Google is constantly changing its algorithm to deliver better results to searchers. But, year after year, backlinks continue to be an important ranking signal. 

Links from other sites pass authority to your site. They remain the clearest indicator that you’re a good source of information and worth ranking on the first page.

However, thanks to updates like Google Penguin (which focuses on link quality), you can’t just blast your site with low-quality links and expect to rank number one overnight.

Quantity is not the end-goal now. Quality is. But don’t take our word for it. Take Google’s John Mueller: 

Quality, digital PR backlinks (links in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize) move the needle.

So what does work when it comes to link building? What tools and strategies are professionals in the industry using to get results?

To find out, we surveyed 800 folks in the SEO industry to get their thoughts on the importance, strategies, and impact of link building.

This State of Link Building report is broken down into the following chapters:

In a rush? Here’s a quick summary:

  • 58.1% believe that backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings
  • 56.3% believe that link quality and quantity impact rankings
  • 54.58% think that nofollow links improve authority and/or rankings
  • 84.39% think that link building has a big impact on brand authority
  • 59% say backlinks will have more of an impact on rankings in the next few years
  • 38.4% spend $1,000 to $5,000 a month on link building
  • 40.7% say content marketing provides the strongest passive link building results
  • 37.3% use organic traffic to measure the quality of a link

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get into it.

Our Participants

Before diving into the link building results, here’s some background information about our participants.

What kind of company do you work for and/or own?

We were interested in knowing what kind of company our respondents worked for.

  • Personal website: 25.60%
  • Freelancer / contractor: 20.42%
  • Agency: 15.25%
  • In-house SEO / SEO for a brand: 14.19%
  • Consulting / strategy: 12.33%
  • Other: 12.20%

A quarter of the participants we surveyed (25.60%) indicated that they do SEO for their own personal websites, followed by 20.42% who either freelance or work as a contractor. 

Only 15.25% of participants responded that they work in marketing agencies and 14.19% do in-house SEO.

How many years have you worked in digital marketing? 

Next, we were interested to know how long our participants have been in the industry to gauge their experience.

  • Less than 1 year: 19.27%
  • 2-3 years: 38.14%
  • 3-5 years: 25.47%
  • 5 or more years: 17.12%

38.14% of respondents indicated they’ve been in the industry for 2 to 3 years. This was followed by 25.47% who have worked in digital marketing for 3 to 5 years and 19.27% who have been in the industry for less than a year.

A healthy mix of respondents to hear both old and new opinions. Nice!

Now let’s dive straight into the link building data.

The Impact of Link Building

In this section, we asked participants to share their views on the impact of link building on organic rankings, its importance in their SEO strategy, and more. 

How much of an impact do you think backlinks have on search engine rankings?

We asked participants to select how much of an impact they think that backlinks have on rankings.

How much of an impact do you think backlinks have on search engine rankings?

  • Big impact: 58.10%
  • Moderate impact: 37.34%
  • Low impact: 4.05%
  • Other: 0.51%

More than half of our participants (58.10%) indicated that backlinks have a big impact on search engine rankings, while 37.34% said that links only have a moderate impact. 

Just 4.05% said that links have a low impact on rankings.

Takeaway

Over half of the professionals we surveyed see a strong correlation between backlinks and search engine rankings.

Unless you’re targeting an extremely obscure keyword in a non-competitive niche, trying to rank without any links is next to impossible. Sites that rank number one have 3.8x more backlinks than sites that rank in positions 2 to 10. 

Here are some of our favorite outreach link building strategies to build high quality backlinks:

  • Guest columns: Guest columns, or guest blogging, involves publishing content on relevant websites. In exchange, you get a high quality link to your site and build E-A-T signals. Win win! 
  • Requesting a link: This approach is more straightforward. It involves finding blogs in your industry and simply requesting that they add a link to your site. Warning: this is heavily saturated. You should have a clear-cut outreach strategy in place. Just blindly firing off emails will net zero links. 
  • Broken link building: Broken link building involves finding broken backlinks on other websites and recommending they fix it with a link to a similar resource on your site. 
  • Blogger outreach: This link building strategy involves collaborating with bloggers in your industry and getting them to link back to your site.

Using these strategies will help you build quality backlinks. 


Adam Enfroy, founder of AdamEnfroy.com

“Link building is all about forming real relationships with people, not websites. While the individual tactics are important, you can’t forget that you need to provide value in return – not send a one-sided request. By working with uSERP and scaling my own link building efforts, I increased my Domain Rating (DR) from 0 to 78 and surpassed 500,000 monthly readers in under 18 months. If you’re starting a new blog, you need to stop writing and start scaling.”


When building links, do you believe in quality or quantity to make the biggest impact on rankings and authority?

We wanted to find out what our participants believe have the most impact on rankings and authority — quality or quantity.

Personally, we think it’s both. However, if we HAD to pick one, quality would win. But, who cares what we think. Here’s what 800 SEOs think:

  • Quality: 35.9%
  • Quantity: 7.8%
  • Both: 56.3%

More than half of the respondents (56.3%) answered that both backlink quality and quantity had the biggest impact on rankings and authority. 

This was followed by 35.9% of participants who believe that the quality of backlinks has a higher impact and 7.8% who indicated that quantity matters more.

Takeaway


Berenika Teter, Content Marketer @ Prowly PR Software

“Building links with digital PR tactics pretty much implies that we value quality over quantity. By creating content that’s attractive for the media (think original research, expert commentaries, visually-appealing infographics, and newsworthy stories that are timely, impactful, relevant, human-interest, or feature an influencer), sharing it with the public, and actively reaching out to relevant media contacts, we can not only build links but also strengthen the backlink profile, gain more credibility, and, ultimately, rank higher in search engines. Digital PR tactics take some time and effort, but they’re definitely worth it.” 


Over half of respondents indicated that both quality and quantity have the most impact on rankings.

Not all backlinks are equal. Google considers the context and relevance of a link when determining how much “juice” it passes.

