SEO Link Acquisition: Piggyback Link Building
Chris Dreyer | July 07, 2015
Sometimes the easiest path to success is to follow what others have done. Links are an incredibly powerful ranking factor in search so it should follow that acquiring links your competitors have should improve your own ranking in search. There are numerous link building strategies and in this article we will show you how to identify your top competitors for the core keywords you want to rank for, assess which links are benefiting your competition and then how to acquire those same links to improve your site’s ranking in search.
There are four main phases to this strategy:
- Identify top competitors for core keyword phrases
- Plug those URLs into Ahrefs and organize referring domains by domain rank
- Identify links that are do-follow, obtainable and not spam
- Go after those links (piggyback on your competition’s strategy)
Figure out what the core keyword phrases are that you want to rank for in search. Your core keywords are those phrases that relate directly with your business and/or your goals for getting found in search. For instance an attorney might use terms related to their practice area. An auto dealer might go after the brand names they sell + city name.
Identifying Your Core Keywords
There is not one good way to do keyword research so do what you know or follow tips from sources you trust. You can find a lot of articles on the topic around the web. A simple strategy is to start by writing out all the phrases you think your target customers would use to find you online. At this point do not worry about getting things right. Just get it all out on paper.
Next Ahrefs just released a nice keyword suggestion tool that allows you to find the estimated search volume of your keywords. You can also use it to help generate new ideas for phrases you may not have thought of. While you are researching, keep two questions in mind.
- What are people using to find services related to you (based on search volume)?
- What services do you need to sell?
Find a balance between popular keywords and what you should be ranking for. Your site should rank well for the services you want to promote but you should also go after phrases that people are actually using to find what you are selling.
For instance if something has really low search volume, you might want to go after something more popular. Conversely, try and stay away from phrases that are too broad or too competitive. The amount of core keyword phrases you have will depend on your business and for the purposes of this guide, choose one phrase that is most important for you to go after. You can apply the same technique to other phrases as well. Here is what Ahrefs gave us for the keyword phrase Chinese restaurants chicago:
Note that you can use the filter at left to only show phrases containing certain words. You can also export the list if it is easier for you to work with in Excel.
Finding Your Top Competitors
There are a lot of ways you can find your top competition in search. You can do it manually or use third party tools.
Your top competitors pretty much consist of all the sites outranking you for the keyword phrase you have used. If you are trying to rank a brand new page, just use the first couple pages of search results. You can download URLs with associated ranking information using browser tools like the SEO Tool Bar from SEO Book.
An easier method is to use a competitive analysis tool. Ahrefs has one called the Positions Explorer. With it you can plug in a URL and Ahrefs will spit out top competitors, estimated traffic sources, and the top 5 organic keywords that the URL is ranking for.
It is important to point out that just because a page is ahead of you search for a keyword phrase does not mean this strategy alone will help you out rank it. Assessing the links leading to pages that are out performing a page on your site is a good place to start.
Plug URLs into Ahrefs
As we mentioned earlier, exporting URLs into a spreadsheet makes this part of the process much easier. Take one URL at a time and plug it into Ahref’s link analysis tool.
Follow the rest of the steps in this post before moving onto the next URL in your list. Not all links that are leading to a page will need to be investigated. In fact, you may find that some URLs do not have valuable links at all.
Phase 2: Organize URLs by Domain Rank (Referring Domains)
The first page you will see after Ahrefs is done running its analysis is the overview screen. There is a lot of interesting data here but we are looking for the inbound links (and more specifically the referring domains) leading to the page that we have pasted into the interface.
In the left column under the Inbound Links heading click on “Referring Domains”.
In case you were curious, there are a couple of reasons we want to look at referring domains as opposed to all inbound links leading to a page.
The first is that in SEO, it is the number of domains leading to a page that creates the most influence in search and not necessarily the most links coming from a single domain. Each domain counts as a vote for the page. Just like in politics, many votes from many people says a lot more about a candidate than many votes from one person.
The second reason is that some websites can have a lot of links to look through. Since the number of domains is a more relevant metric here, it will save us time to only go through those instead of every single link leading to a page.
Phase 3: Qualify Links as do-follow, Obtainable, and not Spam
Sort by DR (Domain Rating)
If there are not that many domains pointing at the site under analysis, you can probably just do your work from within Ahrefs. If there are a lot, you are probably better off exporting the report and working with it in Excel.
The first column to the right of the referring domain column is domain rating. It is a measurement Ahrefs applies to the domain that indicates how authoritative it is. By clicking on the DR heading you can sort domains in ascending or descending order. Sort them from highest DR to lowest.
