As a leading link building agency, we usually come across clients with all sorts of link building requirements, from all around the world. Despite their diverse requirements, one thing always stands out – most clients don’t even know what a link audit is, let alone why it’s SO important!
There are many reasons for this. Some of them don’t know how Google treats and rates their links, while some – bouncing off dubious SEOs – have already paid the price for owning links that do more bad to their SEO than good.
If you’re a link building agency or a business looking to view a no-nonsense picture of your website’s link profile, link audit is the only starting point you should consider.
- 1 Before We Start With This Link Audit Guide
- 2 What Is Link Audit?
- 3 Is Link Audit Really Necessary?
- 4 Can You Perform A Link Audit Yourself?
- 5 Every Link Audit MUST Cover These Points
- 6 Preliminary Link Audit – With An Example
- 7 1. Understanding The Number of Backlinks
- 8 2. The Speed of Backlink Acquisition (Link Velocity)
- 9 3. Number Of Referring Domains
- 10 4. Quality Of Referring Domains
- 11 5. Types of Backlinks
- 12 6. Anchor Text Profile
- 13 7. Looking For Obvious Signs Of Spam/Malicious Elements
- 14 8. A Quick Look Through Referring IPs
- 15 9. Broken Links
- 16 Before We Conclude – Second Opinion From SEMrush:
- 17 Link Audit, When Done Right, MAKES You Money!
Before We Start With This Link Audit Guide
The world of SEO can (and does) look very chaotic from the outside. Things move fast here – there’s little time to sit back and contemplate. This is exactly the reason why every good SEO agency relies so heavily on planning. If you don’t plan, you won’t make it – it’s as simple as that.
Planning is the essence of good SEO. A good campaign leads the way, an average campaign follows the script and a bad campaign just has no idea.
This applies very well to link building. A well-planned link building campaign will be always have an edge over a poorly planned, impulsive and – dare I say – amateurish campaign. And, as things stand, no link building plan can hope to work without a solid link audit foundation. (Here’s more about how to build an effective, snag-proof link building plan)
That begs the question – what exactly is link audit?
What Is Link Audit?
A link audit is the process of listing, grouping, assessing, analysing and vetting the backlinks to a given website. An important goal of link auditing is to understand the existing link profile in order to understand how it can be improved.
That may sound a bit complex – but it really isn’t.
Through the course of this post, we’ll tackle each aspect of link auditing in a systematic, methodical way. The aim here is to explain how leading SEOs and link building agencies go about this.
Is Link Audit Really Necessary?
A short answer – yes, absolutely.
As I’ve said many times throughout our series of link building blogs, don’t wait for the worst to come true before you act.
Just because Google hasn’t penalized your links yet doesn’t mean it will never happen. Just because you’re beating your competitors today doesn’t guarantee any success tomorrow. A thorough and timely link audit keeps you in the clear at all times. Prevention, after all, is better than cure.
At this point, it’s important to consider link audit as a standalone process, separate from all other SEO aspects. The point is not just to find faults – it is also to prevent potential link profile problems.
Why Link Audit Is Necessary – 3 Important Goals Of A Link Audit
A typical link audit aims to achieve three important goals:
You don’t just need backlinks – you need a lot of them. Of course, not all backlinks are made equal, and links from authority websites add a whole lot more to your link profile.
You may already know that backlinks act as ‘trust tokens’ for a given webpage and website – the more reliable the backlink, the more trustworthy the page. In that sense, all non-trustworthy backlinks – think spam, adult pages or notorious Private Blog Networks (PBNs) – distort, damage and ruin your link profile. Keeping such malicious links from destroying your website’s credibility is one of the primary objectives of link auditing.
2. Improving The Link Profile
There are many types of backlinks, and you’ll need all of them in right amounts to create a balanced, fully optimized and, more importantly, natural link profile.
A natural-looking link profile is a huge sign of credibility, as far as Google’s ranking algorithm goes. There are no special recipes for building such a link profile – the key lies in optimizing. The link profile may look perfect today, but a few hundred bad links tomorrow can easily disturb the balance.
A link audit tells you a lot about your website’s present link profile. If there are some inadvertent problematic areas (think too many forum/comment links, too many footer links, too few organic/editorial links or borderline spammy exact match anchor texts), you’ll find them right away, through a detailed link audit.