A single link from an authoritative site in your industry will outweigh hundreds of links from spammy and irrelevant sites. 

Of course, depending on how competitive your target keywords are, just building one link (no matter where it comes from) is unlikely to move the needle considerably.


Neal Taparia
Founder of Imagine Easy Solutions & Spider Solitaire

“I believe that in link building it is all about the golden middle. We should search for a balance between the quality of links and their quantity. Ideally, high quality at a high quantity is the perfect situation.” 


Do you think that nofollow links improve your authority and/or rankings?

We were interested to know whether professionals in the industry believed that nofollow links impact authority and/or rankings.

Nofollow links have been the source of controversy for years. Some SEOs think they’re worthless. Others think they’re better. The results are now in:

  • Yes: 54.58% 
  • Sometimes / It depends: 33.77%
  • No: 11.65%

More than half of participants in our survey (54.58%) indicated that nofollow links improve authority and/or rankings, while 33.77% said these links sometimes have an impact.


Jeremy Galante. SEO Manager at Clickup

“It’s no coincidence that Digital PR is trending in 2021. I’m happy to see most SEOs are leaving behind the nonsense that it’s dofollow or bust when it comes to link building. Nofollow links and even unlinked mentions can have an impact on your authority. The marketers that prioritize brand mentions and relevance are going to win long-term.”


We agree Jeremy, wholeheartedly. 

Takeaway

Over half of respondents have indicated that nofollow links have an impact on authority and rankings, while a third said it depends. 

Nofollow links have largely been regarded as worthless. The rel=“nofollow” HTML tag tells Google to ignore those links.

But Google made some major changes to how it treats nofollow links:

“When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.”

In other words, Google’s algorithm doesn’t entirely discredit nofollow links. Instead they’ll use these as “hints” to determine their impact accordingly.


Dima Suponau
Co-founder @ Number For Live Person

“I totally agree with the point that nofollow links are valuable, bring authority and recognition. The biggest outlets out there stick with Google’s agenda on links and almost all of their links are nofollow, no matter how they got them. But, having a backlink on their websites is still worth an effort since even though the link is nofollow, it generates traffic to your website. Personally I have backlinks on Forbes and they are nofollow, but I believe they are far more valuable than dofollow links from websites with no significant traffic and authority.”


The takeaway here is to not completely ignore nofollow links. Nofollow links from trusted sites carry value (according to half of our participants) and can generate a ton of referral traffic.

How much of an impact do you think link building has on your brand authority?

We were also keen to find out whether our participants believed that link building impacts brand authority.

Brand authority is vague, but becoming increasingly important. Rand Fishkin of SparkToro believes they are just as important as actual backlinks, calling these mentions inferred links. 

  • Big impact: 84.39%
  • Low impact: 15.61%

An overwhelming majority of respondents (84.39%) indicated that link building has a big impact on brand authority. 15.61% said that links have a low impact on brand authority.

Takeaway


Farzad Rashidi, Co-founder of Respona

“Building editorial links from relevant sites is one of the most important factors for gaining brand authority. Having a strong brand can help your domain rank better for targeted keywords in your niche and build long term evergreen organic traffic. Plus, search engines aren’t the only ones noticing your links. As you continue to build links on quality sites and increase your domain authority, it opens doors for new relationships with other brands and experts in your space. This way you can build an overall brand authority that appeals to your audience and encourages opportunities for mutual collaborations.”


A majority of SEO professionals we surveyed believe that backlinks impact brand authority.

To build your brand authority, link building needs to be a priority. Backlinks signal to Google that others find your site valuable enough to link to it.

Check out this resource, “How to Increase Domain Authority” for tips to build your authority and make your site more trustworthy.

How important are backlinks in your SEO or content strategy? 

Next, we asked our participants to answer how important backlinks are for their SEO and content strategy. 

  • Equal priority to content: 45.04%
  • They are my main priority: 29.77%
  • If I get them, I get them: 19.34%
  • Not a concern / not my priority: 5.85%

45.04% of our participants indicated that backlinks are equally important to content. This was followed by 29.77% who said that backlinks are their main priority.

Takeaway

The results indicate that half of professionals in the industry spend equal amounts of time on link building and content creation.

It’s interesting to note that 19.34% of respondents selected “If I get them, I get them.” This suggests that many professionals take a more passive approach to link building.

However, a majority place them as either equally or more important. 


Anastasiia Prach Outreach Specialist at Snov.io

“On the early stage when you need to spread the news about your product or show who you are — they are really important to drive early traffic. When you’re a big company, links help develop your content strategy and promotion.”


In the next few years, do you believe that backlinks will have more or less of an impact on search engine rankings?

We were interested to know how our participants felt about the future of backlinks on search engine rankings.

  • More impact: 59.00%
  • The same impact: 33.84%
  • Less impact: 7.15%

Over half of respondents (59.00%) indicated that backlinks would have more of an impact in the next few years, while 33.84% said they would have the same impact. 

This was followed by 7.15% of respondents who indicated that links would have less of an impact in the coming years.

Takeaway

Backlinks are alive and well. A significant majority of respondents indicated that backlinks would have more or the same impact on rankings in the coming years.

There’s strong reason to believe that backlinks will continue to have a measurable impact on rankings. And the data that we got confirms that assumption.

While we can’t know for sure, it’s becoming increasingly more saturated. Content is better than ever, making distinguishing quality harder. Links are a great indication that your content is good enough for great websites to refer to it as a valuable resource. 

Link Building Process and Strategies

In this section, we asked our participants about the strategies they use to build backlinks, which ones deliver the best results, how much they spend, and more.

Do you use agencies, freelancers or contractors for link building?

We wanted to find out how many of our participants outsource their link building to agencies or freelancers.

  • Yes: 60.05%
  • No, it’s all in-house: 29.18%
  • No, we don’t do link building: 10.12%
  • Other: 0.65%

More than half of respondents (60.05%) indicated that they work with agencies, freelancers, or contractors for link building while over a quarter (29.2%) said they manage their link building efforts in-house.


