Steal Your SEO Competition’s #1 Google Rank – A Guide to Reverse Engineering

Steal Your SEO Competition’s #1 Google Rank – A Guide to Reverse Engineering

Last updated on

reverse engineering tutorialIf you asked 50 people how to build backlinks and gain rank, you would undoubtedly get 50 different responses (probably closer to 100 because no one I know can ever stop at just one method ), and herein lies the problem.

Building backlinks and trying to rank in Google is like an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

What works one day does not necessarily work the next, and more importantly – what works for one niche will definitely not apply to other niches.

Go figure, right?!

But that’s the nature of the beast – and even Matt Cutts himself will happily admit that there is no ‘one rule’ that will work when it comes to SEO.

So what do you do?

Reverse Engineering is the answer to this conundrum because it goes well beyond the concept of ‘finding good places to get backlinks from‘ and takes your high search engine ranking optimization to an entirely new level.

But What IS Reverse Engineering?

Reverse engineering refers to the process of using various online tools and services to spy on and track your SEO competition, to find out exactly where they are getting their backlinks from – and to find the pattern (if any) that exists within this specific SEO profile.

Why is Reverse Engineering so Powerful?

As I mentioned earlier, Google is an enigma (wrapped in a riddle) and figuring out how Google works and what it deems as ‘valuable’ and ‘relevant’ is like trying to play darts blindfolded – it really is that hit and miss!

But when you apply reverse engineering, you completely remove ALL of the guesswork associated with this aspect of link building.

By analysing the backlinks of our competitor we are not only learning where those backlinks are coming from, we are learning which ones Google is lending the most weight to – and THAT is worth its weight in gold!

But enough about the why.

Let’s take a real life example and show you exactly HOW to go about reverse engineering our competition, and WHAT we are looking for when we go about this process.

*I do SEO for a living, and the processes I am going to go through today are the exact processes I use when clients pay me big money to outrank their competition – and I can safely assume that these are the same tactics employed by the majority of SEO firms around the globe.

How to Reverse Engineer your SEO Competition

There are dozens of online tools and services that can provide you with the relevant data to go about reverse engineering your competition.

For the sake of simplicity (and to stop your frontal lobe from leaking out of your nose mid article), I will only be using 2 services, 2 of the best in my opinion – and although both these services cost around $99 a month – the information provided with your ‘free account’ is more than adequate to start learning this process.

Although I have a paid subscription to both services I am using today, I will NOT be logging in and using it because I wanted to show you how powerful this method is using only the free option – AND I wanted you to be able to go and try it for yourself without anguising over whether it was worth the money or not.

The services I will be using are:

*Ahrefs is $79 a month where as OpenSiteExplorer is $99 a month.

Ahrefs is (in my opinion) a far better service, with a much more user friendly interface; the fact that it’s $20 cheaper just makes the decision a no-brainer.

The example I will be using today comes from an offline friend who owns a Printing Shop in Romford, near Essex in England and is having trouble stealing that no. 1 spot in Google from another local printing shop located just down the road.


Although the example provided is an offline business relying on a specific geographical (location) keyword –Romford– the information and processes I go through can be applied to ANY online or offline business in every niche imaginable.

The Scenario as it Currently Stands

“I need some advice – when searching “The Print Centre Romford” We are #2 in the search results ….. I believe I’ve done everything in my power to make us #1, but for some reason I can’t get that coveted #1 spot (it’s currently held by a customer of ours who has some office space here) – I’ve google verified the address, website and email – but I REALLY need to know how to get that spot ….”

Let’s begin by taking that URL at #1 and entering it into…

reverse engineer ranking page ahrefs

Straight away we have established that the actual page ranking is only holding that top spot because of two factors:

  1. The main site is providing all the SEO and backlink juice to support this one page;
  2. This one page is ranking simply because the keyword ‘Print Centre’ is the actual page name.

So we need to investigate that main page and find out exactly where that ‘juice’ is coming from…

reverse engineering ahrefs results

So what exactly are we looking at here?

The information provided is broken up into sections, each one detailing the various aspects of the sites SEO profile, from the number and type of backlinks, to the anchor text used when linking, and even the attributes of each link (dofollow, nofollow, etc).

For now we will only be focusing on the actual backlinks themselves, but there is something interesting about the anchor text that deserves mentioning first.

Our goal with this exercise is to outrank that site/page for the keyphrase ‘Print Centre Romford‘ and the fact that less than 9% of the anchor text profile contains this word means that this should not be too hard.

