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How to Do Link Audit SEO: A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide

Link auditing is the process of managing external links. Managing links—in this case—can refer to finding sites that link back to you, removing (disavowing) bad backlinks, and assessing potential link building opportunities.

The goal is to improve a site’s search engine results page (SERP) ranking through proper link optimization.

Needless to say, link audits are an important part of SEO. No company, marketer, online retailer, or blogger should forego SEO audits as they will help you outperform your competitor.

In this post, we’ll show you how you can use link audits to identify your best and worst links. We’ll also introduce you to some of the best tools and processes to meet your objectives.

If you have great links, you’ll learn how to track and monitor them so you can retain (if not improve) your rankings.

As for bad links, we’ll show you what actions you can take to prevent your site from going down the search rankings.

We’ll go step-by-step so you can follow along.

Let’s begin.

Step 1: Gather Your Links

You can’t assess your backlinks without knowing which sites link back to you. So your first step would be to find and compile all your backlinks.

This is not something you can do on your own. You will need special tools commonly referred to as backlink checkers. These can crawl the web to find pages that point back to any of yours.

There are two types of backlink checkers you could use:

  • Free Backlink Checkers — Anyone could access and use free backlink checkers. The downside is that in most cases, these tools lack features or puts a cap on how many pages it displays in the results. Smaller sites might get away with free backlink checkers though.
  • Paid Backlink Checkers — If you’re serious about checking your backlinks, we recommend that you use paid backlink checkers. Not only do they give you access to features you won’t find in free versions, but you also remove any cap placed in the results. Some companies offer free trials so you can experience everything these tools have to offer.

Free Backlink Checkers

If you’re leaning toward the free route, we recommend that you start with either Ahrefs Backlink Checker or Monitor Backlinks Backlink Checker.

Using any of the two is easy and straightforward. Let’s take a close look at Monitor Backlinks.

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To start, all you need to do is enter your domain URL and click Check or hit Enter.

Give the tool some time to gather your backlinks. After a few seconds, it will display all the sites that link back to you along with other useful information.

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Not only will you see the URLs of pages that link back to you, but you also see data like:

  • Page quality indicators (Trust Flow and Citation Flow)
  • Number of external links
  • Link status (do-follow or no-follow)
  • URL where the links point to
  • The anchor text used

You have the option of exporting the results as a spreadsheet.

Paid backlink checker tools give you access to more backlink data. This lets you create a better link profile. And while some of these might take a significant portion of your budget, the data you get in return can really push your site up the SERPs.

What are some of the paid tools we suggest you use?

Here’s a list of some of the more reliable backlink checker tools in the market today.

SEMrush

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SEMrush is an all-around solution to SEO maintenance. And one of its features just happens to be link auditing. It claims to have a database of over one billion backlinks. This makes it one of the most extensive sources for backlink information.

Its backlink checker feature assigns a grade for every link it finds which it calls “toxic score”. The score SEMrush uses machine learning and user feedback to calibrate its backlink checker.

The toxic score is a good indicator of whether or not you should get rid of the backlink.

Its Backlink Audit tool comes with a feature where it automatically finds the site owner’s email address. This makes it easier to request link removal. You can use the same tool is you want to send a disavow request to Google.

We have a SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool guide for anyone interested.

SEMrush has three plans. The Pro plan is the cheapest at $99.95/month. The Guru plan comes in at $199.95/month while the Business plan is $399.95/month.

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You can save money by selecting annual billing.

Ahrefs

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You got to know Ahrefs earlier when we talked about free link audit tools. And as powerful as the free version is, it pales in comparison to the paid version.

Ahrefs will not only generate a list of backlinks to your site, but it also provides features that let you research your competitors. What does competitor research do for your domain? It gives you opportunities.

How?

You can see all their backlinks and reach out to the most influential and trustworthy sources. Through link building strategies like guest posting, you can earn links from reputable sites. This will improve your rankings down the line.

Ahrefs has four plans. The most affordable one, Lite, is $99/month. The Standard, Advanced, and Agency plans are $179/month, $399/month, and $999/month respectively.

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Do note that the Lite plan only has Live Index enabled. If you go for any of the other plans, you’d also have access to both the Recent and Historical Index.

You can try Ahrefs for $7 for an entire week.

Majestic

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Another big player in the industry, Majestic has the tools you’ll need to get a breakdown of all your backlinks.