Zbigniew Drozdz, SEO Specialist at Booksy

“Using agencies (like uSERP) is simply way more convenient. There is no tedious hiring process, and establishing new workflows, KPIs, and goal setting strategies. I believe that agencies are much more capable of reaching the target than freelancers, too. There’s simply more workforce, and for large campaigns that is the only proper way.” 


Takeaway

Link building is a time-consuming effort. It’s not surprising that more than half outsource their link building. 

In addition, outsourcing allows for almost instant results compared to establishing workflows, testing pitching, and refining a process over months and years. 

What we did find surprising though is that 10% indicated they don’t do link building at all! Given the impact that backlinks have on rankings, those who aren’t building links are at a significant disadvantage against those who are.

How much do you spend on link building every month?

We were interested to find out how much professionals in the industry spend each month on link building.

  • $0 – $1,000: 34.14%
  • $1,000 – $5,000: 38.43%
  • $5,000 – $10,000: 20.29%
  • $15,000+: 7.14%

38.43% of our participants spend between $1,000 to $5,000 on link building. This was followed by 34.14% who spend $0 to $1,000 a month. 

20.29% of our participants spend $5,000 to $10,000 a month and 7.14% said they spend over $15,000 a month on backlinks.

Takeaway

To remain competitive and increase rankings, many in the industry are allocating some of their marketing budget towards link building.

Link building costs depend on different factors. But the average cost for low authority links is $150 to $300 per link.

Digital PR style, high authority contextual backlinks (links that appear naturally within the body of an article) cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

It’s important to note that there are different factors that affect link costs. These include domain rating, site traffic, relevance, link placement, anchor text, and many more.

What link building tactics do you use?

This question focuses on the tactics that respondents used to build links and asked them to select all that apply.

  • Content marketing: 13.1%
  • Guest posting: 11.2%
  • Forum links: 10.2%
  • Link insertions: 10.4%
  • Link exchanges: 10.4%
  • Directory link building: 9.5%
  • Redirecting domains: 8.5%
  • Press releases: 8.6%
  • Broken link building: 6.8%
  • Unclaimed brand mentions: 5.6%

The responses were fairly close as you can see. 

However, content marketing was the clear winner with 13.1% of respondents choosing this link building tactic. This was followed by 11.2% who selected guest posting to build links. 

Takeaway


Itamar Blauer, SEO Manager @ Cure Media

“No matter what link building tactic someone is using, the commonality between all of them is building relationships with a webmaster. At the end of the day, you are relying on someone else to provide a link to your website. I’ve found that the best ways to achieve this are by creating valuable relationships and being sincere about your intentions to help the prospect improve within an area of their website. This approach is also great because it can facilitate acquiring more backlinks in the future, so I’d definitely recommend holding onto the relationships that you build when pursuing link building activities.” 


Content marketing remains a popular link building strategy. Engaging content that delivers value is more likely to earn links than content that was haphazardly put together.

It’s interesting to see other link building tactics evenly split. This seems to suggest that respondents are aiming for a more varied backlink profile.

Which of these link building tactics provides the strongest results for you?

Of course, we also wanted to know which strategies provided the strongest results and asked respondents to select those that apply.

  • Content marketing: 12.5%
  • Guest posting: 11.7%
  • Link exchange: 10.9%
  • Link insertions: 9.9%
  • Forum links: 9.7%
  • Directory link building: 9.5%
  • Press release: 9.0%
  • Redirecting domains: 7.8%
  • Broken link building: 7.4%
  • HARO / expert roundups: 6.1%

12.5% of respondents indicated that content marketing was the most effective for link building, followed by 11.7% who saw positive outcomes with guest posting.

Takeaway

The most popular link building strategy — content marketing — also delivered the strongest results. Publishing quality content remains an effective way to earn links.

We’re also not surprised to see guest posting delivered strong results. These types of links boost domain authority and result in a ton of referral traffic when done right.

It was interesting to see respondents selecting forum and directory links as providing strong results. This seems to suggest that these types of links are still worth paying attention to.

Link Building Tools and Reporting

What tools do respondents use for link building? What metrics do they use to measure the quality of a backlink? That’s what this section is all about.

Reporting and tools can be controversial in SEO and link building in particular. 


Andy Crestodina, Co-founder & CMO, Orbit Media.

“Even some veteran SEOs get caught up reporting the outcomes of link building. Authority metrics are really just proxies for Google’s PageRank, so they’re not the actual outcome. They’re second-hand estimates. And authority changes very, very slowly, especially when the number is bigger.”


Which tools do you use for link building, measuring, and reporting?

This question asked respondents about the tools they use to build, measure, and report backlinks. 

  • Google Search Console: 24.8%
  • Buzzstream: 14.2%
  • Pitchbox: 10%
  • Mailshake: 9.1%
  • Majestic: 8.8%
  • Screaming Frog: 8.8%
  • Ahrefs: 7.4%
  • SEMrush: 7.4%
  • Moz: 6.7%

24.8% of respondents indicated they use Google Search Console for link building. This was followed by 14.2% who use Buzzstream and 10% who use Pitchbox — popular tools that are used for blogger outreach and link promotion.

Takeaway

Google Search Console was by far the link building tool of choice for nearly a quarter of our participants (24.8%) for link building, measuring, and reporting. 

Google Search Console is a free tool from Google that lets webmasters measure their search traffic and troubleshoot issues. Based on our data, it’s clear that many professionals are getting tons of value from this tool with their link building efforts.

If you could only use one tool for link building, what tool would you use?

There’s no shortage of link building tools, but we wanted to know the one tool that participants couldn’t live without. 

