Anyone who's done any SEO at all will know that links are vitally important for ranking and indexation, and have been since Google jumped into the scene all those years ago. While ranking for generic keywords is certainly not the only viable tactic for driving search traffic (especially for smaller businesses), if you are after those key rankings, then links are where it's at.
My last column looked at how to monitor your incoming links. Checking your links regularly, recording the numbers, and mapping out how they are growing over time is a great first step in getting to grips with links.
However, the key message, as always, is not just to pore over the figures, but to do something about them. In other words, you need to be out there building links. Lots of links.
How Many is "Lots"?
As with any business process, before you even start it's a good idea to have a target in mind (and on paper!). Even if you are your own boss, realistic, short-term targets, to go alongside your bigger goals, really help to sharpen what you're doing. But as you can't just pull a target out of the air, how do you set about creating something real for your link building?
Clearly, when it comes to links, one site's "lots" will be another's "hardly any". It all depends on the niche and how competitive it is. But luckily for us, we can come up with realistic figures for our own sites very easily.
In my last column, we looked at three different tools for measuring incoming links: Google Webmaster Tools, Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO. Each gives different figures, due to the slightly arbitrary nature of indexing the web, amongst other things, and each has its own quirks. However, if you have keen eyes, you will have spotted one very important detail -- with the exception of Webmaster Tools, these tools can be used to check out your competitors'links as well as your own.
Checking Out Your Competitors' Links
Analyzing your competitors' links is a hugely powerful area of SEO, but right now, we just want to focus on two things -- the raw numbers of links and linking domains that each of your competitors has. These are the figures that will let you set decent targets for yourself.
However, before you can start, you need to work out who your competitors are in the first place. It's important to differentiate search competitors from your "real world" competitors in this case (although they might be one and the same). We're simply looking at the sites that are already ranking for the keywords you're targeting.
Because these sites are occupying the spots that you want, that's all that matters right now. It doesn't even matter if they're not competitors in the true sense of the word (although if the results for a keyword you have chosen are dominated by sites from a different market than your own, that may tell you something!) Likewise, if the top spots for a keyword are owned by the likes of WikiPedia or Amazon, you might want to think again (or settle for a lower position), as those types of player are almost impossible to knock out.
Once you have your list of competitors, simply plug each of their sites into the link checking tool of your choice (Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO or Yahoo! Site Explorer, before it becomes defunct) and get those counts. The number of links and linking domains for the sites in the number one positions are clearly the ones to beat. Suddenly the vague task of "got to build more links" has been turned into a concrete, actionable number, and that's what real SEO is all about.
A Few Words of Caution
Needless to say, for a competitive niche, those figures for the top spot will probably be high (tens or hundreds of thousands of links) and your actionable target may also seem impossibly daunting. The thing to do in this likely scenario is to start with a more realistic target, hit that and then aim higher next time around, building your confidence as you go along. Instead of checking the links of the sites at number 1 for your keywords, have a look at the numbers that will be required to reach number 5, 10, or 20, for example.
Another important point: these figures offer the most raw, highest overview of your competitors' links. Not all links are created equal by far, and it's possible to do much more in depth analysis of a site's link graph. One site might outrank another with more links if the former has better quality links. So, for example, beating the raw number of links or domains that a competitor has won't guarantee beating them in the rankings, but it's all important to have a figure for which to aim and to give your otherwise vague task some context.
Image credit: Oliver Gruener