But being an all-in-one tool, it has other features that make it a worthy investment. Your membership gives you access to tools like its Keyword Generator and Link Context.

It also has an API function that allows for app customization.

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Majestic’s basic plan, Lite, is more affordable than the other options at $49.99/month. The Pro plan is $99.99 while the Full API plan is $399.99/month.

Monitor Backlinks

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As the name implies, Monitor Backlinks is all about just that — monitoring your backlinks.

Through Monitor Backlinks, you can analyze underperforming backlink patterns so you can adjust your strategy accordingly. And because the tool has various ways of filtering the results, you won’t have any trouble finding the information you’re looking for.

Here’s a sample of a Monitor Backlinks report.

link audit - 1 gather links - monitor backlinks report_1

Monitor Backlinks plans start at $25/month for one monitored domain. The price increases as you add more domains to your plan.

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You can start a free trial if you just want to check out its features.

Linkody

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Take advantage of Linkody’s backlink tools to manage your link campaign. What can Linkody do? It will tell you if you lose or gain backlinks. You can use it to spy on your competitor’s backlinks. It also has features that let you see and remove bad links.

And best of all, Linkody lets you do all this from one location.

The interface is easy to use. So even if you are new to using SEO tools, you should have no problem working your way through the interface.

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Linkody is quite affordable as its starter plan, Webmaster, costs only $14.90/month. This allows you to monitor up to two domains.

Regardless of whichever backlink checker tool you choose, you should now have some way of gathering backlinks to your site.

Step 2: Analyze Your Backlinks

Now that you’ve successfully compiled your list of backlinks, you can now move on to the next step. It’s now time to analyze your backlinks.

You can use your backlink checker’s interface to review your links. However, we recommend that you download the results and open it as a spreadsheet document to make it easier to manage.

Your goal is to separate the best backlinks from the rest.

How?

There are four ways you can do this. You can look at:

  • Referring domains
  • Anchor text
  • Location (country-specific)
  • Competitors

Let’s dive into each method further.

Referring Domains

You can review the source of the backlink itself and see if it’s a high-quality domain or not. If the source is good enough, it’s best that you retain the backlink. And if the domain isn’t good, you should consider asking the site owner to remove the link altogether.

So now the question becomes: Which sites do you consider as high-quality?

Fortunately, most backlink checker tools have some sort of grading system for websites in place. Take the case of Ahrefs. It uses Domain Rating (DR) and URL Rating (UR) to gauge site quality.

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The higher the rating, the better.

This should give you an idea of what backlinks to prioritize. You should rely on your tool’s metrics to get a better understanding of how backlinks impact your site.

If the source gets a fantastic score, it only means that great content and friendly site architecture. These two factors along with other SEO considerations make them ideal sources for backlinks.

Backlink sources from the lower end of the spectrum, on the other hand, might actually do you more harm than good.

Tip: In general, backlinks from .edu sites are great. Not everyone can register a .edu site and therefore. You’ll need to meet requirements to qualify for this domain extension. Therefore, Google sees them as credible sources. Watch out for .edu backlinks. Links from news organizations are just as good.

Anchor Text

Let’s talk about how anchor texts work. Anchor texts are not only there for users to click. They also provide context to your link.

So if your page is all about garden hoses, for example, then an anchor text like “best garden hoses” makes total sense. But if your site is all about auto parts, then you shouldn’t use anchor texts like “best seaweed supplier”.

But it’s not just users who benefit from this. Google also relies on anchor texts so it can understand what the linked page is all about.

If you use anchor texts like “click here” or “more info”, then search engines won’t have an idea what the backlink is or what it has to do with the source page.

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So what do you need to do?

You’ll have to identify the most used anchor texts that point to your page. If the source is a high-quality site but it used a generic anchor text, you could try contacting the site owner and ask if it’s possible to replace the anchor text with something more descriptive.

It would help if you give the site owner some options. Ideally, the anchor text an exact match or a partial match.

  • Exact Match Anchor Text — An exact match anchor text has words or phrases that fully reflects the linked page. For example, “pizza recipe” is an exact match anchor text if the linked page is about pizza recipes.
  • Partial Match Anchor Text — A partial match anchor text has words or phrases that are not an exact match but are still related to the linked page. For example, “Neopolitan pizza” is a partial match anchor text if the linked page is about pizza recipes.

Location (Country-Specific)

For location-locked businesses, you’d want to get backlinks from domains that operate within your area.