  • Google Search Console: 42.3%
  • Buzzstream: 14.8%
  • Ahrefs: 8.5%
  • Majestic: 7.9%
  • Pitchbox: 7.5% 
  • Screaming Frog: 5.7%
  • Mailshake: 4.4%
  • SEMrush: 4.0%
  • Moz: 3.8% 

42.3% of respondents chose Google Search Console as the one tool they would use for link building. This was followed by 14.8% of participants who chose Buzzstream. We saw responses for Ahrefs, Majestic, and Pitchbox almost evenly split. 

Takeaway

Here we see that Google Search Console is the preferred link building tool for almost half of our participants (42.3%). Buzzstream came in second place with 14.8% selecting this tool.

Google Search Console is a widely used link building tool — you can use it to monitor external links, track rankings for certain keywords, and more.

But Google Search Console falls short in many aspects of link building. 

For example, while you can see external backlinks, you can’t see who is linking to your competitors. The tool also doesn’t show who is outranking you and why.

We’ve seen strategies like guest posting providing strong results for our participants. But you can’t use Google Search Console to find publishers in your niche and send outreach emails. 

To do all of this, you’d have to purchase additional tools and hire an in-house team to manage your link building efforts. Another option is to outsource your link building.

Here’s a quick look at in-house vs. outsourcing for backlinks:

In-house:

  • Tools like Ahrefs, Buzzstream, and email finders are expensive
  • Need a VA (virtual assistant) to build lists for outreach
  • Need to hire content writers and managers for the project

Taking your link building efforts in-house is expensive, time-consuming, and extremely difficult to scale unless you have sizable resources.

Outsourcing:

  • Flat fee for guaranteed performance
  • Near instant results
  • Completely hands off

Outsourcing your link building offers a ton of benefits. It’s also highly scalable, so you can start with an initial budget and gradually ramp up as your traffic starts growing.

What metric(s) do you use to measure the quality of a backlink?

This question asks participants to select the metric they use to measure the quality of a backlink.

  • Organic traffic: 14.2%
  • Trust Flow (Majestic): 11.8%
  • Domain Rating (Ahrefs): 11.7%
  • Domain Authority (Moz): 11.4%
  • Domain Score (SEMrush): 11.4%
  • Niche / website relevance: 10.9%
  • Unique vs. recurring root domain: 9.3%
  • Anchor text: 9.1%
  • Ahrefs rank: 7.4%

14.2% of respondents indicated that they use organic traffic to measure the quality of a backlink. We saw almost evenly split percentages between Trust Flow (11.8%), Domain Rating (11.7%), Domain Authority (11.4%), and Domain Score (11.4%).


Brian Dean, Co-founder at Exploding Topics.

“Interesting to see that most SEO pros use traffic to determine the quality of a link. That’s actually the metric I find myself increasingly using as well. Third party metrics (like Domain Rating) have their place. But organic traffic gives you insight into how Google themselves value the site. In other words, a site with a high Domain Rating but little organic traffic likely means a link from that site will have little value.”


Here’s what those metrics mean:

  • Trust Flow: Trust Flow is a link metric from Majestic that measures how trustworthy a page is by measuring the quality of its backlinks. 
  • Domain Rating: Domain Rating is a metric from Ahrefs that measures the strength of a website based on the quantity and quality of external backlinks.
  • Domain Authority: Domain Authority is a metric from Moz that ranges from 0 to 100. It predicts how well a website will rank in the search engine results. 
  • Domain Score: Domain Score is a metric from SEMrush that measures a domain’s overall quality. 

Takeaway 

It’s clear that professionals in the industry have different methods for valuing a link. Some look at referral traffic, while others look at metrics like Trust Flow and Domain Authority.

Why the discrepancy? 

Because measuring the “quality” of a backlink isn’t easy. Google doesn’t outright tell us what factors it weighs more than others. At the same time, metrics like Domain Rating can still be a useful way to measure backlink quality. 

If you could only choose ONE metric to measure the quality of a backlink, which metric would it be?

Similar to the question we asked about link building tools, we wanted to be more specific here and ask participants to choose one to measure the quality of a backlink. 

  • Organic Traffic: 18.5%
  • Trust Flow (Majestic): 15.9%
  • Domain Authority (Moz): 11.8%
  • Domain Score (SEMrush): 10.2%
  • Niche / website relevance: 10.7%
  • Unique vs recurring root domain: 9.7%
  • Domain Rating (Ahrefs): 9.3%
  • Anchor text: 8.2%
  • Ahrefs Rank: 4.8%

18.5% of respondents chose organic traffic as the one metric they would choose to measure the quality of a backlink. 

This was followed by 15.9% who chose Trust Flow from Majestic and 11.8% who chose Domain Authority from Moz. 

Takeaway

More professionals in the industry are looking beyond popular industry metrics like Trust Flow and Domain Authority to measure the quality of a link. More are placing importance on the referral traffic that those backlinks generate.

But again: it depends on campaign goals, too. Each campaign can serve a different purpose on authority, traffic, and more. 


Stephen Panico, Chief Growth Officer at BuzzStream 

“One of the main things we see people struggling with when managing the efficacy of their link-building campaigns is understanding the end-value the link will have on their business or that of their clients. Essentially, link value operates on a spectrum, and links with the greatest business benefit may differ greatly depending on needs. Getting that huge link in a major publication is fantastic if you are looking to increase your site’s authority in the eyes of Google, but it may not drive much in the way of relevant traffic.

Similarly, if you are able to secure a link on a more niche publication you may end up with significantly more qualified traffic but with a lower impact on authority. It’s important to communicate and set expectations with clients and/or internal leadership before undertaking a campaign, as you will ultimately be judged on the impact of your efforts and it’s very easy to focus on the wrong areas even if they do provide a tangible advantage to the business or client in an area not in focus.”


What is your main KPI when measuring the effectiveness of building links?

Finally, we wanted to ask participants about the main KPI (Key Performance Indicator) they use when measuring the effectiveness of building links. 

