Competitor Backlinks: Find & Replicate in 6 Steps

Adam Steele
Jun 8
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No one sums up the relevance of competitor backlink analysis better than Sun Tzu, the great military general of ancient China.

Well, he might have lived many centuries ago, but his conquest philosophies continue to live on in the internet age. When it comes to SEO and link building, for instance, webmasters could learn a thing or two from his ancient “Art of Warscriptures.

He basically advises that;

“If you understand the enemy and understand yourself, you shouldn’t be afraid of the outcome of a hundred battles. However, if you understand yourself and not the enemy, you’re bound to suffer a defeat for every victory that you gain. Then for those who understand neither themselves nor the enemy, they’ll eventually lose every battle…”

Now, let that sink in for a moment. And to put it all into context, think of SEO as the war, SERP as the battleground, rival sites as the enemy, and backlinks plus content as the ammunition.

Well, that would, of course, make your backlink profile the war chest, while the corresponding competitor backlinks would be the enemy’s firepower.

With that in mind, we now invite you to tag along and discover how to apply Sun Tzu’s philosophy for SEO success.

But, before we proceed to the headliner, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why are we specifically focusing on backlinks and not any other SEO element? Also, what exactly do you stand to gain from competitor backlink analysis?

What Are Competitor Backlinks?

Competitor backlinks, for starters, is a term that collectively refers to the inbound links that point toward your rivals in the SERP. It covers pretty much all the dofollow and nofollow links that your competitor’s websites have gained from third-party sources – including referral sites, guest posts, forums, web directories, social media platforms, etc.

Competitor backlinking, on the other hand, is an SEO tactic that entails analyzing the incoming links that connect to your competitor’s web pages and websites. You basically run them through a special SEO analysis tool known as a backlink checker, and then review their metrics from the resultant backlink profile reports.

Now, for the sake of clarity, “competitor” here means any website or web page that Google pits against you in the search results. And, in particular, your competitor backlink analysis ought to zero in on the ones that rank at the top.

You see, today’s SEO is nothing short of an all-out war. We are at a time when Google is processing 5.6 billion searches per day – but, as it turns out, a whopping 90.63% of the web pages never see any of that organic traffic. Instead, clicks only go to the few at the top – with the results on page one attracting 92%, while page two gets 5%.

To separate the winners and losers in this high-stakes game, Google uses more than 200 ranking factors – domain factors, user experience, content, backlink factors, site-level factors, page-level factors, etc.

It’s worth noting, however, that although all these evaluation factors are relevant, their individual degrees of influence are quite different.

According to Andrey Lippattsev, a senior search quality strategist at Google, the two most critical ranking factors are content and links. Consequently, you could say your content marketing and link building strategies are particularly monumental in determining how you end up performing against your competitor websites.

And we’re not talking about just any links. A recent analysis of more than 11.8 million Google search results established that a website’s backlink profile has the highest correlation to its rankings. And, to be specific, it’s the sites that outshine their counterparts in backlink volume and quality that manage to take up the high traffic positions at the top.

Now, that’s precisely where Sun Tzu’s philosophy comes in. Basically, by keeping an eye on the competitor backlinks, you get to determine how can structure your link building strategy for a better competitive advantage in the SERPs.

Why Is Competitor Link Analysis Important?

Thanks to the dynamism and versatility of today’s SEO tools, you should be able to generate a wide range of deep insights from your analysis of competitor backlinks.

For instance, in addition to the number of backlinks, you can review the backlink profile for each competitor website to establish their domain authority, link building history, backlink quality, anchor text keywords, types of inbound links, etc.

With all this information, you stand to benefit from your competitor backlink analysis in the following ways:

#1. Uncovers actionable SEO benchmarks

It’s worth noting that when it comes to the analysis of competitor domains, you won’t be sampling random sites. Rather, you’ll focus on the few that are ranked at the top.

That means that they’ve managed to establish quite the rapport with Google – which can be attributed to their outstandingly superior SEO strategy. These are the competitor sites that excel in not only link building, but also content marketing, page loading speeds, mobile-friendliness, etc.

Now, as you scan every competitor’s website, you’ll be able to view their specifics across the many ranking factors. And when you combine all the data, you’ll have yourself the ultimate template for benchmarking your SEO strategy across every critical ranking factor.

For instance, if you discover that the top ranking sites have 100 backlinks on average, you might want to adjust your backlink strategy to stretch even further. Similarly, if the data shows that infographics attract the highest number of quality links, you could proceed to structure your web content and guest blogging to follow the same format.

