SEO Link Acquisition: Piggyback Link Building

There is no need to reinvent the wheel if someone else already has things figured out.  You can use this concept in your link building campaigns by looking at the links your competitors have already acquired.

Of all the reasons competitors are outranking you, links are one of the largest factors.

Piggyback link building is one of numerous link building strategies1. Here’s how it works and what you do:

  • Find the competitors that are outranking you in search.
  • Analyze their backlink profile (all of the sites pointing at their site).
  • Develop a plan to earn the exact same links.

Here is a little more detail on the four main phases to this strategy:

  1. Identify top competitors for core keyword phrases
  2. Plug those URLs into Ahrefs and organize referring domains by domain rank
  3. Identify links that are do-follow, obtainable and not spam
  4. Go after those links (piggyback on your competition’s strategy)

Phase 1: Identify Top Competitors for Core Keyword Phrases

Figure out what the core keyword phrases are that you want to rank for in search.  Your core keywords are those phrases that relate directly with your business and/or your goals for getting found in search.  For instance an attorney might use terms related to their practice area.  An auto dealer might go after the brand names they sell + city name.

Identifying Your Core Keywords

There is not one good way to do keyword research so do what you know or follow tips from sources you trust.  You can find a lot of articles on the topic around the web2.  A simple strategy is to start by writing out all the phrases you think your target customers would use to find you online.  At this point do not worry about getting things right.  Just get it all out on paper.


Next use Ahrefs’ Keyword explorer3 to find the estimated search volume of your keywords.  You can also use it to help generate new ideas for phrases you may not have thought of.  While you are researching, keep two things in mind.

  • You should be looking for purchase-intent keywords that have volume.
  • Avoid very general terms as they can be much more difficult to rank for.

Find a balance among phrases with high search volume, purchase-intent keywords, and relevance.

Your site should rank well for the services you want to promote but you should also go after phrases that people are actually using to find what you are selling and that indicate an intention of buying.

For instance if something has really low search volume, you might want to go after something more popular.  Conversely, try and stay away from phrases that are too broad or too competitive. 

The amount of core keyword phrases you have will depend on your business and for the purposes of this guide, choose one phrase that is most important for you to go after. 

You can apply the same technique to other phrases as well.  Here is what Ahrefs gave us for the keyword phrase personal injury lawyer houston:

ahrefs keyword suggestions

Note that you can use the filter at left to only show phrases containing certain words.  You can also export the list if it is easier for you to work with in Excel.

Finding Your Top Competitors

There are a lot of ways you can find your top competition in search.  You can do it manually or use third party tools.

Your top competitors pretty much consist of all the sites outranking you for the keyword phrase you have used.  If you are trying to rank a brand new page, just use the first couple pages of search results.  You can download URLs with associated ranking information using browser tools like the SEO Tool Bar from SEO Book4.

An easier method is to use a competitive analysis tool.  Ahrefs has one called the Site Explorer5.  With it you can plug in a URL and Ahrefs will spit out top competitors, estimated traffic sources, and the top 5 organic keywords that the URL is ranking for.


It is important to point out that just because a page is ahead of you search for a keyword phrase does not mean this strategy alone will help you out rank it.  Assessing the links leading to pages that are out performing a page on your site is a good place to start.

Plug URLs into Ahrefs

As we mentioned earlier, exporting URLs into a spreadsheet makes this part of the process much easier.  Take one URL at a time and plug it into Ahref’s link analysis tool.

Follow the rest of the steps in this post before moving onto the next URL in your list.  Not all links that are leading to a page will need to be investigated.  In fact, you may find that some URLs do not have valuable links at all.

Phase 2: Organize URLs by Domain Rank (Referring Domains)

The first page you will see after Ahrefs is done running its analysis is the overview screen.  There is a lot of interesting data here but we are looking for the referring domains that are leading to the site being analyzed.

In the left column under the Inbound Links heading click on “Referring Domains”.


In case you were curious, there are a couple of reasons we want to look at referring domains as opposed to all inbound links leading to a page.

  1. The first is that in SEO, it is the number of domains leading to a page that creates the most influence in search and not necessarily the most links coming from a single domain.  Each domain counts as a vote for the page.  Just like in politics, many votes from many people says a lot more about a candidate than many votes from one person.
  2. The second reason is that some websites can have a lot of links to look through.  Since the number of domains is a more relevant metric here, it will save us time to only go through those instead of every single link leading to a page.

Phase 3: Qualify Links as do-follow, Obtainable, and not Spam

Sort by DR (Domain Rating)

If there are a lot of domains that look like good targets, you are probably better off exporting the report and working with it in Excel.

Domain Rating6 is a measurement Ahrefs applies to the domain that indicates how authoritative it is. 

On the referring domains page, sort the DR column from high to low. The domains at the top of the list are the ones you want to figure out how to get. A good benchmark is to go after domains that are DR20 or higher (although the closer to 100 the better).

