Ahrefs Guide – How to Analyze a Site’s SEO and Backlinks
One of the most important skills you can learn for SEO is how to properly analyze a site’s current SEO and health using Ahrefs or other linking tools.
This skill comes in useful for:
- Determining the next steps for your own projects
- Reverse engineering the competition to try to emulate their success
- Diagnosing weak points in client sites to determine the best course of action
The following is an edited transcript from an over-the-shoulder video tutorial on how to use Ahrefs to analyze what’s going on with a site and it’s SEO as well as a few other things we like to do when looking at a website for the first time.
Feel free to read along, or if you’d prefer to watch the video that walks you through every step of this analysis process – skip to the end of the article.
During this Ahrefs Tutorial, Keep in Mind
First of all, this is just the way that we do things. It’s obviously not the only way to analyze a site, it’s just what’s working well for us and what we can pass on to you.
Next, you have to try to look at the big picture. There’s no “one metric to rule them all.” We’re really bringing many things together to try to understand the situation on a deeper level.
Next, to be able to really analyze a site, you need a pretty good amount of SEO knowledge. If you’re new, don’t really stress out too much. Just try to get a feel for what we’re doing, and this stuff will slowly start to sink in and make a little bit more sense to you over time.
You’ll also note that a recurring theme through the site analysis process is that we are constantly looking for naturalness. If something doesn’t look natural, there might be problems.
A lot of SEO now and moving forward is trying to make things appear natural. If you’re doing things that are against Google’s Terms of Service, you need to be doing everything you can to look natural. You want to blend in – but do things better than they do it.
The main takeaways of this Ahrefs tutorial should be:
- The tools we use and how we’re using them
- Why we’re using them in that way
Let’s get into it.
Before we jump into Ahrefs, there are some preliminary checks we always do.
We check if the site is indexed, we check if the site’s penalized, we check the site’s history, and we check the age of the site.
If the site is indexed, it’ in Google’s database to be shown in organic search results. If a site is penalized, Google has punished the site for some reason. For the history, we want to make sure that it wasn’t spammed, used as a PBN, or anything else like that.
We check the age of the site because older sites tend to react a little bit differently than younger sites. You can get away with a little bit more as far as link building with older sites, and they tend to react a bit quicker as well.
None of these things are the end-all of the analysis. For example, if it looks like a site was spammed in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s current problems are necessarily because of it. We need to look at everything to make any kind of judgements.
The site we’re looking at today is Dale Family Law. We don’t have any kind of affiliation with the site – we just Googled “Houston family law” and picked the first organic result.
First, we check if the site is indexed.
Go to Google and type “site:domain.com.” You can see that there are 694 results. That means there are 694 pages indexed in Google’s database for this website right now.
This is one example of a Google search operator, and these are pretty useful for doing a wide variety of things. You can learn more about these in our article on getting free backlinks.
You obviously want the site to be indexed. If a site isn’t indexed, it can’t be displayed for any organic results and is a major red flag that there is something wrong.
Domain Penalty Check
Next, we check to see if the site is penalized.
This technique doesn’t tell you 100% for sure if the site has a penalty, it’s just a cool trick that can give you a good idea. Google “domain com” – the domain without the period.
You can see that the site is showing right at the top which is a very good sign. If the domain had a penalty, it might not appear for a few pages.
If the domain has competitive keywords in it, it’s possible that it might show up until the second or third pages. You will have to try to make that judgement yourself – but in general, you want your site to be showing on page 1 (maybe page 2 if it’s a competitive name).
If you think it has a penalty, the best place to check is in Google Search Console. However, not all sites will be hooked up to Search Console (or you may not have access to it). This trick is for those situations (and for algorithmic penalties).
We can check a website’s history with Wayback Machine on archive.org.
It shows us a timeline where we can look through snapshots of a site’s history. Click on the year and then a blue date to see a snapshot of the site on that date.
You can see that it looks like the same company, it looks like a real site, and it doesn’t look like it was used for anything bad.
It’s a good idea to search around looking through some dates at random throughout the years to make sure it wasn’t spammed or used for anything suspicious.
If you find something troubling in the domain’s history, it’s not the end of the world. You will just have to take it into consideration when making an overall judgement about the site.
Lastly, go to whois.com to check the age of the domain.
You can see that this site was registered on February 11th, 2011. We’re in 2019 now, so it’s about 8 years old. It’s a pretty old site which we generally like to see.