What this also means is that a link audit should NOT be looked at as a troubleshooting exercise . It is a lot more than that. It tells you exactly how your link building campaigns need to be planned. At Ghost Marketing, in fact, we dedicate a great deal of time in our internal meetings to perfecting case-specific link audits. Every hour spent doing something like this yields enormous dividends down the line.
3. Pulling One Over Your Competitors
Operating a business website is no mean feat. You have to be on your topes on all days – it only takes a brief slump in rankings before your competitors can steal money keywords from you.
Therefore, any and every process that gives you an edge over your competitors is massively important. When you perform a link audit on your website, you make sure that you see your website in the right competitive perspective (more about this will follow). This, in turn, gives you useful insights into:
- How your website performs in comparison with your competitors’
- Where you are outperforming your competition (amp these up)
- Where you are being outperformed (fix the problems)
This also opens up new doors for you. For example, if the link audit reveals that your competitor is scoring hugely valuable backlinks from a highly contextual, niche publisher, you can get in touch with them and negotiate link building opportunities. Here’s more about how competitor link analysis can help your link building campaign.
Do All Websites Need A Link Audit?
It’s easy – if your website is important for your business, yes, it does need regular link audits. If you’re running active link building campaigns, you need to make sure that your link building agency is paying enough attention to the link profile. If they aren’t, dump them.
In other words, a link audit is necessary for websites that:
- Act as lead gen machines
- Sell stuff online
- Build a loyal base of customers
- Create a reliable, easily detectable digital footprint
At Ghost Marketing, our thorough, scalable link building campaigns include deep, no-holds-barred link audits. Here’s more about our advanced link building process. To request a free, customised proposal, please get in touch with us.
Can You Perform A Link Audit Yourself?
For the sake of clarity, I will divide link building methods into two broad categories:
- Quick, Preliminary Link Audit (Tells You What You REALLY Need To Know)
- Quick – shouldn’t take you longer than an hour
- Doesn’t need many premium tools
- Provides you broad insights
- Ideal for assessing client leads
- Can double up as a routine link profile health check
- Thorough Link Audit (Tells You The Finer Points)
- Takes some time to complete
- Thorough, deep-reaching link analysis
- Gives you a complete understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly
- Requires a host of link building tools (At Ghost Marketing, we use bespoke, in-house link auditing tools and software)
- Best performed by agencies and experts
Since this post is primarily aimed at understanding what link audit is and how it is beneficial, we will keep the discussion limited to quick link auditing techniques.
You won’t need many premium tools for a quick audit. If you have access to a good, cutting-edge SEO link analysis tool (I prefer Ahrefs, it’s the most robust one out there), you can perform most tasks with a click of the button. In addition, you will need access to the Google Search Console of your website – and at least basic understanding of finding your way around its features.At Ghost Marketing, we use a diverse set of SEO and backlink analytics tools, in tandem with a variety of advanced programs and scripts we have created in-house. To learn more about how a thorough backlink audit helps your website grow organically, request a free proposal here.
SEO Tools I Recommend
Every Link Audit MUST Cover These Points
The whole point of conducting a link audit is to objectively, accurately and fairly judge the quality of a website’s link profile.
So, ideally, you’d want to cover every single aspect that relates directly/indirectly to backlinks. Of course, this isn’t possible when you limit yourself to a superficial audit. Nevertheless, I want to lay down the absolutely indispensable areas that every link audit must cover, without fail.
- Number of backlinks
- Backlink spread over a given time period (3 months to 2 years, in most cases)
- Number of referring domains
- Quality of referring domains
- Types of backlinks
- Anchor text profile
- Spam detection
- IP analysis of referring domains
- Broken link analysis
Preliminary Link Audit – With An Example
We have already discussed what we are trying to achieve when we conduct a link audit.
This applies to every SEO (or digital marketing) campaign you undertake – never lose sight of your end goals. Make sure your campaign is always moving in the right direction. Backlink audit is supposed to find faults AND give you new link building ideas. Maintain an objective approach, without getting tangled up too deep into the numbers.
So, where do we start? The obvious starting point should be Google Search Console and a premium link analysis tool like Ahrefs.
