The OSINT Newsletter - Issue #18
Using backlink checkers for OSINT
Using search engines for gathering information for open source intelligence is to some the foundation for the tradecraft. Companies like Google index the world wide web and make it easy for analysts, investigators, and the like to find the information they’re looking for, analyze it, and craft OSINT where value is found. But what happens when what you’re looking for isn’t indexed by Google, Yandex, Bing, or any other search engine?
The truth is, search engines can’t and never will capture everything. In situations like these, OSINT practitioners rely on their experience and critical thinking skills to find information where it’s not easily found.
In this issue, we’re going to look at using backlink checker tools as search engine alternatives to find valuable information we can use to craft OSINT. From mentions of tweets to Telegram channels to Google Doc links and everything in between, if you have hyperlinks to source material you’re trying to analyze, this is a great tool to have in your tool belt.
Backlink checkers are tools that allow you to see which websites are linking to a specific domain, subdomain, or URL web. Backlink checkers work by scanning the internet for links and compiling a list of those links, allowing you to query for them using a search engine.
Let’s take a look at a few of these tools and how you can use them for open source intelligence.
SEMRush is a tool used primarily for marketing purposes. For our use case, we’re going to only use the backlink analysis feature they offer which allows us to search for specific URLs and find backlinks to them. This is an area that Google and other search engines are generally weak in and a similar query into those search engines may yield 0 results.
SEMRush isn’t entirely free but they offer a free version. That free version lets you do 10 queries a day. Because this is an enterprise tool, there aren’t really cost-effective options; however, unless you’re working on several cases at once, 10 queries a day should be more than sufficient.
Here’s an example of a search for bellingcat.com. It looks like there are over 3 million backlinks to Bellingcat in SEMRush’s database. Their database will return Source page Title and URL, Anchor text and Target URL, and First/Last Seen dates. These are excellent pivot points to expand your investigation.
What makes SEMRush the most powerful tool on this list is their feature that allows you to search within a title after you’ve conducted your initial search. In this example, I filter by the TLD .ru, filtering results to ~51,000 mentions on Russian websites.
Ahrefs is another tool primarily designed for marketing; however, for OSINT use cases, it can be a powerful ally to SEMRush as it has its own database that might contain content that SEMRush doesn’t have. Similar to SEMRush, it’s not a free tool. They’re also targeted for enterprise so unless you find significant value and are working on multiple cases simultaneously, it’s probably best to stick to the free preview.
In this example, I search again for bellingcat.com. The free preview that ahrefs provides gives you approximately 100 backlinks for free. Combined with Instant Data Scraper, you can quickly move this data to a Google Sheet for further analysis.
The Hoth is another SEO-targeted website that has a backlink checker. Their backlink checker is powered by SEMRush so if you’re out of queries on SEMRush, head on over to The Hoth to continue your research.
Alternative: Ubersuggest Backlink Checker
Combining the results from SEMRush, ahrefs, The Hoth, and Ubersuggest should yield a powerful dataset that you can use to pivot from and expand your research. Combined with Instant Data Scraper, you can take your dataset “offline” for further research without needing to eat up additional search queries later.
Remember #OSINT != tools. Tools help you plan and collect data but the end result of that tool is not OSINT. You have to analyze, verify, receive feedback, refine, and produce a final, actionable product of value before it can be called intelligence.
This is the end of the free subscription to The OSINT Newsletter. To see practical applications of OSINT tactics and techniques, please consider supporting this publication with a paid subscription.
Paid subscribers get access to practical OSINT tactics and techniques I haven’t published publicly online. This issue will explore how to implement backlink checkers into your OSINT workflow and how you can go from a valuable data point to a full OSINT investigation across multiple tools.
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