reasons to perform one.
When a prospect (or your employer) tells you “this is what we want to reach, and this is our budget”, a competitive link analysis may be a good way to find out whether it’s achievable or not.
For example, “we want to rank in the top three for keyword X, and we have a budget of $x,xxx to achieve it” might not be such a good idea when you find out that your competitors have been attracting lots of high quality links for several years, and you’re just starting. Of course, a goal like that is never a good idea, but in some cases you’ll simply end up with such a goal on your plate. And it’s good to have some data laying around that you can use to prove that this goal can probably not be achieved within the outlined time frame, as links are -whether you like it or not- of big influence on search engine visibility.
During a link analysis, you’ll come across lots of different pages. It’s remarkable to see how quickly you’ll get to know an industry that’s completely new to you, just by doing some research. This also helps you to find content gaps and to come up with other ideas for linkworthy content.
Identify networks and relationships
Some competitors may use link networks to artificially improve their search engine rankings, and a link analysis can identify such networks. Use this information to avoid contacting sites in this network, to keep track of linking behavior between these networks, or for any other reason that you think it’s valuable for.
The same goes for identifying relationships. In some cases, a link analysis can go as far as telling you which journalists your competitors knows, or where your competitor spends his entire sponsoring budget.
Identify timely patterns
One of the things that I like about Majestic SEO, is that they offer historical linking data. Although this is link discovery data, it can be used to identify patterns, or to show competitors that are either very lazy or very active, link building wize.
Competing websites that have not been attracting links for several months may be interesting targets to acquire, especially for affiliate publishers. Websites that more or less act as link magnets, on the other hand, are worth keeping a very close eye on. Just like you would do with an offline competitor who is suddenly getting a lot of traction.
If several of your competitors show seasonal patterns in their link growth (ie link spikes in the Summer, or near Mother’s Day), but you are not, it may be a good thing to investigate why this is happening. You might be wasting an opportunity – and not just a linking opportunity, but sometimes even a business opportunity in general.
Find common linking reasons
Persuasion plays an important role in link marketing. People always link for a reason, but the most important linking reasons can be different in another industry. In highly competitive industries, for example, reciprocation (link buys, link trades) plays an important role, while authority might be the main influencing factor in some other industries. Finding out who link to your competitors is not the most important thing, it’s learning why they do so.
When you work at an agency, I think that it’s part of your duty to report any spammer (cloaking, blatantly buying links, or any other spam strategies) in your client’s industry you may come across to your client.
It’s up to you to provide your client with as much information as possible, and it’s up to them to decide what to do with this. Competitive link analysis can be of great assistance with identifying websites that use dodgy linking strategies.
General competitive intelligence
Almost any link analysis that I have performed thus far has provided other competitive information as well. It’s funny to see what kind of information a competitor’s backlinks can take you to sometimes. Content marketing strategies, press releases with business information about the company, interviews with former employees that you would not have found otherwise, and more stuff like that.
I’ve also used link analysis to determine the added SEO / link value of an offline marketing campaign, for example in print or press. This is a bit tricky, but if an offline campaign is somewhat isolated, it is possible to draw relatively safe assumptions.
I know that Michael is not a big fan of the artificial link building, in relation to the more natural link marketing. However, with the current link-driven algorithms that Google uses, deliberately neglecting the link building part in a competitive market is like wanting to ride with the Nazgûl on a pink My Little Pony.
PS – Although I don’t agree with Michael’s post about competitive link analysis, I do recommend subscribing to his blog. You don’t always have to agree with someone to learn new things.