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What 70+ Hours Of Backlink Checking And Research Shows…

What are your direct competitors doing in the way of getting more backlinks? My research in over 30 verticals sheds some light on the question.
This is part 1 of 2. In this part, I’ll address three issues:

  1. Practical uses for this competitive intelligence,
  2. My methodology in conducting this research,
  3. Some fun data points for niche research,

In part 2, “Backlink Research Shows How To Compete Elite (Part 2)” I cover:

  • Screenshots of the data,
  • My analysis and conclusions,
  • Some caveats.

I’d love to hear comments here and on my own site from people of all experience levels. There are no dumb questions: a desire to learn is about the greatest sign of intelligence!

Just before I begin, I’d like to thank Alex Chudnovsky and his excellent team at Majestic SEO. They created the historical backlink comparison tool that made this all possible. They also collaborated with me on this and gave me exact numbers from their data, as well as lightning-fast support. (And thanks to Ann Smarty of Search & Social for making me aware of Majestic and other fantastic tools.)

Also, I think it’s important to point out that Majestic SEO has the highest link counts by far of any tool out there. It’s the most comprehensive backlink research tool, which is valuable, but you should know that you can’t compare the numbers to Yahoo Site Explorer – it’s apples to oranges.

Uses For This Competitive Research

Mad Magazine's Spy vs Spy 1 – Compare yourself to the competition quantitatively, counting: i) links, ii) link value on a cost-per-link basis; and estimating i) man hours required to build equivalent links and ii) time value on a cost per hour basis.

2 – Find out if an exact match domain is worth the price. Can you rank with fewer links from a narrower group of sources?

3 – Find out if competitors have either strong brands, strong relationships (brands are relationships, anyways) or big link buying budgets, by looking at how many sitewide links they have.

4 – Assess the breadth of competitors’ relationships.

5 – Answer the question, “How fast and how many links do I need to build?” This question has never been addressed, afaik.

6 – Make the business case for SEO by showing what the competition is doing.

In other words, you can:

  • Find out what you’re up against
  • Determine what ingredients you need to rank
  • Project costs (which is part of forecasting SEO ROI)
  • Present the case to the boss with all the numbers

My Competitive Intelligence Research Methodology

Category Selection

1. I began by identifying industries and verticals based on the Yahoo Directory’s main categories – those linked to off the directory’s homepage.

2. From those, I picked 15 single word ‘keyphrases’ and typed them into Google. I also picked 15 two-three word keyphrases, aiming to find mid-tier keywords (judged by volume and competitive interest).

So in total, I looked at 30 different keywords. That may not seem like a lot, but this actually took hours to compile, screenshot, and analyze.

Also, I felt it was enough since I canvassed the vast majority of the Yahoo directory’s main categories, as defined above.

I wanted to get a broad cross-section of the web, without going overboard and drowning in the data. I think that my approach achieved that.

Search Results Data Collection

Joost DeValk3. I typed the selected keywords into Firefox’s Google search bar. I used Joost’s personalized search disabler to get clean search results.

Domain Name Selection

4. I selected 5 of the top ranking domains, with the following criteria:

    • I gave preference to higher ranking domains.

    I excluded a domain if it was only present by virtue of:

    • Universal Search – Eg Domains present in the results by virtue of their images, videos, Google news status etc
    • Non-Industry-Specific – Eg Wikipedia, CNN, random colleges. These exclusions also covered sites which had pages of theirs ranking, but on the whole were not about the given keyword.
    • Subdomains – Unfortunately, Majestic SEO’s data only goes to the root domain. This forced the exclusion of numerous university results, standalone blogs etc.

    Competitive Intelligence Data

    4. The selected domains were plugged into Majestic SEO’s excellent Historical Backlink Tool. Plugged in, by Alex Chudnovsky and his team at Majestic SEO, who gave me the exact numbers in their data. I don’t think that’s publicly available, but maybe they’ll make it available for a price.