For this link audit guide, we will take a generic restaurant website as our example (www.kerlinbbq.com). Of course, we don’t have access to their Google Search Console account, so we will keep the discussion limited to the information returned to us by Ahrefs. Whenever we have to discuss the Search Console perspective, we will use one of our properties as an example.
Understanding the number of backlinks you have – to a particular section, page or the entire website – should always be the first step in your link audit, regardless of the end goals. An experienced link building professional can – by looking at the number of backlinks and the nature of the business – easily tell you a lot about the overall link health.
For this example, we want to conduct a sitewide link audit. For that purpose, we will use the domain feature on the Ahrefs dashboard, as shown below.
Ahrefs will now return the complete analysis of the website’s major SEO angles. Remember – we are only interested in the backlinks here.
Here’s what we will get right on the dashboard (no need to go into the details just yet).
As can be noticed, the website has – in total – over 3,500 links. Of these, 736 are live and 1,300+ are recent.
Live links are the ones that are presently being picked up by Google. These links are, essentially, the ones that aren’t broken or removed by the linking website. In all fairness, this is the number you should concentrate more on, moving forward with future link building campaigns.
Recent links are the ones that have been acquired in the last 3 months or so. These will be relevant when we dissect the link acquisition rate (in the following part of this guide, so stick around!).Remember – link building has long moved on from being a numbers-only game. The number of backlinks can tell you only so much!
A Quick Comparison With Top 5 Competitors
Competitor SEO is a wonderful thing. With a little bit of an effort, you can extend its principles to link audit in order to better judge the number of backlinks. You can use Ahref’s native features to find competitor names – it hardly takes longer than 5 minutes! (Ahrefs Domain Comparison)
We can notice here that our example website is on par with 3 competitiors, while the top competitor is clearly running way ahead of the pack (in terms of number of backlinks).
This gives us a better perspective for the number of backlinks. Please note that the number seen here corresponds only to live backlinks.
What To Look For
Many inexperienced SEOs and link building agencies make the mistake of not being flexible enough while carrying out link audits. Link building is not just science – it’s an art that has to be perfected over a period of time. (Check out our link building case studies to learn how this can add enormous revenue to the bottom line of your business).
Therefore, remember not to go by any rigid rules/norms. Always put the numbers in a perspective defined by the nature of the business you’re dealing with. In our case, it’s a restaurant business that more or less operates locally (albeit in multiple locations).
3,500+ links are good enough – unless the competitors are crushing them with tens of thousands of links. Furthermore, it’s also important to remember that for such businesses, the quality of the links is incredibly more relevant and important.
All things said and done, we can move on to the next part, knowing that the basic framework of link building for this website is in good shape at this point.
Google has made some huge updates to their search algorithms (you’re probably aware of them, already) in the past few years. What these updates have essentially done is to bring SEO closer and closer to ‘human’ behaviour, by accounting for things like locational relevance and searcher intent (case in point being local SEO and link building).
What I mean by this is that you can no longer rely on industrial scale growth machines to power your SEO – no abnormal spikes are overlooked by Google.
In that sense, it becomes important to not just look at the number of backlinks, but also to assess how and how fast they came about. Organic, natural link velocity acts as a perfect alibi for your link building campaigns. Manual penalties may be few and far between in 2019, but you just cannot risk the wellbeing of your SEO by acquiring thousands of backlinks (usually low-quality) in a matter of days.
As far as our example goes, here’s the analysis of their link velocity.
As can be seen, the website has acquired backlinks at a steady pace, over the course of last two years. As SEMRush indicates, ~1,100 links over two years is nice, organic growth that tells us that the link building efforts have been white hat, consistent and – in all probability – effective.
What To Look For
Whenever you look at the speed of link acquisition, you need to look for abrupt, out of ordinary changes in the graph. If you see a sudden spike in the number of links, ask yourself “WHY?!”. The same goes for a sudden fall in the number of backlinks.
A spike can indicate everything from a great, viral content piece to highly effective digital PR. On the other hand, a fall can mean all sorts of things ranging from Google penalties to ineffective (read: BAD) content and association with spam/low-quality websites.
