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SEM Data: How to Perform Backlink Analysis

July 30th, 2011

sem dataWhether you use SEO software or compile a bunch of Excel spreadsheets on your own, it is important to know how to use all of the SEM data at your disposable — after all, it can quickly become overwhelming. Although I have written previously on how social-media today is starting to influence a website’s ranking in search results, the fact remains that one’s backlink profile will likely remain a significant ranking-factor for the foreseeable future as well. As a result, it is important to analyze existing and potential link-gaining opportunities as part of any overall Internet-marketing strategy.

Below you will see an image with an excerpt of the top of my Firefox browser. When I perform SEO analysis, I use search-optimization software items including the SEOmoz Toolbar, the SEO Book Toolbar, the Blekko Toolbar, and the SEO Quake Toolbar:

sem data

(I’ve compiled a list of many of the available free and paid items on the SEO-Software Tool page here at the site.) While at least one of the tools contain interesting data — Alexa Rank, the country in which a site is based, the number of pages indexed, and so on — the most-important information for my purpose in this post is that which pertains to the external links that are coming to the site. In the top SEOmoz information, the two items to the right of the “log in” button list the number of pages linking to the current page and then the number of domains linking to the current domain. The middle SEO Quake toolbar — the items fifth and sixth from the left — lists the same information as determined by Yahoo! The bottom SEO Book tool lists contains link information from Yahoo! and Majestic SEO.

If, like me, you obsess over data, you will notice one thing: All of the numbers are different! (If you use Google Webmaster Tools — which, of course, is absolutely crucial — then you will see even more numbers there.) Without going into too much technical detail, the short version of the reason is that each software platform indexes and calculates link information differently — just like how different search engines themselves index and rank the Internet differently. Each company, we presume, has a secret, patented algorithm that will provide a different results.

Using SEM Data to Improve Backlink Profiles

Of course, SEO experts will debate from now until digital kingdom-come which one is “better” and gives the most-accurate information. But that’s not the point. Each tool, in its own right, contains information that can be pulled and then compiled together with the others for analysis. I’ll refer to an axiom from my days as a journalist before I started offering SEO-consultant services after working in Internet marketing in Boston and Israel: More information is always better. (Or, conversely, you can never have too much information — unless you’re Duran Duran. Tangent with memories of junior-high school: My favorite song from that album.)

So, here is one brief example. (I’ll opine more in later posts.) Obviously, this site targets the main keyword “seo software.” Here is an example of the site’s current backlink-profile, according to Blekko:

sem data

 Now, here is the same information for Traffic Travis, the site that ranks first in Google for non-personalized searches just now from the United States:

sem data

Now, based on this one tool, I can surmise the following:

  • My SEO Software has 2,177 links from 24 domains while Traffic Travis has 12,832 from 456 domains
  • Traffic Travis has links (and I do not) from sites including YouTube, Search Engine Watch, and CNET

And those are just two basic observations. After running similar checks on all of the toolbars and software that I have mentioned, it will be possible to ascertain many — if not most — of the existing links gained by your website and those of your competitors. All of the information can then be combined into a single file showing all links based on what all of the analytical sources state.

However, at this point it will be easy to fall into a trap. If you have a site like mine, you will see that you have roughly 10,700 fewer links than the site that is ranking first for your desired keyword. So, your first thought may be: “I need 10,700 links — stat!” But, wait — it is important to understand that not all backlinks are created equal. Using an inefficient backlink-strategy — or, even worse, using black-hat SEO software to achieve that result — will be a waste of time in the long run.

It is impossible to quantify what I am about to say since search engines keep their valuable algorithms a secret, but the general view among SEM experts is that Google views a certain set of sites in every industry, subject, and sector as “authoritative.” (Metrics like Google PageRank can help to identify which sites are “authoritative,” but it is impossible to know for sure.)

If you publish a site on, say, baseball, then a link from ESPN will be far more valuable than a link from a random baseball-fan’s blog — but a link from the fan’s blog will be more valuable than a link from a random website on, say, cooking. It is a matter of link “quality,” not “quantity.” Links from the same industry are better, and links from the authoritative sites within that industry are the best. So marketers need not focus so much on the number of links per se. If you write a blog on politics, a single link from the New York Times or Fox News will likely be far more valuable than one hundred links from random political-bloggers whom, compared to the major news-sites, no one reads.

So, when it comes to developing a link-building strategy, the general process is threefold:

  • Determine what links have been gained by the sites that are outranking yours.
  • Gain the same links from the same domains. (After all, in business, one tactic is to match what your competitors are doing — and then surpass them.) In the example of my site versus Traffic Travis, I may choose to create YouTube videos showing how I optimize a website and conduct keyword research — and then add backlinks to my site from the YouTube video. To gain a link from CNET, I may create a nifty SEO tool and then convince the media company to list it in their directory of SEO platforms. The point is to do whatever it takes to match your backlink profile to that of your competitors.
  • Gain links from authoritative sites within your industry through the same type of tactics.

Whenever I see websites and companies that purport to offer quality SEM and backlink-building services, I usually laugh because they almost always resort to tactics including comment spamming and directory submissions. While these methods sometimes offer some benefit, they are rarely worth what they are charging their clients. True, quality, white-hat SEO takes time and money. And this should not surprise anyone who works in business — nothing that is quality every comes quickly or cheaply.

Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.