Marketers looking for (free!) link building insights might find Blekko or Majestic SEO can serve their inbound link data needs.

November 21, 2011, was a fateful day for the SEO world, as one of the arguably best -known and most used backlink checkers shut down. The tool I’m referring to was Yahoo Site Explorer, and although it may have seemed sudden, its close was a long time coming. Yahoo merged its Site Explorer with Bing Webmaster Tools as part of the completion of its search alliance with Microsoft.

Like many other SEO marketers out there, I was initiated into the world of backlink tracking using Yahoo Site Explorer. Even though I now have a variety of go-to link tracking sources, YSE had me at the word “free,” and I loved that it gave me link insights without having to verify ownership of a site (which Google and Bing webmaster tools require). The beauty of not having to verify site ownership is that you can check your competitors’ links to see how your site stacks up against the competition.

I have been on the quest to find a free alternative to YSE since before the tool officially closed down.  I’m happy to share some insights on the free tools I’ve found that may serve as temporary substitutes for Yahoo’s link explorer among marketers on a budget who want to measure their link building initiatives this year.

Setting the Link Tool standards

I had a few requirements that needed to be met when I was searching for a new tool.

  1. First and foremost, I wanted to find something that any marketer could afford – in other words, I wanted the tools I reviewed to be free, like Yahoo Site Explorer. And not “30-day trial” free, not “this version is okay, but you should really purchase this upgrade” free – I wanted to find a plain old free tool.
  2. Second of all, the tool I sought needed to be able to search an entire site, meaning the root URL as well as any and all subdomains. You can tell whether a back link tool is built to check for subdomains by ensuring that it drops the “www” before the URL.
  3. Finally, because YSE still holds the number one place in my heart, I used long-standing data collected from Yahoo Site Explorer as a quality comparison to all tools tested and reviewed.

Here’s a look at two free tools with promise for marketers who need something to launch their 2012 inbound link reports.

Blekko

Blekko has recently sparked a lot of conversations in the search world for being a unique search engine. Content marketers may find the engine’s human curation places special emphasis on quality information for SEO via the backslash functionality that allows extra filters for search results.

Marketers who want to use this inbound link tool need to be somewhat familiar with Blekko’s backslashes, as they provide one way to access the data. In order to get inbound link info, you have two “slash” options.You can type in the URL and add the backslash “seo,” or you can type the domain followed by the backslash “domainlinks.” More simply, you can conduct a Blekko search for the domain you want data for and click on the “seo” option that pops up beneath the result.

You’ll need to create a free account to get Blekko’s link data, but in return you’ll be offered ample link insights. Aside from providing the number of inbound links, Blekko gives other useful information about the site, including duplicated content statistics and insights on regions where your links are coming from.

The main Domain SEO page provides an overview of the number of external sites linking to your page. Marketers can easily confirm that the entire domain was searched. It also gives the geographic breakdown of your inbound links.

More pages (accessible via a navigation bar on the right side of the screen) offer insights on the specific domains linking to your website. The “inbound links” page (see below) lists domains pointing to your site, arranged according to their Blekko site rank (though you can manually set them to be listed according to the number of inbound links provided, the most recent link providers, etc). Clicking on the number of links from any given domain will show a list of the specific inbound links to your site from that domain. 

Additionally, the “duplicate content” section offers insight on where your pages are being scraped across the web, and the “site pages” feature (see right) offers a peak at the top content pages on your site. This information can help you with link building as it can inform content marketing plans, though Blekko gives no data about the actual number of links pointing to the “top pages.” 

The Good:

Blekko meets all three of my previously stated requirements: It provided spot-on results in comparison to my long standing YSE data, gave link data for the entire domain and it is completely free. There is also something to be said for how user-friendly the service is. The information is clear and easily accessible, providing data in a similar format to YSE.

Another great aspect of this tool is that it makes it easy to create reports directly from the web. Unlike databases such as Raven, Blekko lets you hyperlink or bookmark your results pages. This makes tracking current data and generating reports easy.

