Copying your competitors means you’re losing

Copying your competitors means you’re losing

A go-to link building strategy of a lot of SEOs is to backlink their main competitors and attempt to replicate their link profiles. After all, if they’re ranking with those backlinks, you should rank with them too, right?

There are a number of reasons why doing so would provide good insight about where and how your competitors are getting their links. It can also help you find low-effort links or publications which you can contribute to. But pursuing your competitors’ backlinks because you think getting those same links is going to help you rank is going to lead to a lot of frustration, and it’s not going to help you beat them in search.

Personally, I think if this strategy makes up any significant amount of your link building efforts (like more than 10-15%), it means you’re losing.

Why copying your competitors’ backlinks is bunk:

Your competitors have already gotten the benefit of those links.

When gathering a list of competitors’ backlinks to try to replicate, most of those links have likely already existed for quite some time (unless you’re regularly stalking your competitors) so if search engines have already weighed those links in favor of your competitor then your competitor has already gotten the benefit of them. Who knows when (if) search engines will crawl that page again. And when (if) they do, that’s even still before waiting around for the benefits of that link to begin taking effect on your own rankings.

Furthermore, if we’re to assume the idea that authority, or “link juice,” is divided among all links on a page is true (it isn’t), it stands to reason that by building links on the same pages as your competitor you would only either 1) further dilute the value of a competitor’s link or 2) receive less than the amount of “link juice” your competitor received for a link on the same page months ago. And again, that is all before you have to wait around to see the results (if any) of that link. Both of those are losing scenarios.

That doesn’t end at old school PageRank division though. Suppose you ask your friend who they recommend to replace the roof on your house and they say Bob is without a doubt the best. Okay cool. Bob does a good job, so you call Bob. Now imagine they say Bob, Tom, Bill and Jennifer all do a great job replacing roofs. Well, now you’ve narrowed it down to a handful of capable roofers, but you’re still going to have to evaluate them each individually to see who you should choose. If you’re a roofer, you probably would want to be listed among them, but that endorsement simply isn’t going to be worth as much as it would be if you were listed on your own.

If your goal is to outrank a competitor, it would largely be a waste of time to target a link which – at best – would be worth less than it was for your competitor when they got that same link.

You don’t know where they’re getting all of their links.

No backlink tool can give you a definitive list of all of the links in a search engine’s index, as evidenced by the fact that examining a website’s backlinks with two or more of these tools will give you two or more different lists of backlinks (with some overlap).

Sure, you could download backlink reports from multiple sources, combine them together into one spreadsheet and remove duplicates to get a more complete list, but there’s still no way to guarantee that the list you end up with is a list of every link that a search engine knows about. Doing this could provide a list of less (or more!) links than a search engine is using to rank a that website, so even if you were to build a link from every single page/domain in that list, the result is still likely to be a backlink profile that is not only inferior to your competitor’s but incomplete as well.

You don’t know which links are actually helping them rank.

Just like there is no way for a backlink tool to identify every link in a search engine’s index, there is also no way for a backlink tool to determine which of those links are helping or harming a website. Sure, an experienced link builder can look at most web pages and determine whether or not they would feel comfortable targeting a certain link and some tools can give you a rough idea of the value of a link based on their own calculations, but the fact is no one is qualified to make those claims except the search engines themselves, and they’re not going to do that for us.

You don’t know which links search engines have crawled; you don’t know which links search engines view as positive; you don’t know which links search engines view as negative. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t know which links are sending them traffic. So it’s best to target links which you know will send you traffic.

Also, a link from a page that is helping your competitor rank doesn’t necessarily mean that a link from that same page will help your website rank, at least not by the same amount. Consider this: a 1200 word article or review written specifically about a competitor featured on a highly respected website could be sending a few different positive signals – natural keywords in anchor text, multiple links, multiple brand mentions, etc. Let’s say at the bottom of that article the author has featured a small section where they link to a handful of websites (with branded anchor text) who provide a similar service for their readers who might not be completely satisfied with the featured brand. I would probably attempt to get a link on that page, but I wouldn’t exactly expect my link to carry the same weight as the links to the website which the article was written about.

Your competitors have no idea what they’re doing.

Judging by the amount of low quality and spammy backlinks in most (seriously) backlink profiles, it’s probably safe to say that most of your competitors have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

Sure, you could comb through and choose to target only the links which you think are the best. But in reality, you simply don’t know what kind of misguided information your competitors may be following in their SEO efforts. Do you really want to blindly trust their intuition with your website?

You aren’t building your own authority.

This is perhaps the most important reason of all. Let’s assume that you’re able to do something impossible: get a link from every website that your competitor has. Let’s also assume another impossibility: every one of those links is viewed as valuable by search engines. Great, you have now built up a backlink portfolio identical to your competitor, and you may even see some ranking improvements from doing so. There’s just one problem: you haven’t done anything to set yourself apart.

If each one of your links is a carbon copy of your competitor’s links, you’re only telling search engines that you’re as good as your competitor and not better. If your competitor is already ranking because of those links, what incentive would a search engine have to place your website above theirs?

What’s more, the second your competitor gets another link, you’re behind again.

Some reasons you might want to backlink competitors:

Having said all of the above, there are still a few reasons why one might benefit from analyzing their competitors’ backlinks and there is no doubt a lot of valuable information a link builder can learn by doing so.

Identify whether you need to build links to compete.

I might be a little biased since I would almost always answer this question with a resounding yes!. However, since ranking factors can vary by niche (and even by individual keywords), backlinking competitors can give you a clue as to whether the leading sites are ranking because of links or not.

For example, suppose the top 10 results for a given keyword all have what you would consider to be mediocre links – as in, no links that you would consider to be harmful but also very few links that you would be proud to deliver to a client at the end of the month. Suppose they all also have very few referring domains. This would tell you 3 main things: 1) This niche might either be harder than average to build links in OR none of these websites are actively building links. 2) Assuming either of the first statements are true, you will likely see substantial benefits from a good link building strategy. 3) You should examine these sites to determine what other aspects of SEO they are doing well, which you might want to address on your own website before starting to build links.

Compare to other competitors.

You don’t have to compare everything your competitors are doing to your own efforts. Backlinking with intent to compare competitors against each other can help you identify niche trends that you can benefit from as well as what competitors are doing to set themselves apart. For example, you may notice that several of your competitors are all getting links from a particular website (and that could be a valid reason to “copy” them). On the other hand, this analysis might reveal that competitor A is targeting a different kind of customer than competitor B even though they both offer roughly the same product.

Similarly, if analysis for the top 10 websites ranking for any given keyword shows that they have an average of 1300 backlinks with the top 3 ranking sites having double or more than that, meanwhile none of the first page results have less than 600 backlinks, then you can have at least a rough idea of where you need to be before you can reasonably expect to rank among them. (That is just one example of information a link builder might take away from analyzing competitors. Don’t use that as an infallible formula for ranking.)

Identify what they’re not doing.

So you’ve got some competitors who are absolutely killing you in organic search. Through backlink analysis you know what they’re doing right, you know where they’re getting their links and how, but how does that ultimately help you to rank?

The real value in a backlink report is not that it tells you “ got ____ amount of links from _____ amount of domains with an average [insert random metric] of ____.” but rather what it helps you determine they *aren’t* doing. Finding a way to fill those gaps is what is going to set you apart and help you see benefit from link building.

Final Thoughts

It’s undeniable that there are times you’ll find opportunities to get great links by combing through the link profiles of your competitors, but that time is much better spent by building your own authority and finding a way to stand out. If you run an entire race in 2nd place, you can’t reasonably expect to win.

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