Hiding your backlink profile from competitors


This is a sneaky little trick more than a hard and fast strategy but I explained it to some SEO people the other day and they found it interesting so I thought I’d turn it into a post.

Here’s the problem- one of the best ways to beat your competitors rankings is to mine their backlinks and copy all the open links. Unfortunately that means your own backlink profile is vulnerable to getting mined.

Now the best way around this is to create a backlink profile which can’t be easily replicated. But realistically parts of your profile like your directory listings, forums you participate in and associations you’re a member of are essentially FFA links for anyone with the time and possibly money to pursue them.

There’s plenty of link data sources out there – yahoo, linkscape, majestic seo etc and there’s no way to block these web services displaying your link data so instead we’re going to rely on good old fashioned user error.

Here’s what we do:

Step 1: Set a trap for your competitors

First you’re going to need to uncover the IP addresses of your competitors and/ or their SEO agencies. This is by far the hardest part of this process but it’s absolutely worth doing anyway because this is valuable information to have at your disposal for other reasons which I won’t go into here.

The trick is to lure the person responsible for SEO in the company onto a private page then store the details of their machine. Some creativity may be required here but to give you an example I used:

  1. Create a directory for whatever niche you’re in. Let’s say you’re a florist so you setup a little localflorists.biz directory of flower shops.
  2. Stick a page on that domain which will record the visitor IP. Let’s say you create a page at localflorists.biz/mycompetitorsname.html. The trick is you want a page that only the person from the company will ever land on so block it from search engines and don’t link it from the main site.
  3. Now you put in a call to your competitor saying you want to give them a free listing in your directory and want to speak to the person who deals with their SEO. Get an email address in the SEO team.
  4. Send an email to the competitor saying you’ve listed their company for free in your high PR florists directory and they just need to visit the page and update the company links section and make the page live. Include the link to the private page localflorists.biz/mycompetitorsname.html
  5. Now it doesn’t really matter what happens on that page, the important thing is that they were curious enough to click the link and have a look.
  6. Once they’ve visited the page you can check the visitor log files for the page mycompetitorsname.html and hey presto you’ve got their IP location.
  7. Repeat for other competitors

Step 2: Creating a shadow site

OK so with that data you can do all kinds of interesting and fun things to throw your competitors SEO teams off the scent like removing page titles or displaying the whole site in an inline frame! For now though what we want to do is point the competitors to an almost identical version of your website to the one you show everyone else. We’ll call this a ‘shadow site’ for lack of a better name.

Chances are you’ve got a bunch of domain names which are very similar to your main domain. For example I might have johnmcelborough.com and johnmcelborough.co.uk or john-mcelborough.com or even misspellings like jonmcelborough.com. For our purposes here the more subtle the difference the better so the mispelling is probably the least obvious. For this example I’ll use jonmcelborough.com as my shadow site.

Now use a mod_proxy to map johnmcelborough.com to jonmcelborough.com so the same content is displayed at both, the only difference is that little mispelling in the domain.

Use an X-robots header to stop search engines indexing all pages except the homepage of your shadow site to minimise duplication.

Step 3: Build some garbage links

Next you want to create a convincing looking but complete garbage backlink profile for your misspelt domain. This is easy just employ the first few companies which come up for these searches:

Bulk directory submission service
Dofollow blog commenting service
Dofollow social bookmarking service

Step 4: Cloak your competitors to the shadow site

Now cloaking search engine bots can get you into trouble but cloaking individual human users shouldn’t be a problem. What you need to do is create a little rewrite rule which will lookup a visitor IP, check it against your list of competitor IP addresses and if a match is found 301 redirect to the misspelt domain. If no match is found i.e. it’s a normal user or a search engine, do nothing, show them the real domain as usual.

Here’s what we hope will happen…

  • Your competitor Google’s your main keyword and you rank #1 in Google (of course).
  • They lick their lips and say something like ‘sweeeet, I’ll have a look at their backlinks’
  • They click on the google result and while they look away for a millisecond to pick their nose your rewrite sends them to the misspelt domain.
  • They scan around for a minute then either use their SEO toolbar to run off a link report or copy and paste the domain from the address bar into their backlink analysis tool (yse, ose, majestic etc)
  • They literally salivate with excitement as they see hundreds of free web directories, terrible paid links, social bookmarks and blog comments which they can spend hours replicating.
  • They download the link data and occupy themselves with reverse engineering the crap link profile you created for your misspelt domain.
  • Meanwhile the kickass links which are actually making your real domain rank remain elusive!

You’ll note there’s a lot of assumptions here. We’re assuming your competitor won’t notice the misspelling in the domain or will think it’s a recent change. We’re assuming they’ll be running backlink analysis manually rather than using a tool like Raven’s site explorer which scrapes the urls straight from the google results page or that they won’t copy the URL from Google rather than visiting the site first.

Also there’s going to be virtually no way to know if it’s worked or not. None the less, if you’re in a competitive industry and are defending valuable rankings this kind of tactic becomes a serious option.

If you’re an SEO agency, have a look at your own process for backlink analysis – do you think your link builders would fall for this cunning ploy?!

Ps – I deliberately haven’t included any code samples in this post. If you don’t know what you’re doing with this stuff you shouldn’t be attempting it- I wouldn’t myself without the supervision of a more experienced developer!