Within the search engine marketing community, research into links and link networks is a common task. From backlink analysis to link profiles and link building, many commercial tools are now available for the professional search engine marketer to use for in-depth link analysis. Prices for these specialized tools can range from $20/month to $600/month or more, rivaling the annual costs for many library databases. For some, link analysis can be a substantial portion of their jobs. The full scope of link analysis, for either backlinks or internal links, is well beyond the scope of this column.
For most information professionals, link searching is just one tool to consider. Fortunately, a number of freely available tools exist. Formerly available directly from search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, Blekko, and, to a limited extent, Google, most of the search engine-based options have vanished. (Blekko vanished completely and is no longer available.) Even the limited version from Google has become even more limited, while the independent backlink tools have multiplied. With the best options for link searching changing, it is time to reconsider when to use link search, what searches it can help with, and how to best use the tools available.
LINK SEARCH BASICS
To be effective for link searching or link analysis, tools need to meet several requirements. Particularly when using a non-search engine-based tool, the scope of the underlying database is important. First, it needs appropriate breadth, covering relevant websites. For breadth in general, the larger the index, the better (as long as it does not inflate size simply by including large numbers of spam pages). Second, the underlying database should be refreshed frequently enough so that searchers do not just find outdated links. Third, the tool should make it easy to distinguish among page links, duplicate URLs, and site links.
When evaluating a URL, consider whether you want to search for links to that specific page, to all pages within a subdomain on a site, or to the full site itself. Remember that many pages can be represented with multiple URLs. An address such as example.com/subdir/index.php may be exactly the same as example.com/subdir and even surdir.example.com. A smart link tool will recognize and concatenate multiple URLs for the same page and offer the ability to see the backlinks for each separately.
LINK SEARCHING STRATEGIES
Information professionals in a variety of fields have found interesting applications for link searching. One strategic use is for evaluation of unknown or questionable sites. A classic example is running a link search on the hate site mlking.org to discover what other primary sites that link to it are also hate sites. That search can still work, although many links are now from sites focused on evaluation of web sources.
You can also use link searching as an analysis tool for new websites and pages. Consider a small organization that has recently launched a website. Wondering who else knows about it? Try a link search to see who has already linked to it. For sites of organizations that are trying a soft launch or are in a quasi-stealth mode, the other sites that link may give clues as to who is involved in the organization, has funded it, or enjoys another potential relationship. Even for a new webpage on an existing site, link searches can show where it is linked from on the existing site (which may explain which part of the organization sponsored it). Then browse some external links to see where it is being discussed or advertised.
Even for older sites, link searching can help explore the online neighborhood. Explore the types of linking sites to see if many come from a certain country or region, a particular industry, a political viewpoint, or other easily understood group. Even a wide diversity of external links can tell a story about the website and how it is known and linked by other sites. Looking at the anchor text (the words used to make the link) from other sites can help explain how others see and interpret the target site.
For anyone updating a webpage or considering deleting one, a link search can help show you who else is linking to it. Even a very old and outdated page may still have links to it from other sites. Although that's not an indication it should not be deleted or updated, checking who else links to it may help in the decision about where to redirect traffic from the old page or what kind of update is needed. It also provides an opportunity to contact someone on the other site to let them know about the change.
SEARCH ENGINE LINK SEARCHING
Google's advanced search command for link searching has never worked very accurately. The syntax is simply to use the Link: prefix followed by the target URL. However, while Google uses the link network and link patterns that it knows about in many of its algorithms, Google has long stated that it only displays a few of the known link results. It only includes a selection, in part to prevent reverse-engineering of its algorithms and spamming of results.
Although a worthy goal, it is frustrating that results from a Link: search are incomplete. I have even found results without a link to the target (even after viewing the source of the cached copy of the page). There have been reports of times when no results are displayed at all for a Google link search. The option is no longer directly available on the advanced search page except in a note that links to a help page that also fails to list the Link: prefix. Instead, only the info: prefix is mentioned, which will in turn give link results.
Even with all the limitations at Google, it can be a good place to check first, just to see what Google reports. If you are just looking for a few links to a well-known URL to give a sense of the link network, the results may be good enough. Just remember that the results are not very comprehensive. The one Google exception is for website owners, who (if they have claimed their site and connected it to a Google account) can use Google's Webmaster Tools (google.com/webmasters/tools) to find links to their own sites and pages.
Once logged in to Webmaster Tools, the link reports can be found by selecting your site and then looking under Search Traffic/Links to Your Site. The reports show a total link count and sections for Who Links Most, Your Most Linked Content, and How Your Data Is Linked. Each section offers the ability to download a complete link report. The Internal Links section under Search Traffic also can help explore where pages are linked from elsewhere on your site. Unfortunately, this robust data is only available to registered site owners.
