Backlink Research Shows How To Compete Elite (Part 2)

Author: Gab Goldenberg

What are your direct competitors doing in the way of backlink development? My research in over 30 verticals sheds some light on the question. This is part 2 of 2.

I posted Part 1 “What 70+ Hours of Backlink Checking and Research Shows…” on Search Engine Journal, in which I covered:

  • Practical uses for this competitive intelligence,
  • My methodology in conducting this research,
  • Some fun data points for niche research,

Here, I’ll go over these three points:

  1. Screenshots of the data,
  2. My analysis and conclusions,
  3. Some caveats.

At the end, I’d love to hear comments from people of all experience levels. Don’t worry about sounding “dumb,” because there are no dumb questions: a desire to learn shows great intelligence!

Again, big thanks to Alex Chudnovsky and his excellent team at Majestic SEO. They created the historical backlink comparison tool that made this all possible. They’re awesome :D!

The Raw Data From Majestic SEO

The screenshots below illustrate some of the data I used in making this analysis. The full data spreadsheet and all screenshots (including those not on this page) are available for download if you add my rss feed to your reader. If I put all the screenshots in this article, it would be data overload and look ugly.

Pay close attention to the vertical axis, as the increments it is measured in change from graph to graph.

Where 1 or 2 leaders were way ahead of their competition in backlink and/or referring domain counts, I took a second screenshot without them in the picture. This shows a clearer graph for comparison’s sake.

First, the single word keyword data:

Astronomy Sites

Nasa’s relationship depth is 50 M/210K = 238.1 links / referring domain on average. The people who like NASA, like it A LOT.

However, that probably also includes some major blogroll and/or sitewide link love. And as a general remark, NASA is just a really remarkable organization…

Yet despite that, NASA ranks second for astronomy… behind


So the MLB is killing it, and then the other competitors are average Joes. Impressive that you can rank without being ESPN, TSN etc.

Also, notice how is second only to the powerhouse brand that is the MLB? Despite having fewer links and referring domains by far?

Car Sites

Exact match domain + ridiculous amounts of links and referring domains FTW! Ahead of the big brand! Damn…

Education Sites

Good luck beating the government for that keyword.

Food Sites

What’s really interesting about this market? Three things:

  • 4/5 Ranking sites are major players in the food game – they’re big brand entities.
  • 4/5 Have keyword rich domain names.
  • 4.5/5 Are backed by major ideas that are in the popular conscience. FoodNetwork is a TV channel. Epicurious is a premium content brand, by that premium content brand company, Conde Nast. FoodTimeline is a ridiculously well researched resource that’s turned into linkbait. Whole Foods is of course the mega “healthy food” supermarket. And Slow Food is an anti-junk food reationary meme that got lots of press.

Jewelry Sites' Backlinks
Jewelry Sites' Referring Domains

I don’t really get why, but Blue Nile isn’t in the top 3 for Jewelry, despite killing their competitors in backlink and referring domain counts.

Job Sites

Newspaper Sites

Next, some 2-3 keyword data:

Archaeological Dig:
Ranking Sites For 'Archaeological Dig'

Buy Computers:
Sites Ranking for Buy Computers - Backlinks
Sites Ranking for Buy Computers - Referring Domains

Cat Food:
Sites on Cat Food

Domain Names:
Sites on Domain Names

The most ridiculous numbers in absolute terms, by far. But according to Alex and various observers, these are inflated by links from parked domains that don’t have much real value.
Movie Reviews:
Movie Review Sites

Nutritional Supplements:

Nutritional Supplement Sites

Analysis and Conclusions

All keywords are not created alike!

Different commercial niches with comparable search volumes could have radically different competition levels.

For example, cat food and nutritional supplements show comparable exact match search volumes. Yet the number of links and referring domains you need to rank are significantly different. Cat food has a median 19K links, and 2K referring domains. Nutritional supplements has 71K median links and 4K referring domains.

For a business with its choice of niches, this literally means that each hour spent researching amounts to months saved link building.