In general you want domains that have a high DR (and that meet other criteria which we will discuss in a moment). This will be subjective and based largely on the domain you are analyzing. For example if you have a URL with dozens of links with a DR of 50 and up, you can probably get rid of any domains that have a lot less than that. On the other hand if most of the referring domains are in the 30’s and 40’s, you will have to lower your standards a bit. The point is to go after the better domains.
Find Do-follow Links
Next you will want to see which links are do-follow. All links from that domain could be do-follow, a portion of them or none of them. You can see them in the column next to domain rank in Ahrefs. Total links are on the right, number of do-follow on the left. We are only looking for the do-follow links because those are the ones that will benefit a site in search. By clicking on the backlinks button, you can see which of the URLs from each particular domain are do-follow or no-follow.
Ahrefs will show you how many of the links on a referring domain are do-follow vs no-follow. You can go ahead and ignore the ones that are no-follow. Note that there is nothing wrong with no-follow links (although they do not pass PageRank). They are actually a good way to balance out a backlink profile and serve other valuable purposes. For the purposes of this post, we do not want to waste time on them.
Look for Obtainable URLs
With your list narrowed down to high-quality do-follow URLs, you have to judge which sites you will be able to get links from. Sometimes this is obvious and other times it is not. An extreme example might be if a competitor has somehow gotten a link from whitehouse.gov. Getting a link from that source would be great but how much time, effort and money is required? Conversely, a link from a local chamber of commerce website is a far more realistic goal to pursue.
Your choices will most likely not be that clear cut. The biggest concern is to look out for spam sites which can sometimes be tricky to spot. Take the domains that look good on paper and visit them. See what they are all about. If the site looks spammy and useless to you, there is a good chance you do not want a link from it. Hopefully the above steps have weeded out most of the duds but there still could be some sites that sneak through.
You will repeat the above steps for all of the domains that you pulled out of the original search using your core keyword phrase. It is a lot of footwork but this is what it will take to move the needle.
Phase 4: Piggybacking
Finally, the point of all this is to find URLs that your competition may be using to rank well in search and get links from those same domains to help improve your site’s ranking.
Take the domains that you have filtered out of the bunch and plug them into a whois service. From that you will be able to get some information on who the admin contact is for the domain name. You may also be able to find contact information on the domain itself (such as on a contact page or in the footer area).
Here is what you see when you scan my site:
Link Acquisition Strategy
Once you have your contact list built out, you have to come up with a strategy for getting your links. Depending on your type of business, this could vary. You should have some idea based on why these sites were linking to your competition of how to acquire similar ones. For example maybe some of the sites are directories related to your industry or perhaps blogs similar to the products and/or services you offer.
Try to get inspiration from how your competitors may have acquired these links. If the site you are reaching out to is a blog, you might offer to do a guest post. Directories will often take link submissions. Maybe there are social profiles that you have not yet linked to your site.
For links obtained by contacting webmasters, outreach can be a tedious and time consuming process. You may send out hundreds of emails over a handful of months. Not all of the people you email will respond so you have to send out a lot of messages. Some links may require more effort than others to acquire (such as those obtained through guest blogging).
Walking the Walk
It is easy to talk about these strategies in theory but quite another to actually perform them. A campaign like this can take months and a lot of very laborious work. We thought it would be helpful to include some information on how we were able to get this strategy to work for one of our clients.
As an example, when we started working with ny-bankruptcy.com we did a competitor analysis for a few of the top sites. One of which was http://www.amdlaw.com/. After looking at amdlaw.com‘s links we quickly determined longisland.com was a high quality link prospect with a DR of 60 and geographic relevancy. Often if you are an SEO specialist and you are not from the same location as the client this can be an easy way to find those types of links. It is also particularly important for Chamber of Commerce membership directory links, local media and interest groups.
Before we started our work, ny-bankruptcy.com had little organic visibility and moderate local visibility but after “piggybacking” off of the top ranking sites we are in the ‘C’ position in maps and 3rd in organic for “long island bankruptcy attorney”. If you are running a campaign like this, once you have piggybacked all the links available you can then craft a new campaign for other opportunities where your competitors may be lacking a presence. For instance we noticed that competitors as well as ny-bankruptcy.com were weak in .edu links so we crafted a scholarship campaign for them.
The benefits of this strategy is that it takes a lot of the guess work out of link building. The sites that are outranking you in search for your keyword phrase are doing so for a reason and part of that reason may be the links that are pointed at the specific page that is outranking you. You can even the playing field by obtaining the links that your competitors have by emulating their strategy.