  • Overall traffic increase: 22.5%
  • Organic rankings: 19%
  • Total links: 16.5%
  • Number of unique root domains: 12.3%
  • Referral traffic from links: 12.3%
  • Conversions from referral traffic: 10.1%
  • DR/DA increase: 6.7%

22.5% of respondents look at overall traffic increase as a main KPI when measuring the effectiveness of a link. This was followed by 19% who look at organic rankings and 16.5% who look at total links.

Takeaway

Professionals look at increases in overall traffic and rankings as key indicators when determining the effectiveness of their link building efforts.

Final thoughts

The key takeaway from our survey is that a majority of SEO professionals still believe that backlinks have a big impact on rankings and brand authority.

We hope that you found this State of Link Building Report useful. And we want to thank everyone who participated.

Get PR and Links That Increase Rankings.

Show up in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize.

Finding competitor backlinks and stealing them is a great way to get your audience to see your content. Why? You have to reach the coveted number one search result on Google. 

90% of all traffic goes to that top spot. The rest of the search results are left to fight over that remaining measly 10% of traffic.

While marketers generally understand the importance of harnessing SEO (search engine optimization) content marketing to reach this goal, many forget about the importance of backlinking — a fatal error.

Backlinking is as important as content marketing. 

Backlinking and content marketing are the two most important search rankings factors — but both carry equal weight.

Despite this, 95% of websites have zero backlinks. 

Build your backlink strategy by working out which referring sites your competitors are using to scale the search rankings, and stealing them.

Want to know how to find competitor backlinks to build a robust backlink strategy? 

Read on for a step-by-step guide to finding competitor backlinks and evaluating their usefulness for your SEO strategy.

Video Summary

What is Competitor Backlinking? 

Backlinking is one of the most effective SEO tactics to help you reach that number one search result on Google.

But how do you make sure you’re outperforming your competitors? 

You research their linking building strategy and overthrow it. This is known as competitor backlinking.

Competitor backlinking is an SEO strategy where you analyze the backlinks of competing websites to understand the benchmarks for the types, quality, and number of backlinks you need.

This helps you build a more robust and effective link building strategy for your own website.

Take backlink outreach, for example. Reaching out to potential referral websites is the number one link building method. 

By analyzing your competitor’s backlinks, you’ll get a better idea of the more effective referral websites, so you can reach out to them for your own link building strategy.

When analyzing your competitors to scope out their backlinking strategy, you need a two-pronged attack. 

There are two types of competitors you need to research:

  • Domain-level competitors
  • Page-level competitors

Domain-Level Competitors

Domain-level competitors compete with your website on the whole. 

These sites fall within the same industry sector as you or offer similar information. Essentially, they target the same audience that you’re trying to reach.

These competitors are trying to rank highly for many of the same keywords as you so they compete across their whole domain.

For example, uSERP offers backlinking services so our domain-level competitors will include SEO companies, backlink services, and digital marketing firms. These sites are also using backlink-related topics to increase their search engine visibility. 

Page-Level Competitors

Page-level competitors refer to individual pages that rank competitively for the same target keyword as one of your pages. 

These websites may not offer similar services and may not be trying to target the same audience as you overall. Instead, these individual pages compete rather than the whole site.

For example, look at this article from the uSERP blog….

It’s called How to Drive Organic Business Growth and the main target keyword is ‘organic business growth’.

find competitor backlinks page level

This article ferociously competes with an article called “Sustainable, organic business growth: it’s about your processes” by MYOB.

As a company, MYOB doesn’t compete with uSERP. Instead it provides business management solutions (such as payroll and accounting technology).

Also, MYOB’s blog doesn’t have any other articles that compete with uSERP content.

Despite this, as the article uses the same keyword as one of uSERP’s top-performing blogs, it’s a prime competitor that needs backlink analysis.

How to Find Competitor Backlinks: A Step-by-Step Guide 

Unearthing your competitors’ backlinks is a powerful way to bolster a successful link building strategy. After all, if it works for them, it will likely work for you.

Perform a thorough link analysis to lift the hood on your competitors’ backlinks by following these simple steps.

1. Identify Your Main Keywords 

If you want to know who your competitors are, you need to know how they’re competing. 

When it comes to climbing the ranks on a search engine, target keywords are crucial to a strong SEO strategy. Your main competitors will be the ones with a backlink profile that looks just like yours.

To uncover these direct competitors, you need to know every target keyword that contributes to your search engine visibility. 

While you may know the keywords you’ve actively written into your SEO strategy, it’s also wise to use a keyword tool to understand which other keywords are most prevalent on your site.

Use a tool like Ubersuggest, Spyfu or Morningscore to perform a keyword analysis on your website.

Let’s use (one of) Neil Patel’s tools, Ubersuggest, for this example:

find competitor backlinks with tools

You simply enter your website and the keyword tool gives you a list of top keywords, along with their positions and search volume.

Make a note of the top-performing keywords, as this is where you’ll want to start. You’ll get more visibility pushing an article from ninth place to second place, rather than going from 30th to 20th. 

Use these keywords as a jumping off point. Tools like Keywordtool.io, Ask The Public, and Google Keyword Planner can help you find related keywords that will also help you identify competitors.

2. Identify Your Main Competitors 

Now you need to identify your main competitors. These are the top-performers who rival you on Google for your target keywords.

Start by doing a ‘related’ search on Google. 

This will show you all websites that have topics related to yours.

Type this into the search bar:

related:[your URL website]

The websites returned from a related search are some of your domain-level competitors.

Another way to find domain-level competitors is to use Spyfu:

find competitor backlinks with spyfu

If you type your website into Spyfy and click the ‘Competitors’ tab, you’ll get a list of related websites. 

The SEO tool will also show you how much these websites overlap with yours and how many keywords you have in common.

Next, perform a keyword search for each target keyword.

Make a note of the top competing pages on each search engine results page (SERP). 

You’ll notice that certain websites crop up over and over. Add these to your list of domain-level competitors.

Page-level competitors will only rank for one or two focus keywords but are just as important.