How to Use Ahrefs for SEO Analysis
We’re now getting to the meat of this guide, and we’re going to be hopping into Ahrefs to really analyze this site and it’s current SEO health.
There are other link analysis tools you can use to analyze sites. We use Ahrefs because (we think) it’s the best. There are other to tools out there that do similar things, but none do it quite as well in our experience.
If you are using an Ahrefs alternative, most of what we’re doing will still be accessible to you – you just might have to go about it a little differently.
Ahrefs Site Overview Page
The overview page is the first page you come to when you enter your domain into Ahrefs. There are a lot of things to look over on this page, so we’ll look at them one by one.
Check for WWW or Non-WWW
When we get into Ahrefs, the first thing that we usually do is to make sure that we are looking at the right version of the site.
We need to check if the WWW version or the Non-WWW version has more referring domains going to it, and in general we want to be looking at whichever one has more.
We’ve got 322 referring domains on the WWW version, and we’ve also got 322 referring domains going to the Non-WWW version. For this site, it doesn’t really matter which one we are looking at.
I know that the WWW version is the one that’s indexed right now, so I’m going to be using this one. While checking which has more referring domains most often gives you the answer, it’s good to make sure that you are looking at the indexed version (Google the website and see which version it displays).
It can be good to look at both versions in some cases. Even the version that’s not in use could end up having some spam sent to it, and that could affect the site. Beneficial links on the non-indexed version tend to still have some effects as well – although not quite as much.
URL Rating and Domain Rating
After the index check, the first things that we really look at are the UR (URL Rating) and DR (Domain Rating).
Like we said before, there is no one metric that can really tell you everything you need to know about a site, but we do think that Ahrefs’ metrics tend to be a little bit better than some of the other tools (but still – take these things with a grain of salt).
First we have UR. The UR basically tells you the power of the page that you’re currently looking at. We are currently viewing the homepage of the domain, so the UR is telling us the power of the home page.
Next we have the DR. You can think about the DR as the authority or power of the domain as a whole – including all of the pages on the website.
This site has a UR of 31 and a DR of 22. These aren’t exactly the highest metrics, but the site is ranking very well in a competitive niche.
Although higher URs and DRs generally indicate the domain or page has a higher quality backlink profile, these metrics are at mostly for making quick observations. There is a lot more happening under the hood, and the only ‘metric’ that truly counts is your organic ranking.
Backlinks and Referring Domains
Referring domains are the amount of websites that are linking to your site, and backlinks are the number of individual backlinks coming to your site (one referring domain could be linking from multiple pages).
We generally put more emphasis on referring domains. As a website sends more and more links to you, they’re not valued the same as that first initial link from the domain.
This site has 322 referring domains. You might think that’s low, or you might think that’s high – but you can’t really judge a book by its cover. You can’t just look at the number of referring domains or the number of backlinks and say,
“Oh, my God, this site’s got over 2,000 backlinks, I can’t ever compete with them!”
They have 322 referring domains, but we don’t know the quality of their links. The number of links or referring domains that it’s going to take to rank your site could vary greatly depending on the quality of your competition’s links, not just the number.
A site that only has 20 referring domains could easily outrank a site that has 322 referring domains if their links were of a higher quality. Quality means that they have more relevance, authority, or power.
Under the largest number, you can see two more values – live and recent.
It looks like they’ve lost some links recently as historically they had over 300 referring domains – now they only have 108 live. Just as a site as all as always getting new links, they are constantly losing links as well. This is completely natural.
We do think that the “live” number is the most important, but it seems like websites don’t lose all the juice when they lose a backlink. Some of that link juice tends to linger, but having live referring domains or live backlinks will be of more benefit to you.
Keywords and Traffic
Organic keywords and organic traffic are very good indicators of a site’s overall health, although they aren’t terribly accurate measures of the actual traffic and keywords a site has. They tend to be on the conservative side, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t very useful.
Of course, you want to see higher numbers of traffic and keywords. Sites with high amounts of traffic and keywords are usually healthy.
We look here at the beginning of the site’s analysis is to compare the amount of traffic and the keywords that the site has to the amount of referring domains or links that the site has.
If you see that a site has 400 backlinks and almost no traffic, there’s probably some kind of problem. Maybe they’re over-optimized or have a penalty or spammy links – it’s something you’d have to look into a little bit more.