3. Number Of Referring Domains
The link profile of any given website is judged based on multiple criteria – the ones we have talked about so far are the most obvious ones. Going beyond these, every link audit must take into account how the backlinks are spread across referring domains.
A natural backlink profile will have its links coming from a variety of referring domains. There won’t be hundreds and thousands of links from a single domain, nor will there be a perfect division across all referring domains.
Let’s illustrate this concept in the context of our example. Here’s how the referring domains for this website stack up:
There we see the first signs of worry – the website has been losing way too many referring domains every month. What does this tell us?
- The links acquired in this period may have been low quality and thus removed by the admin.
- The pages being used for link building may not have been useful to referring websites (bad context, low contextuality etc.)
- These links could have been broken.
What To Look For:
Look for the signs of abnormal growth/fall.
The overall rate of referring domains acquisition (domains gained – domains lost) should always be positive, week after week and month after month. If it isn’t, there is clearly something wrong with the website and/or link building efforts.
An average link building agency will rely only on bare numbers – but that is not how link building works at all. At Ghost Marketing, every link building campaign we plan and execute is designed to understand and meet the goals you have in mind. This includes a thorough link audit, competition analysis and quality-centric outreach. Get in touch with us here to request a free proposal.
4. Quality Of Referring Domains
Once we’re through with the quick quantitative analysis, it’s time to move on to some qualitative analysis.
Qualitative analysis is the hardest part of link audit, because you need to read between the lines and look beyond the numbers. This is exactly where experienced SEOs and link experts set themselves apart from the ordinary, number-crunching (for the want of a better word) amateurs.
While I am not at the liberty to reveal the trade secrets we use here at Ghost Marketing to analyse the quality of referring domains, I’ll let you in on some important points. These will, in no time, help you decide how to rate and judge the link profile, in terms of referring domains.
Let’s go back to our example. Here’s the breakdown of the referring domains (from Ahrefs).
This is a fairly high number (for a small website). It means that, generally speaking, each referring domain is contributing 10 backlinks to our website’s link profile. As far as I care, this is a sign of concern. It tells me that the link building efforts are lacking in outreach. They probably have access to a small group of media/link hosts, whom they approach over and over again. Going deeper down this rabbit hole reveals some interesting info:
The other top 10 referring domains also look good, with the exception of a couple of low DA hosts (you don’t always need to worry about those).
Going further, we can see that there is absolutely no representation from inherently high-authority domains (.gov, .edu). I understand that it can be difficult for a restaurant business to get these, but it’s not at all impossible. At Ghost Marketing, our creative and novel link building strategies have regularly brought on board links from governmental, educational and charity websites.
What To Look For
Ideally, I would want the backlinks/RD ratio to be less than 5 for small websites (less than 100 pages crawled and fewer than 1,000 backlinks in place, for example).
It’s okay to have this number as high as 100 in some cases, if the website is large enough and the number of backlinks is VERY high.
Let me, however, reiterate – the smaller this ratio is, the better it is likely to be in terms of spread. I understand that increasing the number of referring domains can be expensive, and many link building agencies just choose to get dozens of links from one host.
The goal here is to optimise such efforts and not go overboard. This is, even in the best case scenario, only a relative metric, in that it is to be understood in the case-specific context (no need to treat this as a thumb rule, as there will always be exceptions).
The only point I’m making here is this – backlinks need to be satisfactorily spread across domains. Having thousands of backlinks from one domain (regardless of its DA score) will always be less beneficial than having the same number of backlinks from a hundred different domains.
This is one of the most important pieces of the overall link audit puzzle – get this wrong, and the rest of the exercise will be utterly meaningless (I hate to sound this harsh, but it is what it is).
There’s a reason I have for discussing the quality of referring domains before taking up the types/quality of backlinks. Referring domains clearly define the types of backlinks, and that allows us to paint a clearer picture. If you only assess backlinks without knowing how they are spread across referring domains, you only come up with an incomplete picture.
Moving on to the example at hand, here’s the analysis of types of backlinks:
Let’s assess the quality of referring pages. This will give us a better understanding of the quality of links (referring domain quality = the quality of overall domain, referring page quality = the quality of the individual page on which the link is placed).