It seems this site is more interested in ranking for Printing Essex than it is in ranking for Romford – and although the two places are geographically neighbors, the fact remains that stealing their top spot for the Romford part of the equation will not be too big a task.

If our goal had been to rank for Print Centre Essex, then this task would become a lot more difficult. (These are the sorts of factors you should be thinking about and taking into consideration when reverse engineering your competition).

For now, we have garnered enough information from the anchor text, so it is time to delve deeper into their one way link building profile…

Breaking down the Backlink Profile

The above screenshot shows that our competition has a total of 71 backlinks coming from 66 different pages.

Luckily for us none of these are .edu or .gov backlinks (.edu and .gov links hold more weight with Google because (generally) you cannot buy links from these TLDs (Top Level Domains) and the overall consensus is that a link from here is a genuine sign of value and relevance.)

Let’s click on the ’27’ next to Referring Domains and see what we can see.

Keep in mind that the free service will only provide you with the top 5 or so backlinks. (If I were to log in, I would see the results for every single backlink that existed.)

reverse engineering ahrefs backlinks

A quick glance at their backlinking profile tells me a number of things:

  • Out of the 27 referring domains (external backlinks), only 1 is sitewide and the rest all point directly to this actual homepage (not good for them, but good for us. Since the Penguin update, the importance of sitewide links has increased dramatically – meaning you should be sending back links to deep nested pages on your site as often as you send them to the homepage).
  • Out of the 27 referring domains, only 1 is a no-follow. With only 27 links in total, this is not something that will have a negative impact on their SEO profile, but if they continue on this trend then they will be punished for it. (Again, since the Penguin update the onus on natural link building has become paramount, and a site that contains only dofollow backlinks does not look natural at all.)

Now that we have established the overall profile, it’s time to take a closer look at the backlinks themselves.

But what exactly are we looking for?

There are 2 main pieces of information we should be paying attention to here:

  1. The Domain Rank or Domain Authority
  2. The page that backlink is coming from

I have highlighted in green the one backlink that really stands out because not only does it have a really good domain rank, it also seems to be a business directory listing site – meaning there’s a really good chance we can grab a backlink from them too.

Let’s find out…

reverse engineering backlinks from directory


So with hardly any effort we have already managed to find a highly relevant site with really good domain authority that, more importantly, we know Google places a lot of value in.


The link above this one also looks like a boomarking directory site, and although the domain rank is a lot lower, the Alexa rank indicates that there is good search engine traffic (and we already know Google values it!).

Can we possibly get a backlink from here too? …

Bookmark and business directoy listing for SEOTwo from two!…


Let’s now take a look at the results that gives us and see if there are any more SEO benefit we can garner from this process.

*Remember that we are using the free version of these tools so the details provided are pathetic at best – and still we have managed to secure 2 excellent backlinks from it. :)

reverse engineering opensiteexplorer

Although the details provided are slightly different, the overall SEO profile can still be seen here.

Again the anchor text of Essex Printers seems to be their main focus – meaning our drive to rank for Romford should be a little easier.

OpenSiteExplorer gives us the backlinks in order of Page and Domain authority, from highest to lowest (again only a handful of the total links are provided so there could be more authority links hidden from our view – but really, we have enough here to continue working our magic).

The backlink that really stands out here is the first one in the list because it has the highest authority of all the listed links AND it comes from a directory listing type site…

Let’s check it out:

printing resources

More success!

Not only can we get a backlink from this site, we can see the backlink that our competition has. (highly relevant category/page too!)

Page 2 of the OpenSiteExplorer backlink results gives us even more information to work with:

reverse engineer open site explorer

A further breakdown of these links (highlighted) reveals that not only can we get a link for ourselves from the first one, but half their backlinks listed here seem to be coming from the same website!

This instantly tells me two things:

  • They obviously have another site that they administrate and have taken the liberty of adding their link to the sidebar or footer, so it appears sitewide;
  • The same website means the same IP address – and since the range of IPs that form your backlinking profile is such an important factor to Google – these guys are not as strong a force as I first imagined. Sweet!
  • They seem incredibly obsessed with the keyword Printing Essex – to the point that I wonder if they’ll get slapped?

A quick search of the aforementioned backlinks reveals the following:

more print center reverse engineering links

And there it is – a link in the footer of a site they obviously own or administer.

In fact, there are two of them. (now THAT is just plain stupid, especially considering the keywords are almost identical)

Reverse Engineering Marketing Takeaway

Building backlinks and ranking your site in Google has always been a case of trial and error – of testing and retesting.

However, there are some aspects of the SEO game that just work.

This is one of them.