Beware. Avoid personalized searches.

Personalized searches will skew the results you see on each SERP as they’ll provide results based on your searches. Your searches are likely related to your own website’s content so you’ll get different results from the average searcher.

To prevent a personalized search, you need to alter the URL of your SERP.

Check out this SERP URL for ‘example query’:

https://www.google.com/search?q=example+query&pws=0&gl=gb&hl=en

The ‘pws’ is the code denoting personalization. Change the number after ‘pws=’ to a zero, so it reads ‘pws=0’.

3. Analyze Domain-Level Competitors with a Backlink Checker Tool

A backlink checker allows you to delve into the linking domains that lead to your domain-level competitors. 

Since these are your closest rivals, you’ll want to learn which of their referring websites are most effective — then steal them.

While many tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush are useful, you’ll need to pay to access their backlink analysis tool.

While Moz Link Explorer does have a premium option, you can analyze your competitors’ top backlinks for free. Since you’re only really concerned with the backlinks that perform the best, this backlink tool is a great place to start.

Here’s how you perform a domain-level competitor analysis with Moz Link Explorer:

Head to the link analysis tool and make sure you select ‘root domain’ so you’re searching the whole website. Enter each competitor website one at a time.

find competitor backlinks with moz

Click on the number marked ‘Linking Domains’. This shows you all the unique domains that link to your competitors’ website.

find competitor backlinks with moz

On the list of linking domains, you can see the domain authority for each site. Sites with a high domain authority make for good referring inbound links as Google considers these sources to be useful, relevant, and trustworthy.

Make sure that the linking domain has a low spam score. Sites with high spam scores have features that are banned by Google. This lowers the effectiveness of the backlink.

For example, Entrepreneur.com is a better backlink that feedburner.com. While feedburner has a domain authority that’s three points higher than feedburner, feedburner has a 50% spam score.

You want to identify which sites are backlinking to several of your competitors. The easiest way to do this is to export the data to a CVS file, add them all to a spreadsheet, and pinpoint duplicate entries.

find competitor backlinks with moz

You can also click the download arrow to see which articles are linked to your competitors. This gives you an idea of the kind of content each referrer links from.

You’ll need to repeat this process for each one of your domain-level competitors.

You can also try Neil Patel’s tool:

find competitor backlinks with neil patel

This tool will also show you the referring anchor text. This gives you an idea of the focus keywords that your competitors are using for external backlinks.

4. Investigate Page-Level Competitors with a Backlink Analysis Tool

While page-level competitors don’t compete with your site on a whole, these individual articles can knock you clean off the top spot, nabbing 90% of the organic traffic.

Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest is one of the best free quality backlink tools for analyzing the link profile of your page-level competitors.

Here’s how you perform a page-level competitor backlink analysis on Ubersuggest:

Head to the Ubersuggest keyword tool and search your own website. This will bring up a list of top keywords for your site.

find competitor backlinks with neil patel

When you click on each target keyword, the table on the right-hand side shows you the top competing pages for each key term.

You can identify the page-level competitors as these are the sites that don’t generally compete for the same target audience or offer the same services.

In the table of backlink competitors, click the orange numbers under the links column to analyze the backlinks for each article one at a time.

Let’s look at the McKinsey article, for example:

find competitor backlinks with neil patel

When you click through, you’re taken to a list of backlinks. 

You can filter the backlinks by the domain authority to see the most influential pages. Alternatively, sort the results by the ‘last seen’ column to see which pages have been referring visitors most recently.

Look for the sweet spot. These sites have high domain authority scores and have been referring visitors recently. 

Export the CVS for each article and put the results in a spreadsheet. 

Repeat the whole process for each competing page and compare results to see which referral pages appear over and over. 

5. Analyze Semantically Similar Keywords

Once you’ve gone through all your top keywords, you’ll want to delve into semantically-related keywords. After all, some competitors will have a slightly different SEO strategy to you, so they might not appear when you’re searching your specific top key terms.

Use the same SEO tool as above and perform a search for each of your top keywords. This will show you the top pages that use semantically similar keywords.

find competitor backlinks with neil patel

Click through to the backlinks of these pages and export the backlink data from these articles for a more in-depth backlink analysis.

6. Pinpoint the Top-Referring Sites

Now you’ve collected all your data, it’s time to perform a deep-dive backlink analysis to scout out the most valuable referring domains.

As noted above, you want to look for sites with high domain authority scores and pages with high page authority scores.

A site’s domain authority score or page authority score denotes how likely it is to rank highly on Google. More visitors see sites and pages that rank highly on Google, meaning more clicks for you.

Remember, steer clear of pages with high spam scores. These sites and pages don’t sit well with Google, so they won’t rank as highly.

Look for sites that have referred visitors most recently. Just because a site used to be a prominent backlink resource, doesn’t mean it is today. 

Blogs, products, and thought leaders go out of fashion and their audience diminishes. When this happens, their referral links no longer carry the same weight. Look for backlink opportunities that are current.

Explore backlink opportunities on sites that get high organic traffic. The more people heading to a website, the more likely that people will click your backlink.

Lastly, look for popular referrers within your industry. Competitors who are aiming at the same target audience as you will have backlinks on the same sites as others in your sector.

It’s easier to spot duplicates when you put all your backlink data into a spreadsheet and filter it by A-Z.

If you create different spreadsheets for each target keyword, you will start to see the most popular referrers for each different topic you cover.

How to Evaluate Competitor Backlinks

Not all backlinks are created equal.

To add true value to your link building strategy, you want high quality backlinks from reputable sources. 

Likewise, to reap the most benefits from your own link building tactics, you need to make sure you’re using backlink opportunities in the right way.

Here’s a few quick tips on how to analyze your competitors’ backlinks.

Backlink Quality 

While quantity is important, high quality backlinks will work better for you.

Not only do high quality backlinks often have higher organic traffic, they tend to have a higher domain authority. This means these sites will appear higher in Google, pushing up your search engine rankings.