At Ghost Marketing, we always put emphasis on quality. It’s okay to have the majority of links coming from pages of URL rating <20, but, this gives us an obvious incentive to chase high quality pages in order to improve the spread. If your website has at least 2% of links coming from pages with URL rating >20, it’s a good start.
There are several factors you need to consider while assessing the quality of a link. Here’s all you need to know about the top types of backlinks from a link generation point of view. The main factors to consider are: dofollow/nofollow attribute, link type, contextual relevance, domain authority, page quality.
How Are These Links Being Served?
It’s a VERY important point that even the best link building agencies miss. A good link builder will always know how their links are being served by the host. Some questions you should seek answers to in this regard:
- Are all links being anchored to text?
- Is there any room for diversification?
If you look at the link analysis we discussed (for the example at hand), here’s what can be seen:
A miniscule amount comes from images – no amount comes from ‘forms’ (this basically refers to clickable buttons/script). In summary, there’s a LOT of room for diversification here.
As a link builder, I’ll make notes in my account that this client will benefit images, infographics, videos and JS questionnaires/feedback forms/quizzes that produce backlinks. Just free your mind and think about it – a restaurant website can acquire hundreds of backlinks from exquisite menu images, recipe videos, fan quizzes and so on!
What To Look For
Remember – this is qualitative analysis. Don’t make up your mind if you aren’t sure about the numbers you’re getting.
The most important point here is to judge how diverse the links are. I call it the link pyramid. The foundation is the bulk of your link – they can be from low-quality domains and pages, it doesn’t matter (as long as such links aren’t malicious). As you move up the pyramid, you should get more and more high-quality stuff – authority domains, high URL pages, awesome social signals, brand anchors and whatnot.
6. Anchor Text Profile
Anchor text is the text to which a link is ‘anchored’ (I’m sure most of you know what it is).
Anyway, anchor text is an important part of the overall ‘value’ a link brings on board. The better, more contextual the anchor text is, the easier it is for Google to understand the relevance and context. This is the easiest and most practical way of looking at anchors.
That said, I find myself surprised every time we audit the link profile of new clients – most pay absolutely no attention to anchor text diversification. A typical small business website will have 95% or more brand name anchors – a sheer waste of link profile potential.
Let’s see how our example website fares as far as anchor text profile is concerned.
The results, like I just said, are more or less predictable.
As you can see – the top 4 anchors (the ones that account for 83% of dofollow backlinks) are all branded, exact match and URL anchors. What this means is that the website has covered its tracks for all those searchers who look up “Kerlin BBQ”.
Now, let’s consider this logic – if I already know the name of a restaurant, I’m very likely to be a repeat customer. On the other hand, if I look up for other ‘money’ phrases in this context (think, “bbq restaurant near me Austin”, “best BBQ in Austin TX nearby” etc.), I’ll never see this business in top 10 results – because Google doesn’t have enough anchor information to go by.
Moreover, there are only FOUR backlinks with an anchor text that includes the location of the business (Austin) – this just doesn’t cut it for a local business. Off the top of my head, I can already think of a couple of very good locational and contextual anchor texts: “best bbq restaurant in Austin”, “barbecue menu in Austin” (of course, these will need to be cross-checked and fine-tuned these against search volumes).
Now, with this much information at hand, we can safely say that future link building efforts will need to be targeted towards anchor text diversification. (Here’s more about what anchor text diversification is, why it’s important and how you can go about achieving a perfect anchor text profile for your website).
At Ghost Marketing, all our link building campaigns take into account the importance of balancing anchor text – an aspect many agencies ignore, because it can be very tedious to convince the link hosts. To request a free proposal from our team of experts, please contact our team here.
What To Look For
When you’re looking at the anchor text profile of a website, you get an instant insight into how they are building their links. Some important aspects that your link audit must take into account are: how anchor texts are diversified, how much contextual relevance there is to top anchors and if at all any anchors look spammy/irrelevant/harmful in any other way.
7. Looking For Obvious Signs Of Spam/Malicious Elements
Having backlinks is important – so is not having malicious, spammy links that associate your website with internet’s bad actors in Google’s eyes.
That, however, doesn’t mean that you can sit back and let the spam infestation grow. Trust me, I’m using the word ‘infestation’ very carefully here, because spammy websites are very good at multiplying at a fast pace.