Granted you still need to create good content and share this content across as big an IP range as you can, but with reverse engineering you can quickly establish not only where to get the backlinks from, but the sort of backlinks that Google is obviously happy with and wants to see more of.

Something else you can do is to reverse engineer some of the bigger sites in the more competitive niches – even if you are not in that particular niche!

The reason I suggest this is because these larger sites with a lot of competition have to work ten times harder to get the same results in the SERPs.

What this means for you is a broader range of possible backlink targets, and more often than not – a few Web2.0 sites that you may have never heard of…. (meaning your primary keyword will probably still be available when you attempt to register πŸ˜‰


Alex Whalley

Alex Whalley is a full-time blogger and affiliate marketer who is not very good at writing effective bios. Alex blogs over atΒ Build.Rank.Profit – the niche site marketing blog and has just launched a new SEO service that offersΒ free SEO site analysis. Follow the link or visitΒ www.Rankonomics.comΒ to see how your site stacks up.

traffic generation cafe comment below

Google+ Comments

67 Comments (click here to leave a comment)

  1. I will be using all of the tools and techniques listed here for my own site. I’d never even heard of the two web apps.

    We would all like that elusive back link from a .gov or .edu but that is nigh on impossible!

  2. I’m surprised that you think a link from response drive support is a good move. It clearly talks about reciprocal linking on the page and it’s clearly a page put there for link building. I can’t see Google valuing any of these links regardless of relevance. What would be smarter would be to not to copy your competitor and go out and get a better one thus out doing your competition in the process. Your thoughts?

    • Ana Hoffman

      I’ll let Alex respond to the question, but here are my two cents, Anthony:

      1. The competitor’s site is already ranked as #1 using the existing links. Are they great links? Both you and I know they are not. But they work. For now, anyway.

      2. Most of my readers are not SEO-minded and are on a tight budget. They don’t have the time to figure out what a “better” link would be, let alone how to find and secure one.

      This post was meant to explain the simplest way to find what works now.

      • Hi Ana

        Sorry, I just read back my comment and it comes across a little ‘rash’. I totally see where you are coming from on both points you made. Like you say though, they work, for now. I’d be just a little worried that you are setting yourself up for a fall especially with another big Panda update looming.

    • Ana summed it up nicely but to add to this I will offer my 2 cents (woo hoo – 4 cents!)
      SEO is as tangible as logic – it differs according to each person, niche, situation etc so there is only one way of really understanding patterns that will work.
      This method is just one of the main ones I use to help determine what that pattern is – and not only does it work (she is now ranking no. 1 so the proof is in the pudding) but you can also garner some pretty relevant links in the process.
      Granted, anything in SEO is subject to scrutiny, and I appreciate yours, but I think you are thinking too much. πŸ˜‰
      So go and find your own and pave your own way – that works, but why try to recreate the wheel?

      • Hi Alex

        Great comment – I probably I am thinking too much and yes the proof is definitely in the pudding. I’d still be interested to see position of 1 is held after the next Panda update for your client (which I hope it does). Be great if you could keep me posted :)

  3. WuuH! It is worth reading and will take time to digest everything, I am going to bookmark it and use it later for good marketing and seo strategies.

  4. Wow….really a bunch of information conveyed by you.
    Well i just happen to join ahref, but wasn’t knowing that such a reverse engineering can be applied too.
    A very great full post.
    keep sharing!!!

    • thanks for the feedback Ashutosh
      LOL – my first reply was rejected because apparently I did not spend enough time on the page reading the article.

      but…but I WROTE IT! LOL

  5. Dave Thomas

    Really good post.. Nice breaks down about the function of Ahrefs particularly how to use this tool.

  6. Hi Ana, nice post. I like to use other software tools. I prefer SEO SPYGLASS by seo powersuite. I dont represent them or make money by mentioning them. I just dont like monthly subscriptions and try to avoid them if I can purchase my own.

    • Ana Hoffman

      I’ve used Spyglass in the past and found them extremely slow, Mark. I know they’ve been working on improving their speed, do you have any problems with it?

      • No not at all. Its been very good to me. You do have to update the algorithms in the software which had an expense but thats up to you on how often.

        • Mark, I agree that costs can add up with monthly subscriptions, but when you are charging clients upwards of $4000 a month to provide SEO services, $79 a month is nothing – especially when you consider what information they provide for you and your clients

  7. Mike C. Steinberg

    Gday Alex,

    Very good article. This is an area I’m not really strong at YET! I purchased a software and coaching course a while back, called “SE Prince.” It goes out and finds back-links for your sites in a nut-shell. You mentioned ip addresses in your post. Is this software going to be able to get me a few back-links without getting slapped by Google? Or, did I just buy some trouble?


