A lot has changed over the last decade when it comes to link competition.
In most niches your competitors are building more good links and less ‘easy’ ones than they did in the past.
The days when you could just pop a page up on a new site, build 50 dubious links to it, and immediately start seeing cash coming in are largely gone in mainstream niches.
As our brand has become better known, and we’ve started to get leads from a broader audience, I’ve seen more and more enquiries from site owners looking to do something like buy five links and ‘see what happens’.
In the past that wasn’t a bad idea - usually competitors didn’t have many good links anyway, and things moved quickly on a page-level basis in the SERPS.
However, these days, the chances are that by the time you assess the impact, your competitors have added dozens of links to their sites and continued to move ahead.
Most of the time I discourage those potential clients from ordering such a small test right away, and instead go through what I’m about to share here - a good strategy to work out how far behind they really are and how many links they need to build to get back in the game.
If you don’t have the time to build these yourself or the budget to outsource, then you may wish to reconsider your strategy in the niche you’re targeting.
Knowing What Links ‘Really’ Count
Whether you’re scanning a competitor’s links or looking at a link report from a linkbuilding agency it’s important to have a strong idea of what a good link looks like.
This is how you assess how far behind you are, and how much the work you just bought has closed the gap. Assessing new links by building them slowly and waiting months just lets your competitors keep moving ahead of you.
It’s a fool’s errand to build 5 links a month to your site if most of your competitors are picking up 10 or 20. At best it’s a recipe for anemic growth, at worst you’ll never get anywhere before you quit.
Better links are harder to get, editorially given by a site (not bribed or hacked), and not just anyone can get one.
Here are some warning signs a link may not be powerful:
Don’t take any of this to mean that you shouldn’t acquire the ‘bedrock’ type links that all sites in your niche have.
For example, industry associations and directories, social profiles, active memberships in relevant forums and communities. Some of these will have mixed SEO value, often greater than 0, and often sending direct traffic too.
However, when you’re looking at a competitor’s list of 1,000 links to assess an equivalent value in ‘good links’ allocating most of these lower-quality or easier-to-obtain links with a value in the 0-0.3 range gives you a more realistic total to work with as your target to beat.
Assessing Your Competitor’s ‘Lead’
I’ll circle back to discussing how to pick the correct competitors to analyse but I wanted to quickly let you see how easily you can break a list down first.
To avoid any panic before we get to that - you won’t need do this for every ‘competitor’ that ranks in the top 10 for your target keywords. Some will obviously be out of reach initially/pointless to analyze during the early years of your site (e.g. huge DA90 authority sites that rank for a few of your terms).
My favourite strategy is to jump onto Ahrefs or Majestic and grab all their live backlinks (setting one link per domain and dofollow only).
If a site has 0-200 links I might look at them all and score them 0-1 on value. Where 1 is reserved only for high authority, editorially given links and most other things fall in the 0-0.3 range most of the time with the occasional good but not perfect link getting a high score 0.75+.
It’s very rare you see a competitor doing purely good work. If you do find one doing this then naturally they’re going to be a bigger challenge.
If a site has a larger number of links, then I randomly pick out 200 (completely at random) from the last 2-3 years to give a sample. Then analyse those.
When you work out your average score (typically you’re going to find it is way under half – e.g. 0.25) for the links you checked you can simply multiply this by their total number of links to get an estimated total ‘value in good links’.
So, for example, a 400-link competitor scoring 0.4 only has 160 good links (equivalent). If you assess that you have 40 good links equivalent, then you’re 120 good links behind.
You should repeat this for all the sites that you need to overtake to start making money (i.e. they have positions 1-10 for your keywords).
Assessing Their Link Velocity
As I hinted at earlier, there’s little point aiming just for where your competitors all are currently. They’re almost certainly moving forward, and acquiring links, even if only naturally over time and not actively building.
Ahrefs makes it trivially simple to quickly check what new links your competitors built recently.
It does have some flaws though and will uncover some old links ‘as new’ when for example they move from one category archive page to another (eg health/page37 to health/page38 as more posts are added on the site) which you should ignore.
As you can see above I prefer to use the ‘new’ referring domains rather than new links tab. There were 31 to analyze in this particular sample.
Typically, I’ll grab 3 months’ worth of links, average it to get the monthly rate, then repeat the analysis we did in the previous section to give them an average score.
Most of the time this will be higher than the average you used for ‘their whole site’ as people are generally moving slowly in the direction of higher quality link acquisition. Usually the most recent links are likely to worth more than ‘everything they ever got’.
Say you find the 400-link competitor (160 value) that we analysed previously is building 10 links/month and you value those at 0.5. You can then assess what it takes to be level with where they’ll probably be in 1 year and then start to move ahead of them simply by looking at the shortfall:
160 (their link value) - 40 (your link value) = 120 shortfall
Then work out a monthly rate by dividing by 12: 10 links/month needed.
