Published on by: James H. Hobson
A strategic link audit process is an essential part of every search engine optimization initiative. When you have completed a comprehensive link audit you will have the information needed to develop a customized link building strategy that improves search engine ranking and mitigates problems caused by improper link building practices and algorithmic driven ranking losses.
If your goal is to improve your search engine rankings, ultimately your backlink footprint is more important than the number of links to your site. Your link profile must be carefully managed. It is worth mentioning that every part of your link building efforts should be done in an ethical and white-hat manner. Link building is an acceptable SEO practice if you understand the guidelines. It is almost a certainty that your link audit will uncover technical SEO problems.
How to Start Your Link Audit
The first step in the process is to complete a basic benchmarking process for the client site to identify existing links, evaluate the quality of each link and attempt to identify problems such as broken links, low quality or harmful links (links from bad neighborhoods). As you move through the process you should keep in mind what information is going to be the most valuable in helping you with your specific needs and keep appropriate notes.
Typical Link Related Problems and Needs
- 1) Getting a new website into competitive rankings.
- 2) Moving an existing site up for existing rankings, or developing new rankings for top keywords.
- 3) Corrective actions to mitigate ranking loss, de-indexing, or similar issues.
- 4) Establishing a good understanding of your link footprint’s health and overall quality.
- 5) You need to resolve issues reported in Google Webmaster Tools.
Why You Should Consider Doing Competitor Site Link Audits
The Benchmarking Process
Link Audit Tools and Backlink Checker Tools
Make no mistake, a link building audit is tedious and time consuming. Fortunately there are numerous online link tools that make the work a bit lighter. While paid services offer the most robust tools some of these backlink data providers have free versions. Some recommended sites:
- Ahrefs.com is one of our all-time favorites. This site has a great menu of tools, pulls accurate and detailed information. A free account is available however we recommend subscribing to any of the three services with monthly fees from $79 to $179 to $499. This is a TOP PICK by our team.
- ScreamingFrog is a free desktop program which spiders site links, images, CSS, scripts and more.
- Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) is a free tool which must be added into your Google account. This tool allows you to manage key settings that matter to Google, and is a top go-to place for information on how Google sees your link profile, and link problems perceived by Google.
- MajesticSEO is an extremely robust SEO tool that offers a free version and paid versions priced out at $50, $150 or $400 per month. The site comparison tool, keyword checker and history tool are just part of what makes MajesticSEO a top tier service provider. This is a TOP PICK by our team.
- Open Site Explorer is a product offered by the folks at SEOmoz. You can run with a 30 day free trial before you elect to subscribe to SEOmoz Pro for only $99 per month. This is a solid SEO tool.
- WebCEO is a subscription based service that is handy for link checking of a client site and competitor sites. This tool has additional functionalities that can help you with various SEO tasks.
The Google Disavow Tool
It could be argued that Google’s quest to slaughter link farms and spammy link sellers was elevated with the release of the Disavow Tool. Google has empowered the SEO community and website managers to identify bad link sites and sources. There is a specific manner in which this tool is to be used, and its power may be more than you imagine. Our recommendation is to use this tool for only extreme problems, especially if you have received one of the dreaded notices in Google WMT.
Personally, I’ve yet to find a single link checker tool that I believe finds or posts every backlink. You can anticipate some variances in the information delivered by various sites, tools and software. Chances are that the links that don’t show up are of little consequence, and the links that are the most important will be captured by every link search tool.
Some of these tools enable you to export search results in spreadsheet form. This is extremely handy for managing data and working with clients. With a little effort you can modify one of these spreadsheets into a link tracker tool. You can use the new link tracker tool as a manifest where you add newly created links and maintain a good record of link building activity.
The Truly Important Site Metrics
For a new site the process is simply one of carefully earning and gaining links from relevant sites, and taking steps to not let any particular keyword or phrase become a majority percentage of your total backlink footprint. You may choose to use these services to measure your link velocity (rate at which you acquire links) which normally is relatively even, or use backlink data on competitor sites to support your own link building efforts.
For an existing site you have a two-fold process. Part one is to amend problems such as broken links or killing off bad links. Part two is moving forward to manage your link profile to present a natural footprint. It’s probably fair to say that until 2012 most of the top ranked sites spent a lot of time and effort to acquire links rapidly, in mass and through a variety of methods which were once tolerable SEO methods. Link building rules have changed so more attention needs to be focused on improving quality, maintain a measured pace and abandoning the wild west ways of link building.
For your link audit you should, at a minimum, acquire the following metrics:
- List of domains that link to your site
- Anchor text for each link
- Target URL for each link
Other information to obtain, understand and leverage:
- Percentages of predominant anchor text
- Percentage of sitewide or non-sitewide links
- Percentage of links that are dofollow or nofollow
- Page Title – missing, duplicated, or over 70 characters in length
- Meta Description – missing, duplicated, or over 160 characters in length
- Errors and Redirects – temporary, permanent, 3XX, 4XX, 5XX, no response
A good link audit requires both knowledge of how to acquire data, and an understanding of what the data implies or means. For example, compiling a list of anchors text is one thing but you need to carefully analyze the anchor text for long-tail or short-tail, exact match, etc. It’s important to note how well your existing links have been used to increase the ranking value of multiple site pages, and notice whether or not the anchor text used for each page have created a tight link theme.
If you’re feeling particularly energetic or curious you can progress into a granular analysis of the links to each page and the page itself. Taking time to measure the quality metrics of each link can open your eyes to less obvious areas for improvement. An example would be trying to reconcile why two pages, each with the same number of links have vastly different organic rankings. Yes, competitive pressure is a factor but perhaps a line item review of the links would reveal the lower ranked page having links from pages with a high number of outbound links, low trust level, foreign hosting, or other seemingly meaningless details.
As you work through this process you need to make a lot of notes, carefully consider the details and never lose sight of the big picture. You should absolutely make sure that you understand the significance of any changes, modifications or additions that you pursue. If you have properly educated yourself you can complete a link audit that will lead you to the path of better rankings.