Backlink analysis is a big part of what we SEOs do. Not only do we want to take a look at our client's backlinks, we also want to know about the links to our client's competition. Unfortunately, this kind of analysis can be pretty time consuming – an hour spent analysing a table of links might yield ten worth visiting and one worth contacting. Not a great success rate.
Traditionally, backlink tools would just return a big list of links – the more comprehensive the better. This kind of raw data is great, but the horrible truth is that it doesn't actually tell us anything. We either have to physically look at the results, or use another program like excel to manipulate the data into something meaningful. The perfect backlink tool would not only bring back fresh, comprehensive data, it would sort it for us according to what we find important, highlighting the kind of backlinks we're interested in automatically.
While no backlink tool is perfect (yet?) there are some pretty good ones out there. Here's a review of some of the best.
Yahoo! Site Explorer
Probably the first tool that any aspiring SEO uses, Yahoo! Site Explorer still offer the best free backlink analysis out there. Easy to use, you just type in your URL and get the first 1000 links to a site, as well as a figure indicating the ‘real' total.
The links are ranked in some kind of order of importance* and they're presented in a really user-friendly way. Don't get me wrong – all you get is a big list of links so it's useless for in-depth analysis, but if you want a quick starting point or a broad overview of a link profile, Yahoo! Site Explorer is still great.
*I have no idea how Yahoo ranks links, but the order matches pretty closely with other backlink tools which use a specific measure e.g. Majestic ACrank.
Whilst not a backlink analysis tool, Google Webmaster Tools has backlinks in there. You have to verify the URL so it's only useful for your own or client sites (you'll get no info on your competitors here) – so why is it on the list? Well, most site owners use Webmaster Tools (right?) and it's cool because it gives you the list of links Google has found to your site.
It also shows the date that Google last discovered the link, which is a good indicator if you're linked to from trusted (i.e. oft-crawled) sites.
The pages on your site are listed in order of links, so the top-linked pages come first. This gives you a good indication of the most powerful pages on your site, and also helps you work out what sort of content gets the most links.
Drilling down a bit further, you can see the most popular anchor text people use in their links. The information is basic, but it's a good overview and you can identify any gaps in your anchor text.
Open Site Explorer
A recent offering from SEOmoz, Open Site Explorer first struck me as being similarly-named to Yahoo! Site Explorer, and trustworthy as a result. As with all SEOmoz products, it's nicely-designed and easy to use, with a big simple interface and lots of nice tabs and colours. The free version is pointless, only showing you information on the first 5 links, but I used the paid version for quite a while and really liked it.
Weirdly, the paid version only lets you see 10,000 links – this is enough for a lot of projects (I never found it an issue) but wouldn't you expect more from a paid tool?
Anyway, Open Site Explorer shows you the SEOmoz metrics of your domain (which are pretty good indicators IMO) and a broad overview of links and linking domains.
Links are ordered by Page and Domain Authority, and any nofollow/image/redirect links are clearly labelled.
Open Site Explorer lets you view four key metrics:
- Linking pages (like in the screenshot above)
- Linking domains
- Anchor text distribution (e.g. how many of each anchor text link to you)
- Top pages on your site
The top pages feature is interesting because if you run OSE on a potential link target, you can find the best pages on that site to get a link from.
You can compare URLs too, which gives you a colour-coded overview of domain strength/number of links to each site. Here we can see Piggynap lagging behind in Authority:
You also get two lists of links (one for each site) but there are no filter options (e.g. only show common links/only show unique links) so apart from a very broad overview the comparison function is a bit useless.
If you're happy with the SEOmoz Authority measures and you don't want to do much fancy analysis, OSE is a good tool. It's basically a list of links, with the type of link, anchor text and Authority – a step up from Yahoo! Site Explorer.
From £9.99 to £250 a month, Majestic SEO is a paid backlink tool, and in a way I admire that model. Why bother to offer 5 backlinks free when you can concentrate on an awesome paid offering? Still, paid tools need to offer something good, so what exactly do you get for your money?
Coming from Open Site Explorer, the admin looks hard to use – it's not very pretty and obviously aimed at the power-user SEO. There are two report options – standard and advanced. Standard gives you an overview of links, with a slightly complicated analysis of three versions of your domain:
Links are listed with follow/nofollow/image/redirect etc highlighted, and also the anchor text. They're ordered in importance using ACrank, Majestic's own ranking measure. The order pretty much agreed with SEOmoz and Yahoo! Site Explorer.
The cool thing about Majestic is that it gives you the date the link was discovered – if you run an advanced report you get a graph of your links over time (in case you were wondering, this isn't a graph of my site!).
Has anyone mapped this graph against content/PR? What a cool way to track the effectiveness of your (or your competitor's) marketing.
One of the results of having historical links is that some of them won't exist anymore. In the case of your competitors, this could mean a chance to get a link to your site (say if a sponsorship deal ended or your competitor removed a good resource people linked to). On the other hand, you may not want to have dead links in your reports. Fear not! You can filter them in or out with a few clicks.
Link Research Tools from Cemper
Another paid service, Link Research Tools is rather expensive at 20Euros for 24 hours or 1/200 for a month. You get a lot for your money however, including 5 types of report:
- Common backlinks
- Common outbound links
- Backlink/anchor text analysis
- Link juice analysis
- Strongest subpages
These report types are pretty self-explanatory – ‘Juice' is an in-house metric just like SEOmoz's domain authority or Majestic's ACrank.
When it comes to link analysis, this tool is the most comprehensive by far. It draws in link data from all over the place and gives you a huge amount of data in return.
If you're using Link Research Tools you don't have to go to Yahoo!, or Open Site Explorer, or Majestic – some of their data is presented for you. I think the only thing missing is Majestic's historical links. Interestingly, I only noticed Google Page Rank listed here too.
As you can see, there are a lot of complicated headings in the results page – I'd recommend reading the Help Text section. It tells you all about the different metrics and why they might be important to your backlink analysis. The reports also have really good ‘about' pages with text and video explanations.
The range of reports, including strongest subpages and common backlinks, is really useful and this, along with the sheer volume of information, is what makes Link Research Tool stand out from the other backlink tools available. Of course, you might not want to do this level of analysis but if you do, it's worth paying for.
It's not easy to pick a tool as the best one to use. Each does something different, basically getting more and more complex for more and more money! It really depends what you want to do – if you want to track links over time, use Majestic. If you want to know who links to all of your competitors, use Link Research Tool. I think as a standalone link tool Open Site Explorer isn't great, but with an SEOmoz Pro account you get access to the rest of their tools too.
Which one will I be using? Probably all of them