Are you a human link builder? If so, ask yourself this: "if a robot link builder existed, what would I still be able to do that it could not?"
Analyze a complex backlink profile and distinguish quality links from spammy ones? Check. Write a funny personal email that gets someone's attention in the right way? Check. Decide when a phone call might be the best outreach method? Check.
And what could the robot do faster and better than you?
Find every link to a site? Check. Automatically search through SERPs and connect each result to external data? Check. Automatically search for contact information on three different pages and score how closely it matched a person's name? Check. Automatically pre-populate data fields in a CRM? Check.
If you've ever heard the phrase "build on your strengths," the lesson for link building is this: that we need to automate as much of the routine, "robot work" as possible, and spend more time doing what we're best at: being sentient human link builders.
In this post, we'll look at tools that can help link builders shift their workload to computers as much as humanly possible.
Let's start with the most basic automation. You need tools to research sites' backlink profiles. These tools crawl the web and build a database of raw data about backlinks.
Each tool provides, at minimum, the ability to lookup a list of all the pages linking to a URL or domain, and some include detailed information about each link's anchor text, type (text or image), follow status, authority for the linking page, and in some cases the ability to group, sort, search, and filter the results.
- Majestic SEO: A well-regarded index of link data with information about anchor text, authority, Class C IPs, and relevance, not to mention good sorting and filtering. My only complaint is that their pricing and user-interface is a bit confusing.
- Open Site Explorer: A very user-friendly tool with anchor text data, follow status, and authority. The only downside is the index may miss some links in the "deep web."
- Yahoo Site Explorer: Known for being relative fast to find new links (other indexes are updated monthly), but very limited because it can only return 1,000 links per page or domain and offers no "extra" data such as follow status or filtering capabilities. But it's free! Yahoo also offers an API (Yahoo BOSS), which according to many, is more current than the Site Explorer website.
- Google: Yes, their "link:" operator leaves much to be desired, but just because it's incomplete doesn't mean it's useless.
- Blekko: This new search engine offers tons of free backlink data available from a very deep index.
Site-Level Backlink Analysis
Many tools offer backlink reports at the site or URL level, but are limited to only the data points they have available. So then what do you do if you want to filter a site's backlinks down to only followed inbound links, with toolbar PageRank of at least 5, and no more than 50 outbound links?
Enter site-level backlink analysis tools. These tools gather traditional backlink data with a traditional set of backlink data, often pulled from one or multiple backlink data providers.
- Link Diagnosis: Powered by Yahoo BOSS, Link Diagnosis uses a Firefox extension to pull up to 1,000 links per page and lookup metrics such as the toolbar PageRank of each URL, whether the link actually was found on the page, follow status, anchor text of each link, and aggregate level reporting.
- BacklinkWatch!: Also powered by Yahoo, BacklinkWatch! pulls the first 1,000 links for a page (the most Yahoo will give up), and appends the number of outbound links on the source page along with any flags they find (nofollow, image links, etc.).
- AnalyzeBacklinks: Simple and free tool that analyzes backlinks to a page and appends anchor text, total number of links, outbound links, title of the linking page. One feature I like is that ability to flag links that mention a keyword you've selected.
- SEOBook Link Harvester: Shows backlinks grouped by linking domain, groups them by top level domain (TLD), and provides summary metrics about the number of incoming links and percentage of deep links to the page.
- SEOBook Back Link Analyzer: A free downloadable tool that pulls backlink data from Google, MSN, and Yahoo, crawls the linking pages, and builds a table of information about each link including follow status, number of outbound links, page title, and more.
- SearchStatus Plugin for Firefox: A free Firefox extension from iAcquire that pulls the backlinks from Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
- SEOLink Analysis: Supplements lists of links produced by Google Webmaster Tools and Yahoo Site Explorer with information about each link's PageRank, anchor text, and follow status.
- WhoLinksToMe: Produces various detailed backlink reports with views by link, anchor text, country, IP, and more. Many charts and graphs to aid in the analysis. Freemium.
