Since I’ve started online, there’s been one method of building links that everyone seems to think is purely “whitehat” and acceptable – copycat SEO. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the concept of simply discovering your competitors’ backlinks and copying them.

Hide and seek

What’s the problem with that, you ask?

Links Can Be Cancer

I don’t like to throw that analogy out much – my dad passed away from cancer in 2000. I know it’s a subject that’s affected many people – but there are few analogies that fit better.

The concept is foreign to many (Links are cancer, what?)…and as Jesse recently commented about my services page, asking if I did anything besides an “SEO analysis” like link-building, or other activities (the answer is yes, I do, but that question sparked this post)…

Well I realized something.

See, we still think that ranking is all about build MORE LINKS!

The equation is simply:

More links = better rankings

But something new happened in 2012. The links we have (or the links our competitors have) can be literally tripping filters preventing better ranking. Links can be toxic and carry a penalizing effect.

That concept still hasn’t hit home for many.

We tend to think about links like they’re part of an old-school scale or balance: if we get more good links, they’ll out-weigh the bad links, and we can rank fine, right? Classic Scale of Balance

Not so fast, and not anymore. Once upon a time, that may have been how things worked – and I’m not a Google engineer (nor do I play one on television) – but from working with clients, I’ve seen sites where these cancerous backlinks (and other quality signals, like duplicate content for instance) acted like an anchor.

The rankings simply wouldn’t budge beyond a certain ceiling no matter what sort of link building was in place. The answer was:

  • Identify the toxic links (and other barriers to entry) first.
  • Remove as many as possible.
  • OR start fresh in extreme cases.

If you read many “Panda recovery” or “Penguin recovery” stories, most if not all of them have a link removal facet to the story, along with a reinclusion request sent to Google – but the point is to get rid of the cancer before expecting good health to return.

Not to mention the glaring fact that Google released their link disavowal tool – why the need if bad links don’t hurt your site? Frankly, bad links can hurt.

Which brings me to the reason why I’m big on analysis these days…and the problem with “Copycat SEO” as it’s been called.

What’s Changed in Copycat Tactics

Finding a list of URLs that your competitors have built links on is insufficient for your own link-building, unless you qualify those competitors first.

But here is where most jump ship: most will simply see that site is ranking for their keywords “blue widget, blue widgets on sale, and best blue widget.”

Well hey! Those are MY keywords, too!

I know – I’ll simply copy their backlinks…

The problem with that is that maybe those keywords are simply too easy to rank for to begin with (long tails are that way by nature), so a site ranking for those long tail phrases may simply be one of a few actually trying for those rankings. What you can’t tell is the quality of the site itself.

Who would you rather copy – the site ranking for some random long tail search query – or the site ranking across the board in your niche for dozens of keywords, and dozens of competitive keywords at that?

Copycat tactics usually don’t go the route of checking these more competitive keyword phrases, and don’t bother with looking at the strength of a website by checking things like the frequency of how often a site ranks in the top 10 across a vertical…

Inevitably, most copycats will end up “stealing” backlinks from a toxic backlink profile, or end up copying a site that’s on the verge of a penalty (or in the middle of a penalty). That’s why it matters to first filter your list of competitors that are worthy of copying to begin with.

The Best Use of This Tactic

This method isn’t “over” or at least shouldn’t be thrown out – it’s still one of the easier ways to discover new linking opportunities that you’ve missed. In my own niches I’ve canvassed sites and have found out how they’re ranking with very little linking – they just link smarter than I have.

And that’s the best use of copying your quality competitors. You can’t possibly come up with all the ideas in marketing your site; chances are your top competitors have done that research for you, though.

The best use of copying your competitors is simply that: borrowing their best ideas.

(Of course finding out who’s “the best” in your industry being the often-missing element.)

Maybe you can’t get 100% of their top PR 5 or 6 links – but you discover how they managed to pull those links off (maybe it was a breaking news story, a public relations stunt, sponsoring a local marathon for a needy charity, running a contest or whatever).

Why reinvent the wheel when it runs just fine?

Some Easy Ways to Find Quality Opponents

One of the most affordable places to find your competitors, and easiest places to discover other competitive intelligence: SEMRush – I’ve been using it for my own sites and for client work recently and chose it above competitors mainly for its cost effectiveness and the sheer amount of data you can export.

At $69.95 a month, I can’t possibly max out the amount of reports I have access to. Other services that are similar in use cost more and place more restrictions on your exportation of data, for my work I found their service at SEMRush to be more than I needed at a more-than-fair price.

But let’s say you didn’t want to pay that per month – that’s understandable. Then what desktop solutions can you roll with?

Well the two software I’ve used for finding competitors are SERPAttacks and A1 Keyword Research tool. The tradeoff, as you might expect, is computing resources, time and the need for proxies when running SA.

Alternatively, you can hire me to do your research. :)

(Hey, it’s my blog, expect some self-promotion.)

Between SERPAttacks and A1 Keyword Research, I prefer A1 for this sort of research because you get all the information in one CSV, with SERPAttacks currently the process takes a little more work.

Essentially, in SERPAttacks you’ll open the “SERP Analyzer” module and feed it your list of keywords. It will (much like Market Samurai or Traffic Travis) show you the top 10 (or you can dig deeper than the top 10) sites, along with other stats about each site.

You get every keyword phrase as a “tab” that you export as an HTML document. Since it’s in HTML, that makes for more work to export the data. I’ve used the “Multi-Links” add-on for Firefox to scrape those results and put them into a spreadsheet.

Once in a spreadsheet, it’s just a matter of organizing the list according to domain name. I’ve been running Scrapebox to get my list of URLs “trimmed to root” and that makes the task much easier, but organizing the data alphabetically will do essentially the same thing.

In time I wanted to streamline this, so I tried the A1 Keyword Research tool, and that tool does a lot more than what I’m describing here, it’s a very robust keyword analyzer tool with functions for PPC and SEO work – but it has a “position analysis” function where you can feed it a list of keywords and it will check the top 10 results in the search engine of your choice (I stick with Google organic in the U.S. since that’s where I compete).

Unlike the SERPAttacks method, A1 will give you that list of URLs (and a lot of information like meta data and other stats) in one document. Export it as a CSV and you can go from there.

Over and above those methods, I finally opted for SEMRush because my time is worth it. I simply qualify competitors by making sure they’re ranking for their terms currently using one of my various rank-checkers (SERPAttacks usually).

The trick here, though, is to choose “seed keywords” that are both from the “long tail” of search to find your head-to-head competitors, as well as choosing keywords that are more competitive head terms. Sites competing in the shorter “head terms” in your vertical tend to have more quality signals than those living strictly in the long tail of search…

But all that to say: think before you copy. SEO starts with analysis, not with link-building blindly. Otherwise you could be throwing good money after bad, like giving someone with a terminal disease the advice to eat right and exercise and expect good things.

You have to diagnose and treat the more pressing problems, first.

By the way, if you could take a few minutes to share this post on your social networks (the buttons floating at the left should help), that would mean a lot to me. Thanks again for dropping by.

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