Knowledge, as they say, is gold—particularly when it comes to knowing what your competitors are up to.

So I'm going to share a little golden tip on how to use the Web to spy on your competitors. Don't worry, it's perfectly legal.

One way to dig up details on a rival is to mine its link-building strategy. You want to look at inbound links, which are links coming to that website directly from outside sources.

What is the value of these links?

Here's what the Google Webmaster Central Blog has to say about inbound links: "Inbound links can bring new users to your site, and when the links are merit-based and freely-volunteered as an editorial choice, they're also one of the positive signals to Google about your site's importance."

Those "positive signals" result in a higher ranking in search results for keywords relating to the website. There are a number of ways businesses acquire inbound links: getting press coverage, creating content that is picked up by other sites–in other words, by getting attention.

How to find 'em

You can also find out who is linking to your competitors' sites by using Open Site Explorer. Simply type in the URL of your competitor and you will instantly get a trove of valuable information. If you have a "Pro" account, you can then export the back-link data to an Excel spreadsheet. Once you have this information, you can immediately see how many links your competitors are getting (are they actively and effectively engaging in search engine optimization?).

Once you have the back-link information on a spreadsheet, you can then sort the information in ways that will give you real insights into your competitors' search engine marketing strategies:

  • Sort by Domain Authority: Search engines give a "weight" to every domain name, indicating how authoritative it is. The higher the weight of the domain linking to your rival, the more value it has in terms of search engine optimization. This sort will tell you which major media outlets are linking to the website as well as other highly regarded domains.
  • Sort by Anchor Text:  The "anchor text" is the underlying descriptive text that is attached to a link. This anchor text gives you clues as to which keywords for which your competitor is trying to optimize. You can use this information to either beat them at their own game (optimize for the same terms) or to find alternate terms to attract traffic.
  • Sort by Landing Page URL: It is a common misconception that the best landing page for a link is the homepage of your site. Often, it is best to link to a specific service, product, category, or informational page. You can get a clear view of what your competition is trying to promote by seeing what the backlinks are pointing to.
  • Sort by ".Com, .Gov, and .Edu: Under the algorithms of all of the major search engines, greater weight is given to .edu (educational institutions) and .gov (United States governmental agencies). These carry a seal of legitimacy and are highly coveted. If your competitors are getting these links, you can figure out the strategies they are using. For example, ".edu" links can come from providing content that is of use to the academic community or even by sponsoring events or speaking at colleges.

Armed with this information, you have the power to:

  • Discover the domains that have a policy of linking to businesses in your industry and approach those domains for links to your site.
  • See which media outlets and which reporters/bloggers are covering businesses in your industry and pitch them with story ideas relating to your business or expertise.
  • See which sites are accepting content from your competitors and offer to provide them with your own original (quality) content.
  • See which keywords your competitors are going after and then adjust your keyword strategy accordingly.

Have other competitive intelligence tips? Leave them in the comments!