In general you want domains that have a high DR (and that meet other criteria which we will discuss in a moment).  This will be subjective and based largely on the domain you are analyzing. 

For example if you have a URL with dozens of links with a DR of 50 and up, you can probably get rid of any domains that have a lot less than that. 

On the other hand if most of the referring domains are in the 30’s and 40’s, you will have to lower your standards a bit.  The point is to go after the better domains.

Find Do-follow Links

Next you will want to see which links are do-follow.  Do-follow links pass PageRank or page authority and therefore will help the site rank higher.

All links from that domain could be do-follow, a portion of them or none of them.  You can see them in the column next to domain rank in Ahrefs. 

To get only the referring domains that are do-follow and still be able to sort by Domain Rating, use the advanced filter.

Sorting dofollow Referring Domains

Now you will only see referring domains that are do-follow.

Sorting Do-follow domains

Note that there is nothing wrong with no-follow links (although they do not pass PageRank7).  They are actually a good way to balance out a backlink profile and people will still follow them to your site.  For the purposes of this post however, we do not want to waste time on them.

Look for Obtainable URLs

With your list narrowed down to high-quality do-follow URLs, you have to judge which sites you will be able to get links from. 

Sometimes this is obvious and other times it is not.  An extreme example might be if a competitor has somehow gotten a link from 

Getting a link from that source would be great but how much time, effort and money is required? It may not even be possible at all to obtain that kind of link.  

Conversely, a link from a local chamber of commerce website is a far more realistic goal to pursue because it may have a decent DR and membership in those organizations is not hard to get.

Your choices will most likely not be that clear cut.  The biggest concern is obtaining too many links from sites that are not contextually relevant to yours. 

Take the domains that look good on paper and visit them.  See what they are all about.  If the site looks irrelevant to you (or if it’s spammy), there is a good chance you do not want a link from it. 

It’s a tedious process but if you do thorough work here, the rest of the process will be more fruitful.

You will repeat the above steps for all of the domains that you pulled out of the original search using your core keyword phrase.  It is a lot of footwork but this is what it will take to move the needle.

Phase 4: Piggybacking

Finally, the point of all this is to find URLs that your competition may be using to rank well in search and get links from those same domains to help improve your site’s ranking.


Take the domains that you have filtered out of the bunch and plug them into a whois service8.  From that you will be able to get some information on who the admin contact is for the domain name.  You may also be able to find contact information on the domain itself (such as on a contact page or in the footer area).

Here is what you see in a typical scan (this one is from our former brand name Attorney Rankings):


Link Acquisition Strategy

Once you have your contact list built out, you have to come up with a strategy for getting your links.  Depending on your type of business, this could vary. 

You should have some idea based on why these sites were linking to your competition of how to acquire similar ones. For example maybe some of the sites are directories related to your industry or perhaps blogs similar to the products and/or services you offer.

Try to get inspiration from how your competitors may have acquired these links.  If the site you are reaching out to is a blog, you might offer to do a guest post.  Directories will often take link submissions.  Maybe there are social profiles that you have not yet linked to your site.

For links obtained by contacting webmasters, outreach can be a tedious and time consuming process.  You may send out hundreds of emails over a handful of months. 

Not all of the people you email will respond so you have to send out a lot of messages.  Some links may require more effort than others to acquire (such as those obtained through guest blogging).

Walking the Walk

It is easy to talk about these strategies in theory but quite another to actually perform them.  A campaign like this can take months and a lot of very laborious work. 

We thought it would be helpful to include some information on how we were able to get this strategy to work for one of our clients.

As an example, when we started working with we did a competitor analysis for a few of the top sites ranking for the phrase “long island bankruptcy attorney“. 

One of the top sites at that time was amdlaw[dot]com.  After looking at the site’s backlink profile in Ahrefs, we quickly determined that was a high quality link prospect with a DR of 72 (then it was DR60) and geographic relevancy.

Referring Domain Competitive Analysis 

Often if you are an SEO specialist and you are not from the same location as the client this can be an easy way to find those types of links.  It is also particularly important for Chamber of Commerce membership directory links, local media and interest groups.

Before we started our work, ny-bankruptcy[dot]com had little organic visibility and moderate local visibility but after “piggybacking” off of the top ranking sites we are in the ‘A’ position in maps and 1st in organic for “long island bankruptcy attorney”.

NY-bankruptcy in local pack

Here is a shot of where the link was picked up by Ahrefs in the client’s link profile after we acquired it.

Link acquired for Ny Bankruptcy

If you are running a campaign like this, once you have piggybacked all the links available you can then craft a new campaign for other opportunities where your competitors may be stronger than you. 

The benefit of this piggybacking is that it takes a lot of the guess work out of link building. 

Part of the goal for ranking well in search is to outrank your competitors. You can do that faster if you reverse engineer what they did in search and then duplicate it.

The sites that are outranking you in search for your keyword phrase are doing so partly because they have higher-quality and a higher quantity of referring domains than you do.  You can level the playing field by obtaining the links that your competitors have by emulating their strategy.


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