You still need qualitative data.

If I were only to look at the numbers, I might conclude that cat food is a much better niche to go after than nutritional supplements. But that might be misleading, because if you look at who is actually ranking, you’re likely to recognize several national brands of cat food, but only 1 brand in the nutritional supplements game.

This maybe means that you need lots of trust to rank for cat food, in which case you need to focus more on PR and brand advertising.

These metrics are guidelines, not the 10 Commandments.

In other words, they’re just data points to consider in making a decision. If a metric shows great or terrible, investigate further. Don’t stop your research there.

For example, while I consider sitewide links to be one possible indicator of a strong brand, it’s not perfect. Indeed, the cat food brands didn’t seem to have high backlink/referring domain ratios that would tend to indicate a brand (I explain this metric in more depth below).

Furthermore, it’s unclear to me what referring domain count is useful for, except to find nepotistic junk if all of someone’s links are from a single site.

You absolutely need to start doing SEO asap.

This is because your competition are building links at a really aggressive rate.

  • 60 of the 150 domains examined added over 1 million links last year.
  • 72 of these domains have 1 million plus links now.
  • 26 sites have 100,000+ referring domains. An additional 23 have 50,000 + referring domains. So 1/3 of the sites have 50,000+ referring domains. That’s some serious branding and relationship breadth to contend with!

Therefore, the historical numbers show that resting on one’s laurels isn’t enough, particularly in commercial niches.

Generic keyword domain names probably make life easier.

The data shows a really strong correlation between generic domain names ranking despite having fewer referring domains than competitors. As SEOs, we know that people link to us using our site names as anchor text, so thisĀ  likely explains what happens with a generic domain name. You need fewer sources linking to you as “abc” to rank for “abc,” when your name is “abc.”

While generic domains that ranked often had their referring domain counts mostly below the median, they had as many or even more backlinks than the industry median. In other words, they can focus on link numbers and pay less attention to link diversity.

There’s a separate sheet in the Excel file I’ve created that addresses generic domains only, for those of you who want to see the numbers more closely.

Caveats and Limits on the Research

The exclusions I made are a significant limit on the validity of my research:

  • I underrepresented blogs and other sites are located on subdomains of other sites, such as state government departments and university divisions.
  • These exclusions lead me to the second or third page of search results for 2-3 keywords (eg Law)!
  • Majestic SEO’s tool limits you to five domains to compare at once. So my research ended up looking at a broader selection of niches, but in less depth.
  • I excluded many powerful domain names like CNN that compete with everyone. Analyzing them repeatedly would be pointless.
  • – a redirect to Cnet – and few others’ numbers were odd, but don’t change much in the big picture. They’re highlighted in the spreadsheet.

If you liked this post on backlink research, check out my link building archives and add my rss feed to your reader. That will bring you my latest posts and research as soon as they’re published, AND let you download the spreadsheet and screenshots with all the raw data so you can run your own analysis.


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  1. Once again really good stuff. The broad diversity of terms approach is definitely an interesting way to attack affiliate decisions, and even if you're start a business in a specific niche and trying to identify a query space inefficiency I think this type of analysis is really useful. Great stuff! Tom

    Comment by Tom Demers - August 7, 2009 @ 3:56pm
  2. As per the Jewelry query, Blue Nile seems to have a partial penalty that's why they aren't ranking for "Jewelry".

    Comment by Stefan - August 10, 2009 @ 4:05am
  3. Interesting stuff Gab. One possible other influence though I wonder if you considered... Majestic SEO's coverage of the web. All the sites show growth in link numbers, but is this due to Majestic SEO increasing their coverage of the web or the individual sites? Even comparing like for like, if their crawl policy favoured particular sites could this result in some skewing in these graphs where one site appears to grow above another?