The Bad:

One alarming issue regarding Blekko is how infrequently the data is updated. I have been tracking Blekko results for a little more than a month now, and I’ve come across flat lining inbound link statistics due to what I can only imagine is a lack of crawls. (Google Webmaster insights suggest it’s not an issue with the site or an actual halt in inbound link growth.) Results are stagnant for up to two-week periods. For SEO managers checking their inbound links (or their competitors’ inbound links) regularly, real-time results are extremely helpful. Inbound links can be a daily changing game, and instant insights on how your linkscape is dynamic will help you understand how Google views your site.

The Bottom Line:

I recommend Blekko’s SEO function as a replacement tool for those who were previously using Yahoo Site Explorer. It’s extremely user friendly and great for the newer SEO. With the exception of the lag time in link data, I find the results to be easily accessible and on par with my past data. Blekko seems to show an accurate picture of a site’s total inbound links at any given point in time, and it offers more insights that can shape content marketing plans for further link building.

Majestic Site Explorer

The other inbound link tracking tool that caught my eye was Majestic’s Site Explorer.

To get the full range of free services, marketers have to register for a complimentary account. This tool works by giving data on “fresh index results” or “historic index results.” The fresh index provides link information from the past 30 days, where the historic index contains all of Majestic’s link data for a given domain (though it doesn’t include all “fresh links” in its historic archive). Once you choose which type of link report you’d like to view, the results are displayed according to referring domains and external back links.

You can also view the inbound links at the root domain level, the subdomain level and the page level. Regardless of which inbound link data you view, the summary tab gives a breakdown of how many links are coming from sites in varying industries. This can be helpful in terms of finding your niche audiences (and it also makes it easy for your to see which niches competitors are outperforming you in if you input their domains instead of your own).

With a free account, you can view the “Top Pages” tab, which shows a list of your site pages ranked according to the number of links they’ve attracted. (As I mentioned, Blekko’s similar function fails to provide a concrete number of inbound links for the site pages listed.) This empowers marketers with data on the site content that is sparking conversation and fueling inbound links and content marketing campaigns can be informed by past link building successes.

A free account also provides five results in the “Top Referring Domains” tab, and the “Top Backlinks” tab shows the five most influential inbound links a site has, including the referring domains and which pages they link to. Marketers can get a sense of where their content is shared and incorporate this information in targeting agendas, and they can also monitor link development to see that they continue to receive links from those sites. Upgrading to the higher subscription level (which comes in silver, gold and platinum) will give access to the top 1,000 referring domains. (Notably, Blekko doesn’t put a limit on the number of referring domains or top backlinks in its free tool, but the data Blekko provides doesn’t seem to extend as far back as Majestic’s historic data.)

The Good:

I would recommend using Majestic’s Site Explorer for those tracking their own sites’ inbound link growth, concentrating on a small number of sites. The tool has numerous tiers of information, which stretch well beyond the number inbound links, and its unique feature offering the breakdown of links from varying industries provides useful insights for SEOs looking to better target their content marketing initiatives. Plus, Majestic’s Site Explorer is very data heavy for those who want concrete numbers of links pointing to a page or the number of links from top referring domains.

The Bad:

While all of this information proves useful for detailed research, Majestic falls short in terms of my need for a day-to-day tool with an all-inclusive number of links. There’s an overlap between the fresh index data and the historic data that makes it hard to gauge a site’s current overall number of inbound links. Plus, users have to tune out in-your-face-advertisements asking them to upgrade from the free version.

The Bottom Line:

I would recommend Majestic SEO to marketers who want more comprehensive data about their linkscape. Because the tool breaks up link info by fresh and historic indexes, it’s a little unclear how many links actually point to a site at a given moment. However, the additional information, such as the top referring domains and the industry breakdowns, provide great data that can be used to encourage more link building.

In the end, my SEO friends, I find there is a hole in the free SEO sphere left by the loss of Yahoo Site Explorer. Blekko reigns as my current favorite free tool, but I still hold out hope that a new free service will rise. One of my SEO predictions for the beginning of 2012 is that we’ll see a lot more conversations being fueled by the desire for a free and dependable inbound link tracking tool. In the meantime, Blekko’s tool might do the trick – and maybe the company will advance the features it offers.

What free inbound link tools are you using? Share insights in the comments!

Danielle Geoffroy is a Client Support Executive at Brafton, concentrating heavily on SERP tracking, as well as creating and maintaining client XML feeds. She generates reports on clients' ROI and loves testing out the newest, most innovative SEO tools.