    As an aside, I encourage you to set the visual display in the Historical Backlink Tool to Cumulative (via the dropdown on the left hand side of the tool). This view shows

    • If a competitor is catching up to another
    • Competitors building leads in link numbers, sustaining leads, or resting on their laurels.


    1) Industry medians vs averages vs individual sites’ number:


    Because many categories have a competitor who is disproportionately stronger than all the others, taking the industry average for these numbers gives a skewed view (upwards). To be more realistic as to what it takes to rank, I therefore chose to look at industry medians.

    A median is the “middle of the pack” number: half of the other numbers in the set are greater, half are smaller.

    Practically speaking, this makes a big difference for most sites. Rather than being way behind, they’re closer to the middle of the pack.

    And for those who were leading, this typically shows a greater lead. This is more appropriate than using an average. Because an average number would show leaders competing against themselves in part, whereas a median more accurately reflects competition against others. It would be odd to say, “I have a 5000 link lead over the group comprised of myself and others.”

    And some sites that would otherwise be laggards ( and in referring domains) turn out to be the middle of the pack itself.


    I initially thought looking at averages would be valuable, but because the numbers are normalized as a percentage, they doesn’t mean much. 200% growth is meaningless if you started with 100 links…

    However, I left the data in there because if you compare apples to apples, it can be interesting to see who’s closing in or who’s building their lead. In other words, look at two competitors who both had about the same amount of links last year. Who grew faster during the last 12 months?

    Individual sites’ numbers:

    You may be able to catch up to the pack (the median), but can you catch and outpace the leaders? If ranking #3 or #4 isn’t good enough for you, then you need to look at the average numbers.

    2) Year over year growth numbers and percentages:

    What is the cost of delaying the start of an SEO program?

    As a consultant, I know as well as anyone that the long sales process is a pain in the butt. But what I didn’t know was whether the often months-long drawn out process could be shown to hurt clients. It can.

    When I worked with, I thought that the site had so many links that picking onpage optimization low hanging fruit would maximize their ROI. While that was true, I realize now that once the low hanging fruit had been picked, it would still be necessary to keep building links. (I eventually hired a rockstar SEO for Ice, when I returned to school full time. You can find his blog at SEO Skeptic.)

    Some fun and actionable data points for niche researchers:

    The hardest verticals to compete in (imho) are those whose players have the greatest speed of link building, the deepest relationships, and the most links.

    5 Hardest keywords by median annual backlink growth: Newspapers, Jobs, Music, Video Game Reviews and Buy Computers

    I should also give an honorable mention to “Domain names,” whose ranking leaders GoDaddy and NetSol had 46 million new links since last year!

    The ratio of “backlinks per referring domain,” which I’ll call “Sitewide Strength” can show several things:

    • How big the sites are that competitors are getting sitewide links from. EG TechCrunch with 1000s of pages or a brand new blog with 5? Whose blogroll are you on?
    • Competitors buying sitewide links.
    • Competitors having big brands and thus being cited really frequently in the press. EG Google.
    • Competitors with strong relationships; each relationship generates numerous links.

    5 Hardest Keywords by Backlinks/Referring Domains5 Easiest Keywords by Backlinks/Referring DomainsRaw Backlink Numbers:

    • Only domain names, at 80% industry average, had a year over year backlink growth rate below 95%. But this needs to be contrasted with the niche’s ridiculously high average year/year growth numbers, which lead all categories. Average year/year growth in this niche was 32 million links… (Not median growth, but average, which includes mega leaders like GoDaddy and NetSol).
    • Godaddy apparently has 600 million – yes, million – links. Though most of those come from parked domains, I would imagine.
    • Network Solutions apparently has 112 million links, most of which I imagine are also of the parked-page-linking-to-the-registrar type.

    This is part 1 of 2. Part 2 can be found on my own search marketing blog. If you liked this post, add my rss feed to your reader to download the spreadsheet and screenshots with all the raw data so you can run your own analysis, and of course get my latest posts.

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