For search engine marketers, it’s very easy to get engulfed in our day to day tasks to improve our search rankings. Many factors come into play when performing SEO including: varied on-page optimization practices, editorial outreach, and social media creation and curation. However, the most effective search marketers understand that while it is extremely important to constantly monitor their own actions, they must also carefully monitor the competition to identify “ranking cues” for a given marketplace.
The purpose of this article is to dive into exactly how we can go about getting a “leg-up” on the competition by beating them at their own game. For the purposes of this article, we will assume the role of a prominent eCommerce company which retails electronics. We’ll call this company “Standard Electronics.”
So, as the sole internal SEO guru, you finally sit down at your computer to start the competitive research process. The first thing that you’re going to want to do is identify who your competitors are. You may already have quite a bit of this information from your initial SEO Plan (if you have one), but you’re going to want to do some more research as well.
The first and most obvious way is to search for your keywords on a search engine (preferably Google). Your top competitors are going to be on the first and second SERP’s (Search Engine Results Pages) for any given keyword and may differ for certain keywords. For example, as Standard Electronics, your competitors may be different for “Televisions” than for “Laptops.” While you may have many more direct and indirect competitors, the competitors on the first two (or three) SERPS are going to be more invested in SEO than competitors lower on the totem.
You will probably want to do this every time you target new keywords or once per quarter (or half) depending on your type of business. Once you’ve identified your competitors, you’re going to leverage web-based tools to use in order to do research and analysis. There are many tools out there, so it is to your advantage to do good research into the specifics.
Here are the types of tools that you’re going to want to use:
A tool for backlink mining
Crucial for identifying link targets. SEOMoz has a great tool called Open Site Explorer. This is limited for free users.
A tool for automating rank checking
These are not an exact science, but they will certainly save you time on checking for multiple keywords.
A tool for keyword research
Google’s tool or wordtracker both work well for naming conventions
A tool for analyzing on-page SEO
Most for a fee, but these tools will help you in crafting metadata
In order to get further insight into the data, you should export each of the tools results into an excel document. How you format the document is up to you, but it is effective to utilize the tab based layout in Excel for segmenting by keyphrase or by competitor. When sorting and analyzing link data, you will want to pay close attention to link anchor text. This will help gain insight into what keywords your competitors are optimizing for and targeting. You will also want to sort by authority and relevance, basically the pagerank and site age factors.
After sorting, you will want to then analyze the data to make some sense of it and get a better picture of your competitor’s link profiles. What types of sites are linking to your competitor? Are they all forums or directories, or are they receiving links from blogs and news sites? Are the sites of high authority and relevance? Maybe your competitor has a lot of links from its distributors, or is highly involved in forums or social media. Do they have a lot of no-follow links or are the links all passing link juice? Do they have a great company blog which they link to pages deep within their site? How about their metadata? Are the title tags and meta-descriptions well written and properly applied? These are some of the many questions that you want to ask yourself when looking over competitor data.
The final step is to act on the findings. Do you see your client obtaining links from writing great original content? If so, then take a similar strategy. You may want to consider starting a company blog. Is there a large community based around your products? You may want to consider starting a support forum where people can interact and you can establish your company as a thought leader and community supporter. Maybe it’s time to determine some new keywords that your competition is targeting. Or maybe it’s time to update all of your on-page SEO. If you see your competitor is doing well with social media, you may strongly want to consider this as a new area of focus to incorporate into your SEO (you’ll probably want to do this anyway).
Competitive research is part science and part art. There are many important steps that you simply cannot ignore, but creativity highly comes into play when interpreting raw data. It is always good to involve other members of your team where possible. Maybe your marketing or sales department has some information on competitors you may have missed in your research. Maybe they have relationships where you can obtain links that are highly valued that your competitor may not have. This is an ongoing process that should be evaluated and kept current. By integrating competitive intelligence into your SEO gameplan, preferably on a quarterly basis, your business will be stronger positioned within the highly competitive organic search market.