Then simply add their velocity value (5) giving a total of 15/links month to get to ‘where they will be’ in 12 months. Naturally if you want to be ahead sooner than a year you might elect to build 20 quality links/month.
And if you are only able to build 5 links/month (or only have the budget for 5/month) then you can also predict how much further behind you’ll be in 12 months using this method.
If all the sites ahead of you and just below you for your target keywords are building more good links than you can build then you might actually see your rankings fall despite having significantly more links in a year’s time than now.
It’s Not Just About Links, Of Course
For the purposes of this analysis I’ve tried to keep an ‘all other things are equal’ assumption.
This will not be the case ‘in the wild’.
Sometimes your site will load faster, be better siloed, have much longer and more informative content, get better user engagement signals and so on.
If, and only if, this is truly the case you might find that catching a competitor takes less links than the target given by my calculation above. However, the opposite can be true if your competitors are pumping out content that is longer/better than yours and have considered their site structure more optimally for certain keyword groupings etc.
Picking The Competitors
I’ll start with the quickest possible approach - it works well if your site has existed for a while and you already are ranking (somewhere) for many of your target keywords.
You can simply take the list of 5 main competitors (with keyword overlap) that Ahrefs identifies and run with those as a good starting point for seeing the lay of the land.
These have a lot of keyword overlap with you already so if you analyze their growth and strategy, and aim to beat it in quality and volume, you should move up ahead of them.
A more measured approach is to consider the stage of development of your site and your realistic 1-year objectives. If your site is new, and most of your content is focussed on just some smaller long-tail parts of your niche, then it makes little sense to look at any sites that are huge/broad and targeting everything in your space.
In this case it is much more effective for you to pick 30-50 of your most important ‘near-term’ keywords (ones you’re trying to rank for soon) and compile a list of the sites that are ranking in the top 10 for all of those.
From that list you can whittle it down to the ‘most beatable’ sites - ones that are typically smaller and just on page 1.
This gives you a clear target for how far behind you are when compared to sites that are effectively just starting out into the money positions.
Setting a target which moves you quickly ahead of those sites is often sufficient to demonstrate that you’re onto a ‘winner’ in your niche.
There are conflicting views on the optimal strategy when it comes to linking to individual pages that you want to rank vs building custom linkbait that is easier to get links to.
The links to these types of specific linkbait are often easier to land from higher quality sites too so the benefit throughout your site, though not to a specific page, is higher.
My view on it is that it most often comes down to your niche.
If your pages that you want to rank are all product reviews, extremely salesy in order to convert in your niche, or a topic that people generally don’t link to easily (credit card deals, nootropics, supplements, bedroom pills or gambling to name just a few) then you’re by far better off opting to create unique linkbait.
Take a look at what Distilled have done with Simply Business (shared here as they talk about it in public a lot so we’re not outing anything) in the UK:
Instead of all insurance content getting links they’ve built a ton of pure business content targeting different topics to pile the links onto such as their guide to WordPress for small businesses.
The reason this works so well is that you really would need to really knock it out of the park with some content if you wanted 100% links from other sites who basically compete with you. So, for most sites that aren't producing that kind of blockbuster content the most practical way to get high quality, natural links is to go for related subniches and pitch that to the real audience for these smaller/more specific topics rather than competing sites within the larger niche.
And as you can see in this case study, even with a big budget, and blockbuster content, the agency still opted to take this approach to maximise the number and quality of the links obtained.
Build Sitewide Authority Through Interlinking
You’ll notice if you dig deeper into the linkbait on Simply Biz, that there’s a lot of interlinking, starting with links on each linkbait then throughout the rest of the site.
This kind of strategy helps spread authority throughout the site and helps the links cause a ‘rising tide’ as pages not directly linked to gain benefit from the authority garnered by the links driven to the linkbait.
However, in some cases, if your site is a ‘pure authority’ site with lots of helpful tips, articles and content that you’re trying to rank e.g. ‘best ways to get to sleep before 10pm’ is an article on your mattress site, then building links directly to those pages is going to be a solid idea.
Homepage links are also definitely worth introducing into the mix as the homepage tends to pass authority through direct links to your most important pages over time. This means even if you restructure and reorganise your site in future you won’t lose out on the authority generated here.
The aggressiveness of other sites in your niche will also have an impact on your strategy.
It might be the case that most pages ranking for your competitors not only have sites with broad/reasonable authority that’s ahead of yours, but they also tend to have at least X number of links to the specific ranking pages too.
That’s definitely worth consideration when putting your strategy together.
Make sure to start your linkbuilding campaigns with a clear end goal in mind and knowing how far you need to move your authority to catch and pass your most immediate competition.
However if you’re trying to move from low traffic to worthwhile traffic you have to be cognisant of your competitors. It’s possible to massively improve your site in many of these areas and yet still be falling behind.