All these tweaks could take time. But, eventually, you’ll notice a considerable improvement in your site’s rankings.

#2. Reveals link building opportunities

Apart from showing you the best campaign tricks, Competitor backlink analysis reveals even the link opportunities that you could possibly leverage to build backlinks.

This is where you play dirty by overthrowing your competitors and turning their backlinks into yours.

You see, when you check your competitor’s backlink profile, you get to discover all the referring domains that they’ve partnered with. You could then reverse engineer the backlinks by reaching out to the admins of the referral domains, engaging them calculatedly, and then using the opportunity to overturn the status quo.

Convincing such publishers shouldn’t be that difficult when you come to think of it. By featuring your competitors’ links, they’ve already demonstrated their interest in your industry content. So, you just need to create better posts than their current source, and voila!

This thoughtful approach could also be used to discover guest blogging opportunities in your industry. The trick is to review your competitor’s backlink profile and identify the websites that have published their guest post articles. You could then try to reach out to the site admins, with the aim of working out a favorable guest blogging deal that’ll build new links to your site.

#3. Flags up weaknesses

Competitor analysis isn’t always about tracking high-quality backlinks. You should be able to view all types of competitor links – including the low-quality ones that are least impactful to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

Think of these as your competitors’ weak spots. An assessment of their backlink profile will uncover even the underlying spammy links, the toxic low-authority links, and, most importantly, their broken backlinks.

“Broken”, in this case, means that the URLs are no longer valid. Although they might have been legit competitor backlinks at some point, they now generate a 404 error – which then compromises the destination domains’ SEO.

Now, these are types of weaknesses that you might want to capitalize on. You could, for example, reach out to the referral domains on which the broken links appear, and then present them with alternative links to relevant content on your site.

And for maximum SEO impact, we’d advise you to focus specifically on those broken links that feature your target keywords.

How To Find Competitor Backlinks In 6 Steps

To accurately identify the most relevant competitor links, consider following these six basic steps during your analysis. We’ve included all the necessary examples and case studies to guide you accordingly along the way:

#1. Conduct keyword research

If you’d like to perform competitor backlink analysis, you ought to find out who your competitors are in the first place. And to identify them, you need to start at the most basic level – the competition itself.

What’s the contest in which you’ll be competing for traffic and rankings?

Now, on Google search, contest refers to the specific search terms that you’ll be targeting. They define the confines in which you’ll be engaging your competitors, which then give meaning to the whole SEO campaign.

So, the first step in the competitor analysis journey is determining the specific SEO keywords that contribute to your website’s search visibility.

This is where you bring in advanced SEO tools that are capable of keyword research. SpyFu is one of them, SE Ranking is another, but our all-time favorite happens to be SEMrush.

SEMrush is an all-inclusive tool suite that not only covers all the relevant ranking factors, but also does it in a way that holistically correlates all the analytics info.

With SEMrush’s Organic Research tool, for instance, you get to identify the specific search keywords that are driving traffic to your site, along with:

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The organic research report on SEMrush

  • The top organic search competitors across the keywords.
  • The level of competition across each keyword.
  • The amount of search traffic for each keyword.
  • Your search rankings across each of the keywords.
  • Your ranking history on each organic keyword.

The process is pretty simple and straightforward. You just need to enter your domain and then hit Search. SEMrush will do the rest.

#2. Identify your primary competitors

Once you’ve settled on a list of SEO keywords, you can proceed to identify your main competitors.

Consider, for example, starting with a basic search on Google.

A word of caution, though. Don’t just search the plain keywords. That’ll only generate personalized results, which could be different from what an average user would get.

For the sake of accuracy, therefore, you might want to compose a search string that’ll specifically generate a list of related sites. The process itself is as follows:

  • Enter the following to your Google search bar, but remember to exclude the parentheses.

Related:[your website]

  • For instance, the search query for YouTube.com would look something like this.

Related:youtube.com

  • Here’s the screenshot of the results. Notice how Google has responded to the search string by listing various social streaming sites that are closely related to YouTube.
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For more in-depth analysis, though, you should use dedicated competitor research platforms like SEMrush.

SEMrush itself is known to offer not one or two, but up to six different formulae for uncovering your main competitors. And from these options, we counted four that you could use to discover your primary competitor sites in terms of backlinks and keywords.

They include:

  • Organic competitors – When you run your domain through SEMrush’s Organic Research tool, you should be able to highlight not the list of keywords, but also the accompanying top SEO competitors.