Last, we have the traffic value. This is not a terribly useful metric to us, and we don’t really pay much attention to it. It’s an estimation of the Adwords budget you’d need to get the same amount of traffic from a site’s organic rankings.
Backlink Profile Graphs
Next, you will see three tabs on the page: backlink profile, organic search, and paid search. We’re looking at the first tab which is backlink profile which shows the referring domains graph and the referring pages graph.
These two graphs give you an idea of the link building (or the natural links a site has accumulated) over time.
When you see big jumps like this, it could be from a marketing push, a lot more press at the time, or maybe their SEO was building them a large amount of links.
What we’re looking for is just a graph that doesn’t look too crazy. If you see a bunch of big spikes where they’re getting large amounts of links in short times, it could be one of the things we mentioned above or a sign of spammy link building. Just like everything else, you need to look deeper into these things.
This particular referring domains graph looks pretty steady (referring pages graphs tend to look more dramatic) – it doesn’t look too crazy, and it looks pretty natural. In general, you would like to see both of these graphs steadily trending upwards.
On the right side of the page, we have the referring domains breakdown and the backlinks breakdown.
You can see the referring domains by their TLDs (.gov, .edu, .com, .net, .org), and you can see the links broken down by nofollow/dofollow, text, images, etc.
Like everything else, here we are looking for naturalness. If a site has 99% do-follow links, that isn’t exactly natural. All sites have some no-follow links. Likewise, if they have all image links or all .edu links, that’s going to look pretty suspicious.
This site has 67% .coms, 59% dofollow links, and 99% text links. This looks pretty natural.
Organic Search Graphs
We’re now going to to look at the second tab, organic search.
The organic traffic and organic keywords graphs are similar to the organic traffic and keywords metrics at the top of the page, but here they are plotted over time. This lets us get a better idea of the history of the metrics and how they are trending.
These graphs are a very good indicator of the site’s overall health. You want to see steady upward trends on these graphs as well. You don’t want to see large losses of traffic or keywords – that would be a very clear indicator that Google is unhappy with your site.
Things look pretty steady for this site – there’s nothing really crazy going on. These look like natural organic traffic and organic keywords graphs. It looks like they peaked and slowly had some losses of keywords and traffic but nothing too extreme.
On the right side of the page, there is a country breakdown for their keywords and traffic as well as a list of their top 10 competitors.
We don’t usually look at these things too much, but the top 10 competitors list could be pretty useful if you’re trying to reverse engineer the competition, and you generally want to see keywords/traffic for the countries the site is actually targeting.
That brings us to the end of the things we look at on the overview page.
On the left side of the page, click “Anchors” to get to the Anchos Page.
The anchor page is very important, and it’s one of the pages where you can very easily see the tactics that the people who are doing SEO on this site were using.
First, we like to see a good amount of natural anchor text – naked, branded, and generic anchors.
Branded: Laura Dale & Associates
Generic: Click Here
These types of anchor text are the most common and natural for real sites to accumulate. You generally want to see a pretty good amount of a site’s anchors falling into these categories, which they do for this site.
Some things that we don’t like to see on this page are:
- A bunch of foreign language anchor text
- Anchors like Viagra and other spam
- Too much exact match anchor text
We’ve seen sites with all of these things still able to rank well, however they can always lead to problems. Remember to try to take all the factors in at once to make a judgement – just because a site has a little spam isn’t the end of the world.
Exact match anchor text is anchor text that exactly matches one of the big keywords the site is trying to rank for.
Exact Match: Houston family law lawyer
This site has about 2% of their do-follow links with this anchor text which is not a huge amount. However, if you add up all the exact match anchors a site has, it will often make up the majority of their anchors. Having too many exact match anchors is one of the biggest problems we see with site’s that are brought to us that are experiencing difficulties.
This site looks like it has a good amount of those natural types of anchors. We generally like to see a little more than this, but this definitely isn’t the worst example we’ve seen – and you will often see sites with much worse anchor ratios doing very well in the SERPs.
Likewise, you need to see at least some exact match anchors – and to see them done in a smart way. They help tremendously for ranking when done correctly – which is by having variations of the keyword instead of always hitting the same one repeatedly.
On the right side of this page, you’ll see these details buttons. From here, you can see the referring domains or snippets of the sites that have linked to you with the given anchor text you selected.