When looking through your competitors’ backlinks, steer clear of forums or spammy blogs.

Look for reputable media sources, influential thought leaders, and popular industry-related blogs.

Identify referrers with high domain authority and page authority scores, lots of organic traffic, and recent content.

It’s also smart to choose referring pages that have lots of their own backlinks. More referrals to your referring page will mean more clicks for you.

Backlink Placement 

Take note of where backlinks are placed in each article. 

Think about it logically. When you read an article, which links are you more likely to click?

Some links are super prominent, appearing above the fold or alongside captivating content. Others are dragging their heels in the footer or at the bottom of the article.

If you’re looking at potential link opportunities but the site wants your anchor text buried in the content or surrounded by other links, chase a different opportunity — that one’s a duff.

Backlink Relevance

Lots of sites try to boost backlink quantity by paying for links on referring sites, no matter what the site’s about.

Your best backlinks will be on sites that have relevant content as your audience are far more likely to click a helpful link.

Find backlink opportunities where your content or product can provide extra supplementary support to the article the visitor is reading. If a reader feels they could learn more by clicking a link, they’ll click.

If it just looks like a spammy product advert disguised as an anchor link, you won’t get any clicks.

Conclusion

Now you’ve got a better idea of how to find competitor backlinks, you’ll need to begin devising a plan to build these backlinks into your own SEO strategy.

Remember though, not all backlinks are good opportunities. 

Analyze each backlink carefully to make sure you’re picking referral sites that are relevant to your product or service, while demonstrating expertise and authority to your audience. You don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time on weak links.

If you’d like help with creating a robust link strategy using powerful competitor backlinks, talk to the uSERP team. After all, we’re experts at building backlink strategies — just ask top brands like Freshworks.

Get PR and Links That Increase Rankings.

Show up in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize.

Link building value is hard to quantify. I recently sat in a meeting with a business owner who was spending $2,000 a month on half a dozen backlinks from a questionable service. 

His traffic was declining, and he couldn’t figure out why. 

My team pitched better link building to him, and guess what?

Organic traffic rebounded. Sales increased. His loyalty went through the roof. All because of better backlinks. 

We know backlinks are valuable to SEO, but quantifying that value can be a tricky process. What makes one better than the other, and how can you know that a link is hurting you?

That’s what we’re about to cover. 

This is an in-depth, step-by-step guide you can use to assess the value of a backlink. You’ll have all the knowledge you need to improve your link building strategy in a way that directly benefits your site’s traffic. 

Let’s dive in. 

How Do You Determine The Value of Link Building?

Before we show you how to determine the value of link building, you need to understand what we mean by “value.”

Most of the time, talk of value comes down to money. ROI (return on investment) specifically. 

And while you absolutely can see stellar ROI from link building (especially when done well), that’s not the value you should be focusing on. Not upfront, at least. 

The main value of link building is in how it benefits your SEO strategy.

Inbound links have a massive footprint when it comes to ranking factors, from what the data shows… No one but Google knows exactly what makes up their secret recipe, but we can make some educated guesses. 

Everything from the quality of links to the anchor text used can have an impact on your site’s ranking. 

(Based on data via SparkToro)

So when we speak of value, we’re primarily focused on the SEO impact of your links. 

And rest assured that we know how to build links that improve your SEO

This guide will help you find, assess, and remove the bad backlinks by giving you insight into what a good link looks like. 

So let’s get started. 

Step #1: Assess the Referring Domain

When assessing the SEO value of link building, the first step is to check out the value of the domains that link to your site. 

The reason why is fairly simple. 

Every search engine wants to know that your site is authoritative. 

Part of building that authority is getting sites with a strong domain authority to link to yours. 

And the data backs this. 

One case study showed — with a single piece of quality content — that building links can make a huge impact. 

They attracted 150 links from new domains, including a number with 80+ domain authority. 

The result?

Their domain authority jumped seven points in just four months:

(Image Source)

A different study looked at the best-performing legal firms in the US. 

The ones topping SERPs had more reputable referring sites than their competitors. 

(Image Source)

The math here is simple. 

The stronger the domain rating, the more trust passed onto your site. 

You need to make sure you’re link building from domains with stronger authority/domain ratings. 

Even though it’s not a rating from a search engine (most 3rd party platforms have a proprietary way to rate domains), these metrics can point you in the right direction. 

But there’s more to assessing domains than authority. 

You also need to make sure you have a wide variety of domains pointing to your site.

Studies show a strong correlation between an increase in referring domains and traffic

(Image Source)

So one high-authority referring domain just won’t cut it. 

Four links from the same site won’t have the same impact as one link from four different sites. 

To sum up, the reason why you start with a domain assessment:

  • New links have less value if not from a site that’s reputable and has high trust. 
  • New links have less value if not from a new site. 

Now — how do you check all of this?

There are plenty of tools that can answer these questions, but I’m going to show you how to quickly assess domains using SEMrush. 

It’s very easy. 

Select their Backlinks Analytics section. Insert your domain, and then click on “Referring Domains.” 

From there, you can simply scroll down and see all of your site’s backlinks. 

In the example above, you’ll notice a few things:

  • We prefer to sort by “new” — the checkbox on the left. This tells me whether I’ve gained new links from new sites, which are likely to be more valuable. 
  • In this example, we have 31 new links from a 13 Authority Score website. That’s potential link spam.
  • Compared to other sites on the list, we’ll need to look closer at the “freelancevirtualspot.com” links and see if we need to disavow any. They could be spammy.

It’s a simple check but incredibly valuable. We now have actionable next-steps to improve my backlink profile, all from one quick assessment. 

But there’s still more to consider. 

Step #2: Vet The Page Holding Your Backlink

The next step when assessing a link’s value is to look at the page referring to your site. 

That means navigating to the page and evaluating whether or not it’s a good fit. 

Why?

Because context is key with quality link building. 