These are the websites that compete for the same search keywords as your site. And, to be specific,  SEMrush reviews the candidates based on the percentage of ranking keywords that they share with your site, plus the total volume of keywords that they rank for.

You can even sort out the list based on “Competition Level” – which should order the competitor domains according to how closely they happen to be related to your site.

Here’s an example of a similar query that we run for ebay.com.

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Organic competitor research on SEMrush.

  • Position tracking competitors – SEMrush additionally comes with a position tracker, which is perfectly ideal for, among other things, discovering competitors from a series of keywords.

In simple terms, this is the option that you choose if you’ve already figured out your list of principal SEO keywords.

You need to create a new position tracking project, specify your domain along with its target search keywords and search locations, after which you eventually leave SEMrush to do the analysis.

The whole process takes longer than organic competitor research, but it’s pretty thorough. Plus, you get to track your competitors rank across all the specified focus keywords.

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Position tracking competitor research. Source: SEMrush

  • Industry competitors – If you’re specifically seeking to zero in on the competitors in your industry, you should try out SEMrush’s Market Explorer tool. This is one area where you dive deep into the market traffic analytics in your market to compare the competitors on, among other factors, demographics, and market dominance.

You should be able to view your competitors’ traffic trends, top shared keywords, traffic sources, growth history, plus target audience demographics.

Here’s the industry research that we did for amazon.com.

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Industry competitor research on SEMrush.

  • Backlinks competitors – the research for backlinks competitors, on the other hand, is facilitated SEMrush’s famous backlink analytics tool.

Once you enter your domain, SEMrush generates a comprehensive report of your backlink profile, from which you should be able to view even your principal backlink competitors.

These are the top competitors who happen to have the highest number of common referral domains with your website. So, in a way, you could say that their backlink profile is closely related to yours.

Here’s a sample of the results that we obtained after running a search query for cnn.com…

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Backlink competitor research on SEMrush.

Besides SEMrush, another platform that you could use to perform AI-driven competitor research is Ahrefs. The procedure is as follows:

  • On the Ahrefs Site Explorer, go to the search bar and enter your domain.
  • The system will perform organic research and then present you with insights into your organic keywords, traffic trends, backlink profile, and competitors.
  • The Organic Search report identifies your top 10 competitors based on the number of common ranking keywords.
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Organic search competitors on Ahrefs Site Explorer.

  • For in-depth information on your competitors, you could proceed to the Competing Domains or Competing Pages sections.

#3. Segment your competitors

Speaking of competing domains and competing pages, you might not want to get various types of competitors mixed up.

As you’ve probably noticed already, not all your organic search competitors operate in the same industry as you. This creates two separate classes of competitors, whose backlinks should be analyzed differently – or you’d be risking ending up with inconclusive results.

It’s only logical, therefore, to segment the list of domains that you compiled, before finally proceeding to the analysis of the competitor backlinks.

The segmentation criteria are pretty simple and straightforward. You should review what each website specializes in and then use the findings to separate them into these two categories:

  • Domain-level competitors – these are, without doubt, your main competitors. Not only do they specialize in the same industry as you, but they also target more or less the same range of organic keywords as your website.

You’ll also notice that each of your domain-level rivals competes with your site across all levels. Hence, all their web pages should be relevant to your backlink analysis.

Some examples of domain-level competitors include; Amazon and eBay, CNN and Fox News, Ahrefs and Moz, SEMrush and SpyFu, etc.

Similarly, you can identify your domain-level competitors from websites that are in the same field as yours. And, in particular, pay special attention to the ones that additionally seem to target even your core audiences across the search engine platforms.

  • Page-level competitors – while domain-level level competitors come in the form of websites, page-level competitors tend to exist as single URLs.

That’s because their websites are not your direct competitors. They are not even in the same industry as your site. Competition here is only courtesy of the individual web pages that happen to rank competitively for the same SEO keyword as you.

Take, for instance, all those content pieces that show up in the same SERPs as your site, despite coming from non-competitor brands.

Here’s a perfect case study between Loganix and Ahrefs. While Loganix is an SEO service provider and Ahrefs operates as an SEO research tool, they both coincidentally have web pages that rank competitively for the search term “backlink tools”.

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Loganix vs Ahrefs page-level competitors.

It’s, therefore, expected that, unlike their domain-level counterparts, the page-level competitors are analyzed only at the URL level. That means that instead of performing competitor backlink analysis on the entire website, you out to review just the ranking web page.

