In my experience, website owners often make recurring mistakes marketing their site as though they were the first to ever market one – all in an effort to get ahead of their competitors and attain greater visibility. But why reinvent the wheel when there is a simple way to get your mitts on the blueprints and improve the site instead?
In this case, the blueprints can be had quite easily by researching the methods your successful competitors have used to get to the top. By digging into the tried and true online marketing concepts we all should pay attention to (link building, reputation building, onsite optimization, etc.), any particularly successful methods of achieving results used by your competitors can be uncovered.
This article delves step by step into some methods for attaining actionable marketing information on your competitors. To make this process more manageable, I suggest creating a summary of your findings at each step, so that you can reference each one later. In addition, when applicable, I have listed software I have used to aid in your research.
Step 1 – Choose the right competitor
You likely have some idea of the leaders in your online marketplace, but which is the right one to analyze? The preferred choice is a competitor that most closely resembles your own business in size and business model. After all, there is no use trying to compare your site with a Fortune 500 website if you run a small business with a fraction of the competitor’s marketing budget.
Once you have identified a complementary competitor, ensure that their online visibility is actually as strong as you think it is. Do this by running searches on Google for major keyphrases you know are competitive to determine if the competitor is performing well. If they consistently rank well, then they are a shoo-in. If you are not convinced, check other basics such as the Google PageRank for their website and their Alexa ranking.
You can also use the free tool at Compete.com to run a comparison between the competitor and a couple of others, including your own website. After all of this, you will have a much clearer picture of whether or not this is a competitor you want to take notes from. If this isn’t the right one, move on and find another. Once you find the right one, move on to the next step.
Step 2 – Spider your competitor’s website
The size, structure, and content of your competitor’s website can be a revealing testament to the complexity of their marketing strategy. To uncover these things, I suggest using software to spider their website (I recommend OptiSpider). There can be a lot to discover, but specific items to keep an eye out for include:
- Sitewide topic: Does the sitewide topic provided by your site spider include any keywords you desire that the competitor is currently ranking for? If so, this is an excellent indicator that the competitor’s site is extremely focused and relevant, which search engines find appealing.
- Pages: Scan through the compiled list of page URLs and page titles. Do you see any consistencies? For example, a well-optimized site will often have consistent title formatting where the keywords are used to set the relevance of the page. In addition, the page name in the URL will often reflect the same choice of keywords in the title tag.
- Domains: If the software compiles a summary of domains the competitor’s website links to (through outgoing links), take a look at this data. Are there any domains that appear to have an inordinate number of links pointing to them? Take note of the linked domains that stand out so that you can look into them later on in the analysis.
Search through the rest of the data accumulated and look for more patterns, leaving no rock unturned.
Step 3 – Competitor keyword intelligence
In most cases, site owners have a large number of keywords for which they want top rankings. Unfortunately, most don’t know which phrases actually deliver the highest quality traffic. As a result, it is often helpful to discover what your competitor is targeting. Part of your competitor’s success (if, in fact, you know they are financially successful) can be from focusing on the best phrases.
How do you reliably determine the ranking keywords for a competitor? There are a lot of time-consuming methods, as well as methods requiring specialized software, but my preference is the affordable competitor keyword tool at Compete.com. Just enter the competitor’s address into Compete and in a few seconds you will see the top keywords driving traffic to their website.
Do you see any obvious keywords missing or some driving more traffic than expected? If none of the data seems right (weird phrases and such), the site may be too small to have strong data at Compete.com. If this is the case, go to SpyFu.com and use their tool to determine the keywords your competitor has high organic rankings for – another good source for identifying phrases your competitor has focused on.
Once you have a list of keywords that have piqued your interest, use KeywordDiscovery or WordTracker to run reports to find out which keywords appear to be worth pursuing. You may also find some long-tail phrases with decent search frequency but little competition.
Step 4 – Analyze competitor backlinks
Using software like OptiLink (paid) or BackLink Analyzer (free from SEOTools), compile a comprehensive list of the URLs that link to your competitors. Links have an immense impact on rankings. I often find that high-profile competitors have high visibility simply because they have a large number of quality backlinks despite lackluster on-site optimization.
I suggest sorting the links in order of PageRank and/or Alexa Rank to determine which provide the biggest bang. Research these linking websites and determine if you can get links on them as well. This is the simplest tactic for making relatively speedy gains in search rankings.
Step 5 – Optimization analysis
How well optimized is your competitor’s website? Consider the essentials of SEO and review the structure of pages, the use of keywords in title tags, heading tags, breadcrumb navigation, etc. Search for more advanced optimization techniques, such as the use of no-follow links to funnel PageRank and evidence of image optimization (optimized alt attributes and relevant text around the image). If you see evidence that the competitor’s website has been properly optimized, take note of any optimizations missing from your website and consider whether or not they are worth adding.
Don’t forget to keep an eye out for SPAM. I am constantly amazed at the number of high-ranking websites that are still flying under a search engine’s SPAM radar. If you see some really controversial tactics, you might feel strongly enough to do something about it (enough said).
Step 6 – Background intelligence
For me, this is the most interesting component of the analysis, because I get to conduct a sort of online espionage. The goal here is to find revealing tidbits of information that point to new or pending marketing campaigns, hidden link networks, reputation issues, etc. I can’t get into everything within this short article, but here are a couple of tips:
- Take the list of linked domains that you compiled and check the domain Whois information for each. Are any of the domains owned by the competitor? If so, this indicates the competitor has a network of at least one other site providing valuable backlinks. If it appears the site(s) in question have nearly identical content, this may indicate a SPAM campaign.
- Visit DomainTools.com where, for a small fee, you can run a reverse IP lookup on your competitor’s domain. This tool will show you the other sites hosted on the competitor’s server IP address. Once you have a list of the applicable domains, run a Whois on each of them to determine which (if any) are owned by the competitor. If you find any connection between sites, you will not only have a better idea of the competitor’s network of sites, but you can possibly identify a new website pointing to an upcoming marketing campaign about to launch.
- Look at the XML sitemap and the robots.txt file on the competitor’s website (and any other sites discovered). Within the sitemap, search for any pages or sections that seem unfamiliar and check them out. New pages recently added may point to a new marketing push. Within the robots.txt file, look for any portions of the site that are blocked to see if they have anything of interest.
Step 7 – Conclude, plan, and apply changes
It is now time to form conclusions and consider which strategies are worth adding to your own website. At times, the strategies you have discovered will not fit into your own site plans, but you may be able to come up with options that are better or more creative.
Getting the most out of this final step of the analysis requires substantial thought and planning with your marketing team. It may also help to have the input of a web marketer who has insight into the latest optimization techniques and search engine trends to ensure that your decisions have a higher degree of success in the long term. As with any SEO tactic, competitor analysis is an ongoing process, but one that can substantially affect your rankings – the blueprints for success are waiting for you at your competitors’ websites.