Getting links right is complex. It involves striking the right balance between internal links and external, optimising anchor text and ensuring links are regularly audited and updated. In this blog post, though, we’re going to zoom in on one of inbound marketing’s most (seemingly) counterintuitive and divisive strategic techniques: competitor link building. 

You want me to do WHAT?

The other day, I was on a call with a new client. I’ll share a snippet of our conversation, because it sums up in a nutshell a concern many customers have about linking to competitor websites.

When I recommend that clients link to competitor content in their own blogs and pillar pages, and I tell them it’s part of a carefully-evidenced inbound marketing approach, I’m often met with bafflement, scepticism and sometimes, downright panic.  Let’s call the client ‘Erin’.

Erin: So you’re telling me that in our blog, it’s good practice to drop in a link to our biggest competitor? Why would we do that? That sounds like madness to me.

ESM Inbound: It might sound like madness, but it’s based on data. Here are three reasons we recommend it:

  1. When you link to a competitor’s content, it shows you’re confident in what you’re offering – so confident you know your prospective customer is welcome to shop around. In reality, the customer is shopping around anyway, so if you help them in their quest by acknowledging you aren’t the only business out there, the subconscious message you’re sending says: we care about helping you find the solution that works best for you.

  2. Google will ‘notice’ that you link to competitor content, and by ‘backlinking’ a mention to their content, your own blog is more likely to rank for keyword searches that relate to the topic. Google’s algorithms like it when content creators link to external sources, outside of their own domain. It shows you’re determined to give visitors the best, most helpful and balanced experience, rather than just ramming your own content down their throats. And Google rewards this positive behaviour.

  3. If the competitor also uses inbound marketing strategies, there’s a good chance they will reciprocate and mention you in their own blog posts (or at least that they’ll be responsive when you suggest a link-trade), which will boost your Google ‘visibility’ even more. Opening up these link-trades through a friendly email request is an excellent way to build ongoing relationships with reputable companies who operate in your space. Both sides benefit from this linkbuilding tactic, and you never know when a further guest blog opportunities or collaboration might present itself if you’ve already forged these bonds.

Erin: Hmmm….. I’m not sure… You’re the experts, but….. It’s like standing outside a shop front and saying: “Before you buy your groceries here, why don’t you check out the other shop around the corner? They sell lots of the same things…”

ESM Inbound: It does seem counterintuitive, but the data tells us otherwise. Businesses who produce content that collates competitor information see their brand credibility increase, and optimising your content investment means doing whatever it takes to bump your organic Google search ranking. We do it ourselves, I’ll send you a few posts to show you.

Erin: You do it yourselves huh? Hmm…OK…. Perhaps we could try it.

Not everyone is as receptive as Erin. Sometimes, a customer simply can’t get past the mental block of competitor-linking. It’s too alien. At ESM Inbound we’re not in the business of forcing anyone to do anything they aren’t comfortable with, so we drop it if this is the case. But if you’re currently on the fence about it, here are three reasons why we think competitor linking is a really good idea.

It shows you’re confident, and that you put customers first

In short: 

In addition to delivering real results (we’ll give you examples in this post), competitor linking is a great way to show you really mean it – your first priority is to your customers. This is a great way to increase brand credibility.

How to: 

Getting your head around competitor linking (and inbound marketing more generally) requires a mindset shift, particularly when it comes to competition. A bit of background psychology is helpful here. 

The pioneering psychologist Carol Dweck has identified two mindsets that are at work in most of us most of the time (check out her Ted talks if you haven’t already). Dweck calls them ‘growth mindset’ and ‘scarcity mindset’. With scarcity thinking (which is rife in business), everything becomes a competition. The underlying fear is that there is not enough (there are a finite number of customers out there, for example). 

This way of thinking lets conservatism and risk-aversion rule the day. The problem with it is that it may blind you to opportunities, and even common sense (a denial of the idea that your customers will know your competitors are out there and are likely to be looking at their sites as well as yours). Scarcity thinking, at work behind the scenes, makes you think like a small-minded village shopkeeper in a famine before the internet was invented (with a very limited number of customers and scarce resources). 

Growth-mindset, in contrast, sees opportunities everywhere. Thinking in this way helps you trust your own ability to deliver, to grow and to thrive. At ESM Inbound we live by this mindset, and we aim to help our customers transmit a tone of voice in their communications that is confident, realistic, helpful and connected. In short, we help our customers sound like thought leaders. 

Here’s an example: 

We know you’re probably reading this because you want to ensure your content strategy works as hard as possible for you. This blog: 'Why isn't my content strategy working?" by fellow HubSpot partners Babelquest has some useful tips on improving your SEO and optimising your links and backlinks.

Backlinks shout “Look At Me” to Google

In short: 

Backlinks from other sites to yours (especially from competitors) mean your site is more likely to show up in an organic Google search for relevant keywords.

How to: 

If you want to build backlinks to your site, you need to start with doing an audit of your own and your competitors’ existing backlinks. Moz offers a 30-day free trial of its back-link-checker tool. 

It works like this (for a more indepth low-down, read this blog post on competitor link analysis). You type in the URL of your competitors’ sites, one by one (try opening the competitor site in a window and pasting the URL to make sure you have it correct, as people often make mistakes with this). You then get a list of sites that have linked to your competitors. 

If you map your main competitors and see some of the same names pop up (especially those that are within your competitor list), you can check their authority ranking (on the Moz tool), which rates which websites Google is likely to regard as authoritative. 

You should also check your own site. When you have a list of key linkers, you can start targeting them by relationship building. Introduce yourself and your business if they don’t already know you. Tell them you’re doing inbound marketing and looking to link-build and link-trade. 

If you try this exercise and come up blank (which shows you are a pioneer in your sector), set to work on link-building and boldly go – be the first to link to a competitor blog, and be sure to follow-up with an email explaining why you’ve done it and what you’re hoping for in return.

It makes you look connected: a ‘player’ in your field

In short:

Competitor sharing, especially on social channels, is a great way of nodding to competitors. Because social media is so fast-moving, sharing on social media feels less like a leap of faith. Your competitors will notice and may reciprocate. 

How to: 

At ESM Inbound, we often start off with social sharing of competitor content before linking to competitor blogs for our clients, as by its nature, social media is more ephemeral. 

We recently started doing this with a new customer. We ran Twitter and LinkedIn campaigns for them to promote a new content series we helped them create. Amongst the Twitter posts were retweets of competitor content with a simple line or two to introduce them. Our Head of Content, Anna Kaine, explains this strategy to customers like this:

“By pointing at competitor content, you’re saying to followers that you want them to find their answers – no matter what source that comes from. You have their best interests at heart, so whether it’s one of your own blog posts or a fabulous infographic from a competitor: you want your audience to get the best resources to help them make decisions. 

This customer-first approach is what builds trust with them, and inevitably means prospects return to you as a source of truth and value, time and time again. When we put it in these terms to customers, they understand the thinking behind it, and 9 times out of 10, become far more confident at linking to a range of sources, not just their own content.”

For this customer, the strategy worked. Within a month, sessions were up by 177%, and leads had increased 500%. Organic searches were four times higher. HubSpot Enterprise customers can monitor competitors' social activity from within the platform, which is a great way to see what your top competitors are up to on social channels at a glance. The tool allows you to see which posts are performing well for them.