How many links will it take for my site to rank? What strategy do I implement to get top rankings for my keywords? If I had a grape for every time I heard this question, I’d be the happy owner of a lovely vineyard by now.
My answer to this question is unequivocally the same: It depends. It depends on the keywords you want to rank for. It depends on how many backlinks you currently have. It depends on your competitors strengths and weaknesses. It depends on your site’s user engagement stats. It depends on the amount and quality of content on your site. It depends on the quality of your current backlink profile, how many authoritative links you have, and how many are low quality links that need to be disavowed.
SEO is not for the faint of heart. It’s a mixture of science, voodoo, and faith. You can never get a straight answer, and even when you are following a sound strategy that makes perfect sense, the outcome of your efforts is an unknown.
For those that decide that the russian roulette that is Google organic is worth it, there are steps you can follow to establish a barrier to entry for top rankings in your niche. In this article, we’ll go through a step by step methodology to for competitive research that will become the framework of your SEO strategy.
1. Start with Keyword Research
If you don’t already have keyword data, you’ll need to start by coming up with at least a dozen potential keywords. The easiest way to start is by typing potential keywords that your visitors would search into Google’s keyword planner. You can then figure out some general keywords with monthly search volume.
Keyword research is a very complex process, one that I delve into in much greater detail in this article. For the purpose of competitive research, you simply need to identify some of your head terms by using simple tools like Google’s Keyword Planner or SwissMadeMarketing.
2. Identify your top 10 competitors
Now that you have your top keywords, go to semrush.com and type those keywords into the search bar and you’ll get a list of sites ranking for those keywords. Now the problem with using this data is that SEMrush will show you sites that may not always be relevant.
For example, if you are a Personal Injury Lawyer in Los Angeles, SEMrush may show you sites like avvo.com or other massive directories, that are definitely relevant but not in direction competition. So you need to check all of the sites that SEMrush returns to see if they are REALLY relevant. In the example below, yelp.com, avvo.com, and lawyers.com would be excluded from the list of direct competitors.
Next, you can take those keywords and type them into Google. You can visit the sites and check to see if they are in direct competition, and if they show up for many of the keywords you are targeting. Take note of sites ranking in the top 10 that are relevant and particularly if they show up for more than 1 keyword. Get at least 10 sites.
3. Gather KPI’s and Metrics
Next you’ll want to get some hard facts on the sites in the top 10. The metrics you’ll want to gather are:
- PR (even though it’s a legacy metric, it doesn’t hurt to have it)
- Domain Authority
- Trust Flow
- Citation Flow
- SEMrush Rankings
- Ahrefs Rank
- Referring Domains
You’ll want to put all of these metrics in a chart so you can gain an idea of the averages for these metrics for targeted, relevant sites.
I generally start with a report from LinkResearchTools called Juice, then I manually add the information that LRT doesn’t gather, like Trust and Citation flow.
4. Run a Competitive Landscape Analysis
One of my favorite tools offered by LinkResearchTools is their Competitive Landscape Analysis tool. It takes 10 competing sites and gets a long list of metrics, and then creates averages for each. Using CLA, you can get at least a dozen metrics for elements like Link Placement, Link Type, Link Location, Deep Link Ratio, and much more.
The reason this report is so valuable is because every single topical niche has different average metrics. Google knows better than to create a “hard” number and apply it to every single site/keyword. For example, the average amount of links for music sites will be many times greater than the average number of links for sites about moisture sensors.
Google has to calculate these averages on the fly for sites that are topically relevant in order to identify the averages and then to make sure that sites that are relevant for those terms have densities similar to the “norm”.
But how do you know what’s “normal” in your industry? What if you get too many links from the same link type, or too many links to your home page, etc? The CLA report gives you the insights you need to make decisions about the quantity and types of links you should build.
Here are some of the averages that you can get using the CLA tool:
- Link Type: text, image, redirect, etc
- Link Location: paragraph, in content, link list
- Deep Link Ratio: how many of the links go to internal pages vs the home page
- Theme of a Domain: How many links are to sites about Business/Economy, Vehicles, Computers/Internet, Reference, etc?
- Type of Site: CMS, forum, Blog
And there are at least a dozen metrics you could explore. These metrics will be used as part of your strategy to help you determine goals for the different metrics.
5. Check for Keywords Ranking in SEMrush
Typing your competitor’s URL’s into SEMrush will give you a list of the keywords that your competitors are ranking for. This will help you in a variety of ways:
- To determine other keywords you can target for your site
- Figure out how many terms they are ranking for which will help determine their overall authority
- Determine the authority of the domain based on the search volume of keywords they are ranking for
Not only will this help you expand your keyword research, it will also help you to understand the level of authority they have, especially when this is correlated with search volume and backlink profile data, which you will gather next.
6. Run Backlink Reports for your top 10 Competitors
Finally, run a backlink report for your top 10 competitors. We use both LinkResearchTools Backlink Profiler as well as Ahrefs link tool.
We use these to build a profile for each competitor’s backlink profiles to determine ranges for the authority of each of their backlinks. We’ll then segment them and figure out metrics such as the quantity of links with a Domain Authority between 50 – 60, the Link Velocity of links in their backlink profile, etc.
Researching the specific backlink profile for each competitor will give you all of the missing data you need to really understand your competitive profile. Who links to them? Do they have links from the media? How many authoritative links do they have?
Putting it all Together
Now that you’ve run all of the necessary reports, you’ll have a very clear understanding of your competitive space.
From the keyword research that you performed as part of steps 1 and 5, you’ll have a list of some of the top keywords to target, which will help identify the competitors and their link profiles.
You’ll gather all of the relevant metrics such as trust flow and domain authority, which will give you goals. For example, if your trust flow is 14 but the average of your top 10 competitors is 30, you’ll know you need to increase your trust flow to at least 30 before you start seeing a significant improvement in rankings.
Same with the other metrics. If your competitor’s average backlink number is 100 and you only have 20 links, you’ll know you need to get at least 80 more links. You’ll also want to measure the average authority of the links so you know not just how many links you need, but also how many of each authority level.
Finally, the CLA report will help you identify averages, which will also become your target numbers for each type.
Starting an SEO campaign without this data is like taking a trip in the mountains with your car lights off. You’re taking many risks by driving in the dark, particularly with the dangerous Penguin lurking about. This data will not only help keep your site safe from penalties, but it will help you determine exactly what you need to do to move the needle and see an impact in your rankings and traffic.