Getting crappy mentions or low-page links can be harmful to your SEO. 

At the very least, it may not be as helpful as you want. 

Search engines assess your site based on the content that surrounds a link to your page. 

It’s called the Reasonable Surfer Model. Google’s algorithm has been using context to rank your site for years — possibly as far back as 2012. 

The takeaway?

Check your links. Make sure the content around the link is helpful and relevant to your site.

But there’s more to the equation here. 

Where your link sits on the page can also affect how powerful that link is. 

One study showed that — all other things being equal — building links higher up on a referring page will lead to better rankings. 

(Image Source)

That means if your link is sitting below a competitor’s, you’re not getting much value from that link. 

The solution?

Do what you can to get your links higher up on referring pages. 

And learn how to build high-quality links to begin with. 

Your link’s may not always be something you can control, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Reach out to the website owners and see if they can help you. 

But more importantly, how do you find the pages you should assess?

SEMrush helps us again. 

In their Backlinks Analytics tool, simply navigate to the “Backlinks” view:

Below each link, you’ll find the page that’s referring to your site. 

Click the hyperlinked arrow on the right side of the link to navigate to the page. 

Now, search for your link. 

Here’s an example of a link we recently received. You’ll notice it’s about halfway down the page:

Not bad, but not the best either. 

It’s a keeper, though. 

And we do this with all of the links to our site. 

Each one can tell Google what the site’s about, so we make sure each one works for us. 

Time intensive? Yes. 

Worth it? Absolutely. 

And it leads naturally to the third value check — anchor texts. 

Step #3: Consider Anchor Texts as Part of a Whole

The anchor text of a backlink is a hotly debated subject. 

Some people swear by it. Others claim it’s irrelevant. 

Which is it?

We lean toward it being important, but not something you should focus too much on in the grand scheme of your SEO. 

Here’s why:

A recent study looked at the anchor text distribution of the average top-ranked page. 

Their results pointed toward an “optimal distribution model.”  

  • 9% of anchors used exact match keywords
  • 60% used natural keywords and brand mentions in the context of the referring page
  • 30% were “blended” — or had part of a keyword phrase, but not the whole

(Image Source)

This makes perfect sense, right?

Well, a similar study from Ahrefs found little to no correlation after a barrage of tests. 

So who’s right?

Both. 

For a long time, Google relied too much on anchor texts to assess links. 

They’ve changed their assessment model over time, but they still see anchor text as a valuable part of your link’s context. 

And remember, context is everything. 

The Reasonable Surfer Patent points to the idea that relevant link anchor texts are the key concern for Google — and that naturally begs for a diverse, natural link profile of anchor texts from various sites. 

(Image Source)

So how do you check in on your anchor texts?

Use a tool like SEMrush from time to time. 

Your anchor text information lives in the “Anchors” page of the Backlink Analytics tool in SEMrush.

Each time you check your anchor texts, ask yourself whether the overall distribution looks like manipulation. 

Then you can start trying to re-balance your link profile. 

Otherwise, leave anchor texts be. As long as they’re relevant to your site, don’t worry too much. 

Which means on to the next step. 

Step #4: Ensure the Page Referred to Is the One You Want

You want to make sure that links to your website have maximum impact on your SEO. 

And most of the time, that means making sure the context of a link is correct. 

But sometimes, the page your link points to is the issue. What do we mean?

We know that pages with more quality backlinks rank better

(Image Source)

So when someone searches for your site, you want Google to deliver a high-value page on the SERPs. 

If you had to choose, would you rather someone see:

  • A low-level blog post, or
  • The landing page you spent $10,000+ on to help generate leads?

The choice is obvious. You want the landing page because it ties back to ROI.

So when it comes to the page you want to build links for, the answer is the same. 

Get links to high-value pages. 

You might think you can manipulate this, but you can’t. 

Some may tell you to get links to a blog post that points to your valuable page, but that may not be beneficial (per John Mueller).  

(Image Source)

It’s better to focus on building links directly to the money pages. 

So how do you check where websites are sending links?

Again, SEMrush has the answers in its Backlinks Analytics tool. 

Select the Referring Domains tab, and scroll down to see which websites are sending links your way. 

It’s another simple step, but it will tell you if your links provide SEO value to the correct pages. 

If you’re finding that the wrong pages receive links, find out the culprits and reach out to the websites referring to you. See if you can get them to change it for you. 

If all else fails, you may have to consider disavowing low value links using Google’s toolset. It may sound extreme, but bad traffic is no better than no traffic. 

Besides, our final value check step can help you make up the difference in short order. 

Step #5: Round Out Your Links With a Backlink Gap Audit

It’s always good to check in on your competition when it comes to SEO. 

Acquiring backlinks that your competition doesn’t have only helps you. 

The opposite is also true — you need backlinks that mirror your competition.

Then, you can take your link building one step further. 

It’s all part of building trust signals and both organic and referral traffic to your site. 

You likely already do competitive analyses for content. So why improve content but leave out authority?

For this check, we’ll jump over to Ahrefs as our tool of choice. 

Their Link Intersect checker is second to none. It lives in the “More” menu on their toolbar. 

Input your URL next to a competitor’s (or two). 

The results show you the difference between yours and your competitor’s backlink distribution. 

This tells you sites you need to target for link outreach. Super easy, and always worth adding on to your link analysis efforts.

Conclusion

Backlinks can boost your SEO and drive traffic to your site. But only if you’re building enough valuable links from authoritative domains. 

Use these five simple steps to check your backlink value and pinpoint areas for improvement.  

Assessing the quality of the site linking to you. Check out the relevance of the page and anchor text. Make sure the links are pointing people to the pages you want them to see. And complete a gap audit to see how you stack up against your competition. 

Of course, this isn’t a one-and-done approach. You’ll need to routinely follow these steps to catch changes and issues that crop up over time.

Get PR and Links That Increase Rankings.

Show up in content your ideal customers actually read, on sites you actually recognize.