    • not familiar with SE Prince but my experience with any software that neatly does all the work for you and wraps it up in an easy to use result always makes me wary.
      Nothing beats the process of manually checking things and I would recommend using the service merely as a guide, double checking the results with a service like Ahrefs before actually seeking to get links myself
      SEeKING is always better than SEePRINCE πŸ˜‰

  8. Images are not showing which is a shame. Love Alex’s stuff and have been following you quietly for a while.

    This post got my attention as it is by Alex’s own admission the first time he has emailed his list in like 3 months! But when he does I always open them.

    What also grabbed me was it related to a business down the road to where I live in Essex! Currently The Print Centre is dominating page one in the SERP’s and appears to be using some EMD’s to solidify it’s domination of the first page.

    As an SEO apprentice this post was more than useful and I already use Ahrefs.

    Nice work Alex!

    • Ana Hoffman

      I accidentally erased my whole site (yep, I’ve got sticky fingers!); that’s why the images weren’t there. I’ve uploaded them again and you can see the post in all its glory, Michael.

    • Thanks Michael! I recently read your comment on my EN post and could not stop laughing – RESPECT!

      An SEO apprentice aye? I see great things my friend …
      The force is strong with this one Ana πŸ˜‰

  9. One of the best example of spying your competitors and kill them :) Thank you Alex for this very detailed tutorials. I think I will stop guessing and start do what my competitors have done and gain results

  10. Great post Alex, this might be one of the best descriptions on reverse link building I have ever read. I’m printing it and handing to everyone on my team. Great stuff.

    • Wow, thanks Dean – I really appreciate the feedback and I hope you and your team get some good insights moving forward :)

  11. Hi Alex, Thank dude. Got a feeling this is exactly what I needed! Off to implement it while having my warm cup of coffee…

    To Ana, thanks for featuring only the best guest posters!

    To everyone else, see you on the 2nd spot, because I am taking that #1!

  12. This is fantastic. Much more in-depth than my own method of checking out what the competition is doing. My technique is to check on the Reputation link on their Alexa rating, which lists out the sites linking to them. It gives a rough idea, but it looks like the tools you are using gives you much more information!

    I found this really useful – have shared it on blogbods so the blogging community can take note! I should share it on stumble upon and reddit too but think it is of particular interest to bloggers.

    The only point I didn’t understand was the suggestion at the end, that we should still be looking for keyword domains – I thought Google now reacted quite negatively to Exact Match Domains? I thought that it now works against you (if you have poor content) or isn’t taken into account (if you have good content). Maybe I misunderstand?

  13. Bradley Anderson

    I’ve been trying for over a year to figure out why I’m still at number 3 for a very important keyphrase for my business. I have just been reloaded with fresh ammo. The push is on yet again! Thanks, Alex and Ana.

  14. Loren

    Wow! I’ve been following this post along whilst playing with the free version of ahref. Awesome! Even with the free version I’ve managed to find some really cool nuggets of gold! Such a great tool! And a great post too. I’m going to need to read and re-read to fully understand it all. Fab!

    • Great stuff Loren – it’s a bloody good tool hey πŸ˜‰

      Enjoy, and glad you found such value in the post – now go get ’em tiger :)

  15. Hi Alex,

    Great post – and well put together Ana. My backlinking strategy is average at best – and now I can see why. I use a piece of software called backlink snatcher and whilst it does show other competition sites links it goes no way into the detail of the two you mention.

    These certainly look like tools for the more serious backlink go-getter! This is a really great resource, and you have shown what you can do should you wish to take on your rivals!

    Thanks for sharing this….


    • Hey John – thanks for acknowledging all the work Ana has put into actually formatting and publishing the post – something only a blogger can understand (well, any webmaster but you know what I mean πŸ˜‰ )

      and yeah – thanks Ana, you’re awesome

  16. Thats a wonderful post, i was thinking of this thing from many days, but came to know it from u as reverse engineering πŸ˜›
    Do u know any other free tools for finding inbound links to a site?

  17. Great post Alex, reverse engineering the competition is a great strategy, something I should probably do more of myself, I hope you’re a regular contributor to Traffic Generation Cafe if you’re not already.

