Linking Analysis – Making Sense of the Mess

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Given the remarkable amount of emphasis placed on link building over the past five or so years, it’s not surprising that third-party linking analytics tools have proliferated as well. In fact, I’d call it a linking analysis frenzy that goes far beyond the simple link. Most of us have used results from Google Webmaster Tools (https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/docs/en/about.html) and the Yahoo! Site Explorer (http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/) to find information about aspects of our site’s linking-related data. It’s fascinating to spend time clicking through the information, and commendable that both companies offer this data completely free of charge.

There are also many fee-based software programs you can purchase to learn more about your links. There are scripts and extensions available for download to augment search results, as well as tools that take search results and overlay additional linking-related data on top of them. There are even web-based tools that can tell you everything from the age of a link to the IP block of the site on which the link exists. To get a sense of the variety of link analysis tools available, just Google “backlink analysis software” and have fun …

But how useful is all this information about your site’s links, and what can you do with this mountain of linking-related data? The quick answer is that it depends on what your goal is. If you just want to check your own site’s links to see if any are broken, a free tool like Xenu’s Link Sleuth does that perfectly.

However, most of us want to accomplish more than just identifying broken links. Much more. Now that links drive search rank, a link popularity free-for-all and a lingering obsession with PageRank are the norm. And tools are available that play right into your linking fears. Some of these tools will give you a false sense that you now know all that you need to know about your links.

The great irony to me is that the thing you most want to know about links is the very thing that no tool can tell you. Most of all, you want an answer to this kind of complex question: Which sites will link to my site, won’t link to my competitor’s site, will help my site rank better, and won’t cause my site to be penalized? There are a hundred possible secondary questions, dealing with anchor text to deep links to page location, but at the end of the day, the above question remains the one we most want answered. And there is no piece of software anywhere that, by itself, can tell you the answer.

That said, there are several tools you can use that may help you get at least a few steps closer to an answer. You then have to apply some good old-fashioned human intelligence to determine what you need to do with the data you get. More on that later.

Link analysis tools can be divided into two categories – free and fee. Simple enough. Where it gets trickier is that some tools are web-based, others require a download and install, some are free but still require an install, others are not free and do not require an install. Not so simple, is it? So, let’s look at link analysis a different way. Let’s look at link analysis tools based on what they will tell you about your links.

The first tool you can use is your trusty old server log. Among many things your server keeps track of is the referring URL of the site on which someone clicked your link. In other words, if you have a link on my website and someone clicks that link to arrive at your site, your server captures that information. The good thing about server logs is they tell you which links are sending you what amount of traffic. The bad thing is the details of the link only appear in your log if the link has been clicked. There could be a link from a very trusted site that may be helping your search rank immensely, but unless that link has been clicked, you won’t know it.

It may seem counterintuitive that a link could be important to your search rank but not send you any direct click traffic at all, but I’ve seen this with my own sites many times. For example, have a look at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/newsletter/04-29-02.htm For those of you concerned with PageRank, this page has plenty of it. Although I have never seen this page appear in my referrer logs, I have no doubt that the link on it to my site helps my rankings. Why am I so sure? Because it’s a five-plus-year-old deep link from a trusted source. This is a vital linking analytics concept that you need to understand. Just because a link sends you no direct traffic, this does not necessarily mean it can’t help your search rank.

Another aspect of link analysis that people study is the text used within the clickable link itself, aka anchor text. If you are looking for information about the text used by the linking sites, you can use a free tool like SEO Book’s Back Link Analyzer (http://tools.seobook.com/backlink-analyzer/) or, if you don’t mind spending the money, you can use OptiLink or SEO EliteTM.

While anchor text is an important element of link analysis, remember that any element that can be manipulated will be, and thus you cannot go on anchor text alone. I’m sure as you read this there are hundreds of thousands of sites trying to establish new inbound links that have very specific keywords in the anchor text, just to try to improve rank. Given this, how long do you think it will be before anchor text is no longer a useful signal to the engines, at least not by itself?

Another popular link analysis metric is comparing the total number of inbound links across competing websites. This can be extremely illuminating. You can often identify new link targets simply by seeing who is already linking to other sites in your niche. The good news/bad news here is that all you are really accomplishing is a “keeping up with the Joneses” linking strategy that does not help your site stand out from others, since those others already have that same link. This doesn’t make the approach useless, though, because many times your site isn’t ranking for that very reason. However, at the same time you go after the links your competitor already has, you’d better also try to obtain trustworthy links they don’t have.

Depending on just how deep you want to delve into link analysis, there are tools that will tell you everything from which site’s links are oldest, or no-followed, or the ratio of deep links to homepage links, or C Class, or the cache date, or the different inbound links across the engines. Even given the variety of already-available link analysis tools, several years ago I decided to hire a programmer to create my own collection of linking analytics tools.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the existing tools, but rather that I felt they all focused too heavily on aspects of linking that could be manipulated. As a linking strategist, I found myself asking how any site could succeed long term if it relied on the exact same tools as every other site? This is a fair question, but does this mean you should go out and create your own linking analysis toolset rather than use someone else’s? No. Just remember that you cannot rely solely on software and scripts to ensure long-term link-building success.

Due to space limitations for this column, I cannot possibly cover every aspect of link analysis, and that might just be a good thing for everyone’s tired eyes. However, regardless of what you seek to measure about your inbound links, or those of your competitors, the ultimate impact of obtaining those measurements is that you still have to know what to do about them. You have to recognize what the data is telling you and what strategies need to be implemented to improve things.

One final, but crucial, point must be made. Even if you spend thousands of hours and dollars to perform the most in-depth link analysis possible, you must still have the type and quality of content that earns you the links in the first place. It does you no good to know the exact 126 sites that you need links from in order to rank first in the SERPs if your site doesn’t have the depth of content to earn a link from those sites to begin with. One absolute truth about linking analytics is this – the easier the link is to get, buy, beg for, steal, swap, etc., the less likely it is to help you.

Content that illuminates and educates earns trusted links. You may be able to speed that process with linking analysis, but you will not be able to fake it.

About the Author

Eric Ward advises clients on link-building strategies and tactics that actually make sense. Eric created the web's first service for building links and publicity for websites, and he continues to offer these services today.

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