Reclaiming backlinks that were meant for your site is a fairly common SEO practice, but usually it involves contacting sites about unlinked brand mentions, or those who have tried to add a link but set it to a 404.
What’s less common is trying to reclaim backlinks that currently point to another website.
However, this is less nefarious than it first sounds. As we’ll see, it’s quite easy to accidentally link to the wrong site — so there could be a large number of backlinks that were intended for your company but instead currently lead to another, unrelated site with a similar domain name.
This was something I’d never considered until Ahrefs’ Joshua Hardwick mentioned it at a Sheffield DM talk last year — so thanks Joshua!
So how do these misplaced links happen, and who are the biggest winners and losers in it all?
Let’s start off with a site whose backlink profile I’ve always been curious about:
I’ll guard those links for you, mate
The domain guardian.com is owned not by the major British newspaper, as you might expect, but by a Michigan manufacturing company called Guardian Industries (the newspaper operates under theguardian.com). I dread to think what guardian.com’s bounce rate must be.
As you can imagine, a lot of people assume that adding a link to guardian.com will send people through to the newspaper, and they clearly can’t be bothered to check.
The result is amazing for this Michigan manufacturer’s backlink profile, and terrible for the Guardian’s (although I’m sure they haven’t felt the impact too much).
Guardian.com has almost 1,800 backlinks to its homepage. I took a random sample of 100 of these backlinks to try and work out how many were actually intended for the newspaper.
The result was a whopping 73 out of 100 — and the few links that were meant for the manufacturer were largely spam such as traffic/domain rank aggregator sites.
Extrapolating that out across the remainder of the links to guardian.com’s homepage — and assuming the trend is consistent — that means just under three-quarters of all the links to that page are meant for another site. To quantify it, that’s over 1,300 accidental backlinks which guardian.com has gained without any effort on their part.
I estimate that three-quarters of all the links to guardian.com’s homepage are meant for another site — that’s over 1,300 links!
Ironically, one of these links is from the Guardian newspaper itself, when their own columnist managed to accidentally link to the wrong Guardian! (For added irony, the story was written by the Guardian’s then-Head of SEO…)
Guardian.com has a Moz Domain Authority score of 57 — pretty high for a manufacturing company — and you can bet that the links intended for the Guardian are a significant reason for this.
The caveat to this is that, of course, the context of a link is very important, and the vast majority of these links will be irrelevant to an American manufacturer when they were meant for a British newspaper, so the SEO benefit isn’t as strong as you might think.
Dude, where’s my link?
Next up is one of my all-time favourite websites. After a new car from a certain Japanese manufacturer? Naturally you might type nissan.com into the address bar and hit enter, expecting to see their latest models.
Instead, you’d be in for a shock: welcome to the most 90s website imaginable, owned by a Israeli guy called Uzi Nissan who repairs computers. He beat the automobile giant to the domain in 1994, forcing Nissan cars to set up at the much less desirable nissan-global.com. A great win for the underdog, although Uzi seems to have spent most of the last 25 years in court as the Japanese company repeatedly try and sue him for it, so maybe it wasn’t worth it after all…
Nonetheless, he’s got some decent backlinks out of it. Nissan.com has over 58,000 backlinks from more than 3,300 referring domains. While the novelty of the site is the reason for some of these, a lot of the links are intended for the car company. This Iranian car encyclopedia, for instance, links to Uzi’s site over 1,100 times by accidentally having nissan.com as the link in their “visit manufacturer site” button on each Nissan model page.
The Times, they are a-changin’ domain
Very similarly to the Guardian, The Times newspaper has opted for thetimes.co.uk as its online home, but that hasn’t stopped people assuming a link to times.co.uk will reach them. Although the latter domain is registered, it isn’t currently live, meaning it’s effectively an internet dead end.
Over 4,500 backlinks currently lead to this void, including links from several other UK newspapers — there’s a joke about journalistic standards dropping there somewhere.
And like the Guardian, The Times have even forgotten their own domain name themselves on occasion. Here’s them trying to link to their Brexit coverage from an article:
Scoring linkbuilding own goals
Next, to the world of sport, where the same thing is evident. The football (soccer) team Arsenal FC sets up shop at arsenal.com, but the dead end site arsenalfc.com has over 500 backlinks from almost 100 sites, including high-profile European newspapers.
Conversely, Arsenal’s London rivals Chelsea FC eschewed the simpler domain name to go for chelseafc.com, leaving chelsea.com to be taken by a New York advertising company.
Amusingly, almost 10% of chelsea.com’s referring domains are football websites, including a dozen Chelsea FC fansites who clearly don’t know their club as well as they think.
Gooles, ghosts and disappearing links
Of course, another common cause of misplaced backlinks is people misspelling the domain they’re trying to link to (or just not knowing what the company’s called in the first place — to that end, Tescos.com has collected a respectable 36 backlinks).
Setting up domains to catch traffic and backlinks from misspellings of popular websites is an old black-hat SEO tactic known as ‘typosquatting’, but my favourite of this genre is an innocent community website.
The owners of goole.com, a site set up to provide information on the tiny Yorkshire town of Goole, almost certainly never considered the SEO implications of their domain name.
But their site is just one missed letter from Google, and they’ve been reaping the benefits of this for years. Goole.com has collected at least 6,000 backlinks that were meant for our search engine overlord, through a combination of fat-fingered people trying to link variously to Google Maps, Google Plus, Google Drive, Google Meet, Google Hangouts and Google Play.
Interestingly, around 95% of these links were intended for Google Plus — are Google Plus users just particularly clumsy?
However, an even bigger beneficiary of typo’d backlinks is witter.com. This site — the personal site of a Wisconsin artist whose surname is Witter — has amassed some 40,900 backlinks — all of which were meant to go to Twitter. The majority of links were to specific Twitter threads, so must’ve caused significant confusion to the people clicking them.
Finally, the fairly understandable typo wikipaedia.org has collected just over 500 links.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? As fortunate as these links might seem for the sites on the receiving end of them, ultimately in most cases it’s not going to magically transform their SEO. Unless the link points to their homepage, the chances are it will go to a 404 on the receiving site, so it’s not as though the link is passing equity across their domain.
Witter.com doesn’t rank for a single keyword tracked by SEMRush, and Goole.com only ranks for the kind of local interest keywords that you’d expect — so it’s not like these links supercharge small sites to be able to rank for huge volume keywords.
That said, Guardian.com does appear in the top 20 results for ‘Guardian newspaper website’ and ranks for a total of 62 news-related keywords —although the similar company name is obviously a factor, I’d image the relevancy signals conferred by all those news-related backlinks are a big cause too.
The bigger takeaway, though, is that sometimes SEO wins come from trying to think like someone who has never heard of SEO.
If you were trying to link to a site but couldn’t remember its address, and couldn’t be bothered to check, you’d link to what the URL probably is, right? Well, that’s how most of these links come about, and by reaching out to the referring domains, you might be able to reclaim a significant number of links.
As a final note, we have recently started our first TwinklHive SEO packages, aimed at helping accelerate the growth of start-up businesses over a short time frame. For more information, follow the link above or get in touch with email@example.com!