    Comment by Chris McGiffen - August 10, 2009 @ 5:39am
  4. what strikes me as odd is that the food networks and epicurious grew proportionately in links over time and even encountered some of the same uptake periods. How is that possible? My thought is that perhaps this is because of the MajesticSEO crawler ... that in it's infancy, only crawled a very small portion of the web and therefore listed very few links for each site. It could be that MajesticSEO has gotten increasingly better at finding links over the past 3 yrs (increased resources, funds, etc), crawling a siginificantly higher amount of links than it did in 2006. This would suggest that a lot of the sites graphed above HAVEN'T increased by XX million links in the past yr, but that the MajesticSEO crawler just FOUND those links (new or old) in the past year. In reality, these sites listed in the data could look more flat than a consistent linear-like growth in links since 2006. I'd be interested to find out from MajesticSEO, how much their database has grown since 2006 and if it is proportionate to the growths in links reported in your graphs above. Perhaps we need to wait for the MajesticSEO tool to fully mature before we can accurately compare historical link information.

    Comment by Simon - August 10, 2009 @ 11:34am
  5. Simon, If you go to MajesticSEO's site you will see this below all graphs: "Chart note: default monthly view shows data points for any given month. Since our crawl rates increased considerably since 2006 it is adviseable to either use normalized view and/or compare domains with each other in order to get more comparable data. "

    Comment by Andre - August 10, 2009 @ 3:24pm
  6. Unless you mean a position 6 penalty, I don't really see that being the case. I'm not looking at the data now, but I recall them being amongst those ranking for Jewelry.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 12, 2009 @ 12:22am
  7. Majestic's data is normalized relative to their growth in coverage. Good question! As to crawl policy, that's possible, but I'm not intimately familiar. Try emailing them - Alex and co. are a great group who'd be happy to answer questions, I'm sure.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 12, 2009 @ 12:23am
  8. Hey Simon, Good points. That said, Majestic have normalized the data relative to their crawl rate, so your point isn't a concern. Looking at sites I've worked on, it's fairly accurate in the general trend.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 12, 2009 @ 12:24am
  9. Hi guys! Thanks to Gab for writing very interesting article, was happy to help out with some numbers! Talking of which - our crawler indeed crawls more pages now than it was in 2006, a lot more - however on LIKE FOR LIKE basis, ie comparing data for the same period is valid even for old dates. Our charts now produce normalised (against crawl level) versions as well - The numbers that we supplied to Gab were normalised using this approach. Generally speaking we don't favour one site over the other - the only exception is (and couple more blog locations) that we crawl more deeply than most domains. Alex

    Comment by Alex Chudnovsky - August 21, 2009 @ 9:22am
  10. Thanks for the added information, Alex.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 23, 2009 @ 12:54pm
  11. Can anyone really compete for mainstream KWs with sites that have MILLIONS of backlinks? I mean, c'mon. Game over in those categories. But, very interesting data! Rob

    Comment by AtlantaRealEstate - September 20, 2009 @ 4:04pm
  12. It's a question of budget and of niche. You may not rank for cars, but you can rank for alternatives.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - September 20, 2009 @ 10:42pm
  13. GG: Yes, you are correct and that is what I'm contending with in my market right now. I'm doing a very long slow campaign to try and rank for the primary key words. This may take forever or may never be achieved. In the mean time, I'm putting up subpages with the goal of ranking for all the tier two KWs. This will generate huge traffic in itself and judging by the metrics I'm seeing, it's doable. RM

    Comment by AtlantaRealEstate - September 21, 2009 @ 10:27am
  14. Good to hear it RM! Would love to hear about your future progress on the topic.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - September 22, 2009 @ 11:45pm
  15. Gabriel: Thanks for the reply. I'll keep you posted if I can remember to! This week I'm travelling but expect to start designing 9 new pages next week, SEO'd for these KWs I talked about. Do you have any input on this. I'm debating which format to use for the URLs. I'm going to put them under my main domain:***here** My question is what would be the most effective: the-new-keyword-url.htm thenewkeywordurl.htm The_new_keyword_url.htm It's another one of these fuzzy deals on how Google "likes" it. Thoughts?

    Comment by AtlantaRealEstate - September 23, 2009 @ 12:17am

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