So, how do we find them?
There are some quick ways to find such links. The first step is to check the overview of how the referring domains are distributed across various CTLDs (country specific domains like .us, .uk, .cn etc.). Ignore all the GTLDs at this point (e.g. .com, .org., .net etc).
Ahrefs does this nicely. Here’s the review for our example:
As I’ve said multiple times throughout this link audit guide, you want to always be on your toes while looking at numbers. For example, if your business is based in Japan and you observe a high number of referring domains from, let’s say, Nigeria or Norway – you may want to ask your link building agency some tough questions.
The next step in zeroing on spammy backlinks is to sift through anchor texts – these are often dead giveaways and you’ll find them easily.
Here’s an anchor profile report from one of the competitors for the website we’re using as an example.
It has absolutely no relevance to a bbq restaurant website, and I’m pretty sure it’s a negative SEO attack, concentrated around some Chinese spammy website. You can mark such instances in your account and deal with them later.
Another good way of sorting such links out – very quickly – is to go to the referring domains report. Here’s an example:
I have set up the dofollow filter (for the sake of clarity) and sorted the referring domains from low DA to high DA. As it turns out, there are quite a few domains with EXTREMELY low domain authority – a sign of possible spam.
8. A Quick Look Through Referring IPs
IPs are, in the simplest of terms, the numerical addresses that correspond to web addresses. Every website has one. Entering the IP directly into your browser’s address bar will take you to that particular website. For example, 18.104.22.168 is the IP for Google.com.
Sorting the referring domain IPs gives us an absolutely incredible insight into where the links are coming from. More importantly, it’s a very good way of detecting potentially harmful backlinks.
I ran the search using Ahrefs for our example website, and here’s what it returned:
Common IP hosts is a peculiar characteristic of Private Blog Networks (PBNs). So, if you find such websites linking back to yours, act quickly and disavow them.
Okay, now let’s expand the details for these two. Here’s what we get:
On the other hand, the second IP is being used as a host by Airbnb’s various sub-domains – perfectly fine!
9. Broken Links
Building links is a tough task. Every good link adds money to your bottom line via improved SEO and referral traffic. So, it makes every sense for a business to spend time, energy and money not only to acquire backlinks, but also to preserve them.
It’s common for website’s to go through multiple iterations and reviews (we revamped our own website, not too long ago!). During that process, if you aren’t careful, you may end up changing the URL structure of your pages permanently – and this leads to broken links. Similarly, pages moved to the trash will return the dreaded 404 to the user.
But that’s only half the truth.
Googlebots following links to such pages will see nothing but a 404 message. So, all the SEO goodwill and link juice (an outdated term, but it conveys the meaning perfectly) will be lost.
Ahrefs gives you a ready-made broken link analysis. This is what it looks like:
Backlinks from authority domains are just being wasted here, thanks to non-existent URLs. This should be an important part of every link audit because it can restore links that are already present, without costing you a penny more.
Fixing broken links depends on what you’re trying to achieve, but in most cases, a simple 301 redirect to the homepage does the trick.
Before We Conclude – Second Opinion From SEMrush:
At Ghost Marketing, we use SEMrush in limited capacity, mostly to confirm our findings and research (a second opinion, nothing more).
If you find the overall link audit procedure overwhelming, you can always get a premium subscription to SEMrush and run an automatic link audit. I don’t trust much the results from such audits, but it’s a handy way of going about this if you don’t have the necessary expertise.
Here’s a link audit report from SEMrush for our example website:
It gives us an instant confirmation that there are no major threats in terms of malicious backlinks and the credibility of referring domains.
Link Audit, When Done Right, MAKES You Money!
Link audit is enormously important because it not only saves your business a great deal of money, it actually makes you more money by adding that extra bit of strength to your future link building efforts.
An experienced link building agency will always run a thorough link audit before they take a client on. It may not look like it, but link audit more or less determines the effectiveness, efficiency and thus, the eventual ROI of every link building campaign.
At Ghost Marketing, we have an illustrious track record of building diverse, high-quality links to a variety of business websites around the world. Do take a moment to check our case studies out to familiarize yourself with our work.
You can always reach out to us here to request a free, fully customised proposal.