#4. Run your domain-level competitors through a backlink checker

This is where you begin your link analysis. And first on the operating table will be the domain-level competitors, before finally crossing over to their page-level counterparts.

Now, for the analysis of the competitor backlinks, you ought to bring in a powerful backlink checker. We’re talking about a dynamic backlink analysis tool that is capable of crawling extensively through the web to generate up-to-date metrics across all the relevant backlink profile parameters.

Take, for example, the Ahrefs Backlink Checker, which is one of the most prominent tools in this space. Its backlink analysis rides on an advanced web crawler, which now samples a database of over 170 trillion domains and 30.29 trillion links.

To review a competitor’s site, you just need to access the online-based tool, enter the website domain, and then hit “Check backlinks”.

Ahrefs Backlink Checker will then perform a quick analysis of your competitor backlinks, after which it’ll generate a comprehensive report that features:

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Analysis of competitor backlinks on Ahrefs.

  • The website’s Domain Rating (DR) – this is a score that represents the relative strength of the site’s domain profile based on a logarithmic scale of 0-100.
  • The number of referring domains – this is where you get to view the cumulative count of all the unique domains that have published inbound links to the competitor’s site.
  • The number of backlinks – this provides insights into the total count of individual backlinks that the competitor’s site has so far gained from various sources – forums, guest post articles, brand mentions, etc.
  • URL Rating (UR) of the referral pages – Ahrefs additionally provides a UR column, on which it highlights the strength of the link profiles across each of the listed referral pages. This is expressed as a score that is based on a logarithmic 0-100 scale.
  • The top backlinks, anchor text, and web pages – on this section, you’ll find a breakdown of the top 100 quality links and their publishing pages, along with a list of five of the most prevalent anchor texts, plus a compilation of five of the most prominent destination URLs.

That’s all you get for free on Ahrefs. If you’d like more insights, you have to switch to the premium version of the Site Explorer – which is built to provide a comprehensive breakdown of the subject site’s backlink profile.

Another good thing about this premium version of Ahrefs is, you get to download the competitor backlink data for offline use. You could, for instance, export the high authority competitor backlinks to a CSV file, and then later use the records for reference in your link building outreach campaign.

Ahrefs is not the only tool for the job, though. It turns out that even SEMrush and Moz are both as thorough in analyzing domain-level competitors.

On SEMrush, you just need to enter a competitor’s domain to the Backlinks Analytics tool and the system will relay information on the following:

  • The domain’s authority score.
  • The number of backlinks pointing to the domain.
  • The number of referring domains that have published inbound links to the website.
  • The number of outbound domains that the site points to.
  • The anchor text phrases on most of the domain’s backlinks.
  • The number of gained and lost inbound links over the past 6 months.
  • The types and attributes of the backlinks.
  • The top destination pages.
  • The distribution of the referring domains by authority score.

And so forth.

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Checking domain-level competitor backlinks with SEMrush.

Moz, on the other hand, is renowned for being the father of Domain Authority analysis. With its backlink checker, you’ll uncover not only the backlink profiles of your competitors, but also their respective DA scores, plus the corresponding ratings of the referral domains.

#5. Assess the URLs of your page-level competitors

This step is almost the same as the previous one. The only thing is, you won’t be performing backlink analysis on the entire website. Instead, the auditing process focuses on just one URL at a time – which makes it perfectly suitable for checking the backlinks of page-level competitors.

You don’t have to shift to a different tool, though. All the tools that we’ve recommended for domain-level checks are versatile enough to restrict the analysis to a single webpage.

On SEMrush, for instance, you should be able to perform page-level analysis using the same backlink analytics tool. You just need to type in the competitor’s URL and then hit “Analyze”.  

That’ll reveal the following attributes of the URL link profile:

  • The number of referring domains that point to the specific web page.
  • The number of backlinks that point to the web page.
  • The number of inbound links that have been gained and lost within the past six months.
  • The industry categories for the referring domains.
  • The most prevalent words or phrases in the anchor texts.
  • The types of backlinks that point to the page
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Page-level analytics on SEMrush.

The procedure doesn’t change much on Moz and Majestic. Once you enter the URL, their backlink checkers will proceed to assess just the web page, after which they’ll generate analytics on the volume of backlinks, the number of referring domains, the backlink history, the quality of the inbound links, and so forth.