If you’re based in Thailand, for example, then you’d gain more from backlinks in that country than you do from sites in Canada or any other country.

This is just as true for city-specific sites. If you’re in Anaheim, Los Angeles then your backlinks should come from there. Getting linked by sites based in New York will still have an impact but it won’t do as much to get you to rank in your local community’s Google searches.

There are two ways you can determine where your backlinks come from.

  • ccTLDs — This stands for country code top-level domains. And while the term might sound unfamiliar to you, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them before. Whenever domains end in a country code (like .eu for the European Union or .us for the United States of America) instead of .com or .org, you’re seeing ccTLDs in action.
  • IP Address — You can also identify the source of the backlink by looking at IP addresses. If your target is based in the UK, you should have backlinks from sites with IP addresses based in the UK.

Prioritizing backlinks based on location is necessary for local SEO.

Competitors

Sometimes the best way to identify which sites you should get backlinks from is by observing competitors.

Specifically, you want to find out which top-level domains link back to their posts.

You can do this by entering your competitor’s domain in your backlink checker tool of choice. This will provide you with a list of backlinks that you can cross-check with your own list.

Both SEMrush and Ahrefs have features that enable you to compare your domain versus your competitor’s domain from within the tool. This makes it that much easier to find which domains you share and which ones you’re missing out on.

If you find that you don’t have backlinks from high-quality sites, you can reach out to them for possible link building opportunities. We’ll explore this strategy later on in the post.

For now, all you have to do is compare your domain with another site that’s in your niche. Mark the sources with potential.

Step 3: Improve Your Backlink Profile

Now that you have your list of backlinks and you have an idea of what you’re setting out to do, let’s move on to improving your backlink profile.

What are some of the things you can do to make your backlinks perform better in the SERPs?

Size Up the Competition

You’ll need to look at two numbers: the number of backlinks pointing to your site and the number of referring domains.

Let’s look at TechCrunch. At the time of this writing, it has 147,080,404 backlinks from 364,503 referring domains.

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Its competitor, Wired, has 119,151,272 backlinks from 463,841 referring domains.

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If you’re going to compare the two, it would seem like TechCrunch won over Wired since it has more backlinks. However, you’d want to pay closer attention to the referring domains. In this example, Wired pulls ahead with over 90,000 more referring domains than its competition.

But the story does not end there. We also need to take a look at other factors to determine what other things you need to work on.

Track How Many Backlinks You Received

You won’t get a good sense of your backlink performance if you just look at your numbers today. It’s a good idea to see how your site performed over time. This will give you a better grasp of your domain’s performance over the past few weeks, months, and years.

This information is available depending on which link audit tool you use (most have this feature though).

What are you looking for? You want to see a consistent rise in backlink activity. You could have thousands of backlinks in your pocket. But if the majority of those came from years back, there’s clearly something wrong.

You should also check your competition and check how they’re performing. If they’re losing backlinks day by day, you have a shot at overtaking them in the SERPs.

Watch Out for Spikes in Backlinks

Just because you’re getting backlinks does not mean you’re doing well. An unusual spike in backlinks can signify an attack on your site.

Sometimes, competitors would link back to sites with the intention of having Google penalize them. Because these link attacks come from low-quality sites (pornography, gambling, etc.), search engines tend to rank the victims lower in the results pages. Until the issue is resolved, that is.

The good news is that Google can now distinguish negative attacks from normal linking. So this tactic will soon become a thing of the past.

However, it’s still good to manually check if you’re falling prey to ill-intentioned competitors.

See Where Your Links Come From

Backlinks can come from anywhere. This includes country-specific sites that have no business linking back to you. While some countries have legitimate reasons for doing so, there are also cases wherein these links are malicious in nature.

One way to check is by looking at ccTLDs. If you’re based in the US, you’d likely get links from .com, .us, .org, or even .net sites. But if you’re getting links from .cn (China), maybe it’s worth checking out.

Maybe these .cn sites have legitimate reasons for linking back to you. But if the sites look suspect, you might want to take action.

And while we’re on the subject, there are other TLDs you want to watch out for. It’s not just country-specific TLDs you need to keep an eye on. Symantec released a post on the shady top-level domains.

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Inspect Your Anchor Texts

Anchor texts can say a lot about the intention of the backlink source. It’s perfectly normal to use a branded anchor text when referring to a site. There’s nothing wrong with the anchor text “Nike” that lands on the company’s homepage.