    • Thanks Tyronne, I appreciate the kind words mate.
      And yes you should definitely do more of this πŸ˜‰ – especially because it takes a few minutes at best and can give you some really good insight into your niche and what Google values most. Getting free backlinks is just an added bonus :)

  18. Hi Alex, a very interesting post, I have printed it off and read it while enjoying a brew, some interesting tools here and I understand why they are fairly expensive each month. A bit pricey for me but I might play with the free versions and get to grips with it first and see if I can master the art of the reverse engineer SEO Ninjistics.

    It is great to see that your case study did get to that no 1 spot in very little time.

    • ‘Ninjistics’ I like that Andi :)
      Definitely a good weapon to have in your arsenal – and even the free versions that I utilised here are enough to get a glimpse into what others are doing and what Google values.

      Enjoy your ‘training’ and your coffee, you are certainly in the right place for both of those things πŸ˜‰

  19. Hey Alex,
    what’s up ! Just came on this article and I am amazed at the trick that you have mentioned here. Reverse engineering should be the way to go with. I loved the tools too :)

    • Thanks Mizan!

      Hope you got some useful tips out of this (who am I kidding, of course you did πŸ˜‰ ) and now go and smash your competition and enjoy the benefits that follow :)

  20. Great Post

    Really simple to follow steps shown clearly, this is probably the best way to learn about SEO just by looking at what other people are doing. If you want to get to number 1 follow the above steps :)


    • Thanks Clair :)
      Of course you should be bookmarking this entire site, Ana is one of my most respected peers and I have nothing but awesome things to say about her and the content she produces (y)

  21. I’d never heard of either of these two. I never thought it was this easy to see where competitors are getting their links from either. This seems like magic seeing it all laid out here.

    The question is: did you get your client on the number one spot?

    • Hi Anne,
      Yes it’s surprising how easy it is to learn about what your ‘competition’ is up to (and this was only with the free versions of these tools!)
      And to answer your question – YES, this particular client is now ranking at #1 for the given keyphrase, and what’s more they have pushed that competitor down to #7 (Go me lol)

  22. Hey Alex,

    I wasn’t aware of those services but then again, I hardly do any SEO now and (I do own keyword research tools like Market Samurai and Long Tail Pro) I can see the immediate value of the tools you are using here.

    It’s great to see this point of view of ranking a website, when I did bother with Google and SEO, it was more about doing research for a sales page like some product in Clickbank.

    I would try to find out where was the most traffic coming from and see if I could outrank that and become the #1 affiliate.

    Never really did anything with all that information though but I did the research and studied a lot about it… maybe I should get back and try out again with a couple of sites to see what happens.

    Anyway, awesome research man and I’m proud enough my brains actually kept up with your pace. I thought I was going to get a headache at some point but I didn’t (I think I understand SEO a lot better than when I just got started online lol)

    And thanks to Ana as well for showcasing your mad SEO skills here.


    PS. I think the flying social media icons rock Ana, they look great!

    • hey Sergio,
      Glad that you found value in the post and that you can see how this could be useful for all aspects of your online pursuits.
      And the fact your brain didn’t fry mid post is just an added bonus right? Now get back to watching Iron Maiden videos and stop pretending to work πŸ˜‰

  23. This post is fantastic Alex!

    Literally tons of valuable info here to go through. Plus, I just did a search for the company that you mentioned and it is now ranking at #1. Great job.

    Bookmarking this post to keep coming back and reading it.

    • Hey Matt, I appreciate the feedback/comment

      Great to see someone is checking up on me and my progress πŸ˜‰
      Just checked myself (from Google Australia) and indeed the site in question is now ranking at #1, what’s more the competitor we were trying to ‘bump off’ the top spot has been pushed down to #7!

      Sweet – my work here is done πŸ˜‰

  24. Very useful demo of how to use Ahrefs. I’ve heard of it but not used it.

    I keep hearing that Google is placing less and less value on backlinks but I feel it’s still worth doing in conjunction with social signals.

    It will be interesting to see if your friend can get his site to the #1 spot.


    • Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for your comments. I think that it’s less about Google placing less emphasis on backlinks and more that they are lending more weight to the social signals coming from sites. Backlinks are still the equivalent of votes in a democracy – it is all the have to go on to judge the value of a page. How they place that value is ever changing but I don’t think backlinks will ever stop being an integral part of the ranking process.

  25. Great in-depth analysis that I can confirm that SEO pros use. The challenge is building relationships with the site owners who can give you a high quality link, which will usually come from contributing content where you can do some natural deep-linking. Words and relationships baby!

    • Definitely agree with your there Jeff,
      In fact if I did not have a long standing relationship with Ana then this post(backlink) would never have appeared in the first place :)
      Words and relationships indeed πŸ˜‰