On Ahrefs, however, you have to configure the system before performing page-level backlink analysis. Instead of proceeding with the default “Subdomains” option on the search bar, you should click on it and then select “Exact URL” from the dropdown menu. This directs the system to restrict its backlink analysis to the specified URL.

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Directing the Ahrefs Backlink Checkers to perform page-level analysis.

Whichever tool you end up using, the resultant page-level analytics should be a great supplement to the insights gathered from domain-level competitors. At least then, you’ll have a better picture of the quality of competitor backlinks that you’re up against, as well as the link building opportunities that you could capitalize on.

#6. Perform backlink gap analysis

A good SEO professional is expected to build a solid countercampaign from the domain and page-level analytics. A highly strategic one, however, goes beyond that and compares the findings to discover even the interdependent opportunities.

This is what, in technical terms, we call “backlink gap analysis”. The whole point is to juxtapose the backlink profiles of various competitors and, in so doing, find out the common high quality backlinking opportunities that you might be missing out on.

With SEMrush, for example, you can perform backlink gap analysis on up to five sites at the same time. It’ll comparatively review their backlink profiles to reveal the referring domains that are pointing to them but not you.

This is how you get to uncover all the gaps between your backlinks and your competitors’. At least from there, you should be able to strategize better on how you can catch up to the best performers.

The procedure itself is as follows:

  • Go to SEMrush’s “Backlink Gap” tool and then enter your domain, along with up to four of your competitors. You might want to zero in on the ones with the strongest backlink profiles, as they’ll lead you towards the best quality backlinks.
  • Once you’ve specified all the domains, hit the “Find Prospects” button. The system will then analyze and compare their backlink attributes to establish the link building opportunities that you might be missing out on.

Consider, for example, this backlink gap analysis that we performed on some popular news sites. We entered cnn.com as the target site, while washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, forbes.com, and usatoday.com were featured as competitor sites.

Here’s a screenshot of the results that we obtained after SEMrush performed gap analysis on the competitor backlinks:

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Sample competitor backlink gap analysis on SEMrush.

The shared referring domains were sorted out into the following lists:

  • Best – this points out the high authority referral domains that have published the highest number of backlinks to your competitors, but with zero links to your site. Hence, they offer the best prospects for building new backlinks.
  • Weak – these are the referral domains that have published backlinks to all the sites – but with your site getting the fewest.
  • Strong – on this list, you’ll find the referral domains that exclusively point to your site.
  • Shared – these are the referral domains that point to all the five analyzed sites.
  • Unique – this is a compilation of the referral domains that point to only one of the five analyzed domains.

Over To You

As we’ve seen, competitor backlink analysis is not a basic two-step procedure. You ought to begin with keyword research, through which you’ll get to establish your top competitors, before subsequently segmenting them according to the type and level of competition.

At least with that done, you can go ahead and perform data-driven backlink analytics – starting with the domain-level competitors, and then finishing it up with the page-level competitors.

That is where backlink checkers like Ahrefs, Moz, and Majestic truly shine. They’ll give you deep insights into the structure, composition, strengths, and weaknesses that exist within your competitors’ backlink profiles. And with that, you should be able to identify potentially rewarding backlink opportunities for building both dofollow and nofollow links.

But, the discoveries don’t end there. To truly find out what you’ve been missing out on, you might want to follow up your domain and page-level checks with backlink gap analysis.

Now, as you compile all these insights, keep in mind that competitor backlink analysis is only the preliminary process in the whole link-building journey.

Assessing competitor backlinks should help you come up with a solid link building strategy, after which you’ll embark on a long and tedious outreach campaign – whose outcome will determine your position in the search engine results.

41% of SEO experts today, in fact, believe this final bit to be the most difficult part of search engine optimization. Fortunately for you, though, you’ll have the backing of Loganix.

Our seasoned SEO team will combine robust link-building tactics with advanced tools to get the best out of your competitor backlink analysis. We’re talking about a strategic blend of press releases, HARO links, brand links, authority links, guest post articles, backlink gap analysis, link audits, keyword gap analysis, you name it.

Well, of course, this is not the type of stuff you’d want your competitors running against you. Now’s the chance to grab all the link building benefits for yourself before other industry players come along. So, go ahead and get in touch with us today, and we’ll catapult your website way beyond their reach.

Written by Adam Steele on June 8, 2022

COO and Product Director at Loganix. Recovering SEO, now focused on the understanding how Loganix can make the work-lives of SEO and agency folks more enjoyable, and profitable. Writing from beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.

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