Using the name of the author is just as understandable.

But when you start getting anchor texts that do not represent your brand in a positive light, that’s when you need to do something.

Reference to gambling sites, pornography, illegal drugs, male enhancement products, and illegal substances are clearly malicious and could affect your ranking.

You should disavow backlinks with these sort of anchor texts.

Step 4: Fix Backlinks Pointing to 404 Pages

As your site grows, you’d lose pages in the process. Some pages get unpublished because they’re no longer relevant. It’s also possible that you consolidated a few pages that cover the same topic.

This is fine.

The problem is that sometimes, sites link to these pages. And when they disappear, this leads to 404 errors (aka Page Not Found error).

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Google views this as an inconvenience to its users. That’s why sites with lots of 404 errors rank lower in the SERPs.

But there’s another reason why you should remove 404 errors from your site. When Google crawls your pages, it passes off its link equity (or link juice) to other pages. Link equity is important because it allows search engines to discover new pages within your domain.

404 errors halt that process.

Finding 404 Errors

You can use some of the link audit tools mentioned earlier to find 404 errors. But you can also use software like Screaming Frog to find non-working pages.

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Screaming Frog is easy to use so anyone can look for 404 errors without exerting effort. Simply enter the domain you want to check and hit Start.

Once it finishes its crawl, you’ll find a list of all the pages along with their respective status. Use the Status Code filter to put all 404 pages on top of the list.

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List down all the pages with a 404 status code.

Note: Screaming Frog is free to use. However, the free version limits page crawls to 500 pages. If you want to crawl all your pages, you’d have to buy a license.

Fixing 404 Errors

The easiest way to fix 404 errors is to restore or redirect them to a new page.

The process of redirecting a page can differ depending on what CMS you use. It’s best to ask your webmaster if you don’t know how to do so. You want to redirect a page to a related post but some SEOs redirect pages to the homepage.

As for restoring dead pages, you can use Wayback Machine.

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Enter the URL of the page with the 404 error. Wayback Machine will try to find archived versions of it. Use the archived version to copy all texts and images used in the post.

Now all you have to do is recreate the post and publish it. But do make sure you’re using the same URL. Otherwise, this trick wouldn’t work.

Step 5: Find Pages Linking to Your Competitor

Both SEMrush and Ahrefs have features that let you do competitive research. On SEMrush, it’s called Backlink Gap while Ahrefs calls it Link Intersect.

By entering your competitor’s domain, you can see which sites link back to them but not to you.

You can try to figure out how they got the backlink by exploring the linking page. For instance, if the source is a guest post, you’d know that it’s possible to write for them. You can shoot them an email asking for the same opportunity.

If the backlink came from a resource page, you can request to add another resource in exchange for a backlink.

The theory is that getting the same backlinks, so long as the sources as high-quality sites, would improve your performance when users submit their search queries.

Step 6: Clean Up Toxic Backlinks

Toxic backlinks come from dubious websites. Obviously, you don’t want these since they lower your chances of ranking in the SERPs.

That’s why you have to do your best to get rid of as many as possible.

How Do I Know If My Website Has Bad Links?

So how do you know if you have toxic backlinks? One easy way is to use SEMrush’s Toxic Score feature.

SEMrush’s Backlink Audit Tool allows you to sort the results by Toxic Score. This feature lets you know how much damage a particular backlink does to your page.

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A sign that you have bad links is when your site falls in the rankings after an algorithm update.

What Can You Do If You Have Toxic Backlinks?

You will need to have these toxic backlinks removed from your site. There are two ways you can do this.

The first method requires you to find the contact information of the webmaster of the site where you found the backlink. Some sites post their contact information in the About or Contact page. There could also be a field you can fill out to message the webmaster directly.

Another way of contacting them would be through social media as most sites have accounts tied to the domain.

You’ll need patience though as webmasters reply at different paces. Some could reply straight away while others might take their time.

And there’s another hurdle. Replying is one thing but complying is a whole new ballgame. Just because they reply does not mean they’ll remove or update the bad backlink.

If you’re not having luck contacting the webmaster, you can disavow the links then upload the file to Google.

Disavow is just another term for discarding harmful backlinks. Doing it manually can consume a lot of your time. However, link audit tools often have a feature where you can disavow links right from within the tool.

That means you could submit disavow requests with a few clicks.

Once disavowed, the toxic links should no longer pose a problem.

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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