- Many enterprise SEO packages also offer data-rich site level backlink analysis, including BrightEdge, SecondStep, RankAbove's Drive, seoClarity, SEO Diver, SISTRIX Toolbox, and gShift Labs, and link building specific tools such as Advanced Link Manager, Linkdex and Cemper's LinkResearchTools offer powerful backlink analysis features.
SERP-Level Backlink Analysis
It seems like every link builder has a preferred set of data when it comes to competitive analysis. So don't expect any single tool to pull every conceivable piece of data and put them all into same columns you've always used.
You still may find yourself exporting data to Excel and merging with other data sources. But any time saved from manually copying and pasting data into spreadsheets (or hiring and managing people to do so) can be spent on more human, value-added activities.
- SEOBook, SEOQuake, and SEOMoz, offer helpful browser extensions that overlay a variety of backlink data directly on search results, so you can assess the backlinks behind each listing in the SERP, right when you're looking at it.
- Larger suites like Advanced Link Manager, LinkResearchTools, Adgooroo Link Insight, Wordtracker Link Builder, LinkDex, Raven, and SEOMoz, also offer detailed backlink data at the SERP level. SEOMoz announced an upgrade for their excellent Keyword Difficulty Tool to provide a more integrated SERP analysis.
Anyone without research tools for SERP analysis is at a competitive disadvantage.
Link Prospecting Tools
There are many ways to find link opportunities, and the tools listed below can only really scratch the surface when it comes to the universe of link opportunities that some creativity and insight can find.
- Query generators are the original link automation tools. These tools take a keyword and automatically create dozens or hundreds of canned searches to find common link opportunity types (e.g. resource pages, guest posts, and directories). Here are a few of the most popular: SoloSEO, Ontolo's Link Query Generator, SEOBook's Link Suggest, BuzzStream's Link Building Query Generator (disclaimer: I co-founded BuzzStream), and Webconf's Backlink Builder. I would strongly caution anyone using a list of other people's queries to weed out queries that don't make sense for them -- don't just head down a link building path because a tool suggested you seek a link on every "inurl:links.html" page in your industry.
- Link prospecting tools build upon the query generator idea, but automate the task of visiting each page in and compiling addition metrics (and in some cases, contact info). This can save link builders time by enabling them to prioritize prospects with the highest value. But you can't just take everything the tools give you. Plan to review each prospect to assess its appropriateness to your link building campaign. Here are a few of the most popular: Ontolo, Adgooroo's Link Insight, and Advanced Link Manager.
- Cocitation or "hub finder" tools help you find sites that link to multiple competitors. Some look across all links to your competitors, and some analyze the top ranking sites for a given keyword. The best known offerings in this area are SEOBook's Hub Finder, Adgooroo's Link Insight, Raven's SiteFinder, LinkResearchTools, Linkdex, WordTracker Link Builder, SEODiver, and Shoemoney Tools.
- Proprietary technique research tools use a combination of their own search queries and analysis rules to generate a list of screened, quality link prospect opportunities. Link Insight is known for integrating many of Eric Ward's (a.k.a., "Link Moses") research methods, though I wouldn't call it an Eric-SaaS just yet. Ontolo offers a number of proprietary searches, but also leaves a fair bit of detail and control in users' hands.
- Checklist-driven link building tools give users bite-sized link building tasks, such as "Today you should request a link on DMOZ!" (except their suggestions tend to be more clever than that): LotusJump, Hubspot, DIYSEO, and SEOScheduler.
Next time, I'll cover tools that address contact research, link management (CRM), link outreach management, and link monitoring.
A note about some tools I won't cover: tools that scrape SERPs for sites and automatically extract email addresses and send blast mass emails, tools that automate directory submission, "article marketing," and blog commenting, services that automate blindly placing link-laden content on an unknown network of sites, or tools to automate reciprocal link exchanges. These tools exist and some people use them, but I have yet to find them to be beneficial.
The best strategy for using link building automation tools is to first develop a good process for tracking your link prospecting data and managing your outreach via a structured workflow. Once you have data and process in place, you can start automating some of your routine tasks.
The point of using great tools, whether it's an array of three 24" monitors on your desk, an Aeron chair, or fancy link building tools, is to eliminate energy wasted on low value activities, work in new ways, and free you up to focus on what you, the human link builder, is uniquely suited to do.