Bing has removed its link searching, and the old Bing and Yahoo Site Explorers are no more. Bing also has a Webmaster Tools area with reports for site owners. But to find a search engine that still allows anyone to run a link search, look to the small, relatively unknown, open source Gigablast search engine. It makes link searching easy. Every search result at Gigablast lets searchers run a follow-on link search just by clicking Linkers below the extract. That works, as does the Link: prefix followed by a URL.
Both Google and Gigablast process a Link: search similarly. Searchers can include the http:// or not. For sites that give the same content with or without www., the search can be entered either way. So all of these searches will usually get the same results:
While Gigablast does not limit link search results similarly to Google, it may or may not find more. Sometimes Gigablast gives an inexplicable messages such as "Results 1 to 2 of exactly 6." It also may omit some results because they are considered "duplicates, banned, anomalies, errors, or from the same site as other results." However, the full set of results can be displayed by using the option to Show All Results.
Gigablast also has more link commands, listed on its Syntax page. While Link: can be used for any single page, site Link: covers links to any page on the site. In other words, Link:exampLe.org might find 12 pages that link directly to example.org, while siteLink:exampLe.org could find 125 pages that link to example.org, example.org/ about, example.org/info, and other pages on the site. For the advanced link searcher, Gigablast has other link-related prefixes--gbsitenuminlinks, gbhopcount, and gbpermalink. See the Syntax page (gigablast.com/syntax.html) for details.
INDEPENDENT LINK SEARCH TOOLS
Unfortunately, Gigablast does not always have the most comprehensive or current index, and many link results may not be found there. The good news is, there are several other options to consider from search engine marketing companies.
Moz.com offers its Open Site Explorer (OSE; moz.com/researchtools/ose) as part of its commercial packages, but it also has a free, limited-use option. The Moz index includes hundreds of billions of URLs with a "mere" trillion links. See the current counts at the bottom of the OSE page.
Entering a URL into OSE results in a report with a number of more advanced limits, metrics, and ratings. The limit boxes let you change results from a specific page to a whole root domain or just a subdomain. Another limit toggles among external, internal, or all links. A third limit box offers more of a variety of types of links, including nofollow and 301 and 302 error codes. Additional options on the left of the screen include other link reports, including Just-Discovered, Top Pages, Linking Domains, Anchor Text, Compare Link Metrics, Spam Analysis, Link Opportunities, and Advanced Reports.
Moz limits free access to three OSE searches per day. For the occasional link searcher, that's probably sufficient. Plan to explore the free options over several days to get familiar with the features and how to use OSE so that you can use the free three per day judiciously. For more frequent link searches who cannot afford a full Moz Pro subscription, join the free Moz community (moz.com/community/join). You can then run an unlimited number or reports each day but with a limit of only 20 metrics and no social media metrics. Becoming a community member also lets you download a spreadsheet of results, so the link metrics can be compared across time and analyzed further. As a commercial operation, Moz could further limit the free access at any point.
Another option is the OpenLinkProfiler (openlinkprofiler.org). Like Moz, after running several queries, OpenLinkProfiler gives a "We have to protect OpenLinkProfiler.org from automated queries. Please create a free account to continue with your research" message. Signing up for the free account enables exporting up to 1,000 links for free. Larger downloads are available for a fee.
Majestic (majestic.com) is yet another company with several free options. Boasting the "largest link intelligence database on the planet," Majestic requires signing up for a free account to get started. The free account allows access to the Majestic Fresh Index of data from the past 3 months with hundreds of billions of URLs. The even larger Historic Index is only available to paying subscribers. Even after registering, only a few searches per day are allowed for free. However, the reports and data available give a quick overview of the many link analysis options available, including referring domains, backlinks, new, lost, and a link map.
Want to avoid all the registration and attempts to get you to subscribe? Try the free Site Explorer (siteexplorer.info). It requires entering a page with the http:// prefix to get results for just that page. For links to any page on a site, just enter the domain or use the domain: prefix. The free Site Explorer database is not as large as Majestic, Moz, or other commercial sites, but it sometimes finds more than Google or Gigablast. It clusters results by domain and displays anchor text and number of backlinks. Click on a domain to see the individual pages with links.
There are dozens of other backlink sites and link analysis tools. With most targeted at marketers, it is easy to miss their value for the information professional. For those who gave up link searches when search engines killed or throttled their link search commands and site explorers, try some of these other options. Link searching can be an important advanced search technique for uncovering information that may not be easily found any other way.
Greg R. Notess
Montana State University
Greg R. Notess (firstname.lastname@example.org; notess.com) is faculty and graduate services librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.
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|Title Annotation:||on the net|
|Author:||Notess, Greg R.|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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