You can also go further and click the “Backlinks” button to see more information about the individual links the site sent to you. You can find all of this info on the backlinks page as well, but here it’s grouped by anchor text.
This can be useful to do a more in-depth analysis of the quality of the links with the given anchor text. Are they getting a bunch of exact match anchors from footers or blog comments? Are they getting a bunch of stuff that looks really spammy and unnatural?
Next, we head over to the Backlinks Page by clicking “Backlinks” on the left side. This is where you can conduct your backlink analysis or backlink audit.
The backlinks page is very important and is one of the pages we spend the most time on. You can really analyze the quality of a site’s links from this page.
Before we get into it, let’s talk about the layout.
At the top we have some options. It comes set on “one link per domain,” which we leave like that. For “Link Type,” Some people like to view dofollow links only, however we usually don’t make any changes (nofollow links are still important).
Each row on this page represents a link that is pointing at your site. From left to right, you can see some information about the link/page/domain:
The Title of the linking page (blue text)
The URL of the linking page (green text)
The DR, UR, RD, Linking Domains, etc of the linking page/domain
The anchor text of the link (blue text)
The context of the link (black text – not all links have this)
The URL on your site that’s being linked to
The first/last date the link was seen
The # of links from the linking domain
We use all of this information to guage the quality of a site’s links. We refer to this as the “Holy Trinity,” and that is the authority, power, and relevance of the links.
You can sort links by UR to list them by the linking pages’ power or by DR to list them by the domains’ overall authority.
As for relevance, you are looking for keywords related to the terms you’re trying to rank for in the linking pages’ domains, URLs, titles, anchor text, and context.
To do that quickly, you can scan through and look yourself, or you can hit Ctrl+F and search for the term. You can see that they’ve got a bunch of titles, domains, and URLs that are linking to them with “lawyer” in them, which makes their links pretty relevant for the term.
If they were trying to rank for “family lawyer” and you noticed there wasn’t really much “family lawyer” on the page, that’s a pretty clear indication that their links are not very relevant for that term.
Another thing you want to be checking out on this page is link diversity.
You want to see many different types of links linking to the site because that is natural. You don’t want to see too much or only one type of link no matter if it’s guest posts, directories, PBN links, or anything else.
Also be on the lookout for spam (foreign stuff, nonsensical pages and URLs, pharma, etc). A little spam (or even a moderate amount of spam in some cases) is usually fine, but keep an eye on other things like your organic traffic and keywords graphs to gauge the general health of the site.
This page gives us lots of information about a site’s backlinks, so be sure to really dig in and spend some time here. If it’s not your site, you’ll probably even find some good links to try to get for yourself!
Organic Keywords Page
To get to the Organic Keywords Page, just click “Organic Keywords” on the left side of the screen.
Here you will see a list of all the keywords that Ahrefs has seen the domain ranking for as well as some more information about those rankings and terms.
This page is pretty self-explanatory – you can see the keyword, the search volume, the traffic they are getting from it, their rank, and the URL that is ranking.
Just like everything else when we’re looking at related to keywords and traffic, this page gives us a good idea of the health of the site and for how they’re doing for the keywords that they’re trying to rank for. You want to see things moving up in rank (green numbers) opposed to losing rankings (red numbers).
You should note that Ahrefs is not the best rank tracker out there. There are other tools much better suited for this job, but we still look at this page very regularly as we’re not usually tracking keywords for sites that aren’t ours or our clients’.
Top Pages and Best By Links
The last two pages that we really check out are top pages and the best buy links pages which you can find on the left side again.
We use top pages to sort the site’s pages by some different metrics. Sorting by traffic lets you see the most important traffic-pages of the site, and sorting by keywords lets you see which pages have the most ranking keywords. You can also see the top keyword for each page on the right side.
The best by links page is self-explanatory. You can see which pages have the most links. We like to check here to see if they have a good homepage/inner-page linking balance.
Ahrefs Guide Wrap-Up
That’s about it for how we analyze sites and this Ahrefs guide. These are all the most important things that we do using this tool – there are more ways to analyze sites, but these are the things we do every time we look at a site in Ahrefs.
Good luck! Get out there, start analyzing some sites and poking around! If you’ve got any questions or comments, please let us know below.
Watch the Video:
Chris Tzitzis is an SEO and a Co-Founder of SirLinksalot.co. He has extensive experience with Affiliate SEO and running an SEO Agency.
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